Warner Budget to Fund Wider I-66

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

RICHMOND, Dec. 15 -- Money to widen part of westbound Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and buy additional rail cars for Virginia Railway Express will be included in a spending plan to be proposed Friday by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D).

Warner announced Thursday that he would propose spending $625 million on road and transit projects when he introduces his final budget Friday. That new cash from the state's general fund represents Warner's final attempt at finding comprehensive solutions to the state's transportation problems that have eluded him during his four years in office.

Although the proposal would cover only a fraction of the state's transportation needs, several projects would advance, including widening Interstate 95 between Route 123 and the Fairfax County Parkway, improving the I-66/Route 29 interchange in Gainesville and enhancing bus service in Alexandria and Arlington County.

In a brief address to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Warner said the proposal, if approved, would help pay down debt on completed projects, provide funds to help match federal grants for road and rail projects and modestly increase spending for road construction and maintenance.

Warner's plan, however, does not respond to pleas from transportation advocates to seek big new sources of money for roads and rail, which many say are needed to pare down a backlog of projects. He said it was intended to be a starting-off point for his successor, Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine (D), and the state legislature to begin a broader debate over how to address the state's transportation problems. The General Assembly convenes Jan. 11.

"This plan continues our commitment to restore financial health and accountability to Virginia's transportation program while adding key investments that will increase mobility and statewide economic development," Warner said, emphasizing that more than half of the new state and federal funds would be one-time spending. "Clearly, we have set the table for Governor-elect Kaine to inherit a much stronger, much more financially stable and much more innovative approach to transportation."

In a statement, Kaine said, "The governor's transportation investment strikes a balance between roads and alternate forms of transportation that is crucial to the success of overcoming the challenges we face."

Most transportation analysts say the state needs at least $1 billion a year of dedicated money to maintain and build the road and rail network. Kaine and leaders in the Republican-led General Assembly are expected to propose more aggressive proposals. A Senate panel is to announce Friday the results of a study of the state's transportation needs.

Warner acknowledged that his proposal was a short-term plan.

"This finishes up putting our financial health in order . . . making a substantial down payment on some key significant projects around the state," he said. "But this is not the permanent solution."

Finding those solutions has been elusive for Warner. During the 2001 campaign, the businessman-turned-politician ran chiefly on giving Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area the authority to increase their own taxes and raise billions of dollars for road and rail projects with approval from voters. Efforts failed in both areas in 2002.

Part of Warner's plan announced Thursday would help improve road and rail access in the Hampton Roads area.

During a fight over statewide tax increases in 2004, the governor proposed a $400 million transportation plan that was ultimately discarded during budget negotiations.

Warner acknowledged that he was unable to come through on campaign promises to find more dedicated funding during his four years but pointed out that he did radically improve the performance of the Department of Transportation and how state dollars are spent.

Business leaders and transportation advocates give Warner's transportation legacy mixed reviews.

"The biggest problem that he faced is that he had competing issues," said Mike Anzilotti, chairman of the Virginia Business Council. "It's tough to accomplish everything in four years. While we haven't gotten transportation yet . . . he has been able to build momentum."

Other transportation advocates were less charitable. "Ultimately, it's the responsibility of the governor and those we elect to provide the funding we need for things like education and transportation," said Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company