By Chris L. Jenkins and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, May 31, 2006
RICHMOND -- A group of Republican delegates from Northern Virginia plans to revive its effort to raise money from local taxpayers for regional road and rail improvements as soon as state lawmakers begin another round of negotiations over transportation this summer.
The long-shot plan could increase transportation spending by more than $400 million a year in the Washington suburbs, provided the region's local governments approve raising local taxes and fees.
"Roads cost money," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), a leader of the effort. "I'd love to find a way to pay for the things we need by not raising taxes and using existing revenue, but I'm a realist."
The Northern Virginia Republicans involved are under enormous pressure to bring home more money for transportation improvements for constituents who sit in some of the nation's worst traffic.
Even without the transportation issue, they are likely to be among the House's most vulnerable Republicans in the 2007 General Assembly elections. They hail from politically dynamic counties that supported Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) last year, and Democrats are preparing to use Northern Virginia's congested roads and crowded trains against them.
Divisions in the General Assembly over transportation spending have held up adoption of a state budget for months. With a July 1 deadline looming for adopting a budget or risking a government shutdown, senators acceded to anti-tax delegates' demands and passed a budget last week that was stripped of higher taxes and billions of dollars for transportation.
House and Senate negotiators gathered Tuesday to resolve the remaining differences between the two chambers' budget proposals. Kaine said they must work quickly. Next week, he is scheduled to meet with credit rating agencies about the state's financial health, and he said he needs to be able to bring a reassuring message. "I have to be able to look at these folks and say with conviction, a 'deal is at hand,' " Kaine said.
Lawmakers have pledged to come back to Richmond after finishing work on the two-year, $72 billion budget to discuss transportation again. The Republican delegates say that will provide a new opportunity to make their case before the GOP caucus.
"I do believe that we will have the opportunity to have a fair and substantial debate" on the plan, said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), who along with Albo unsuccessfully introduced a similar plan to the House during the assembly's regular session this winter. "I think the door is open for us."
On the House floor Thursday, Rust and Albo huddled with fellow Republican Dels. Joe T. May (Loudoun), L. Scott Lingamfelter (Prince William) and Michele B. McQuigg (Prince William), flipping through a copy of the proposal. They declined to specify which taxes and fees the Northern Virginia governments would be eligible to raise to finance transportation improvements.
The new revenue would be reserved for hundreds of smaller projects, such as secondary road widening in congested neighborhoods, and for transit improvements.
Albo said he is confident he could get the 51 votes needed to pass the plan on the House floor, even though it involves the option of a tax increase. "I'd bet a thousand dollars," he said.
But standing in the way is the 21-member House Finance Committee, which will hear the bill first and is stacked with anti-tax conservatives.
The Northern Virginians said they are developing plans to convince members of their point of view, including inviting them to drive local roads and see the traffic for themselves.
May acknowledged that it will be a struggle to win committee approval. "For other parts of the state, we have to convince them that we need to be able to help ourselves," he said. "For some folks, that will be a hard sell."
May said the group will also reach out to lawmakers from Hampton Roads, to build an alliance to pass plans for both urbanized areas. "There's a coalition required between those two areas," he said.
House GOP leaders have said they will use the session to discuss solutions that do not involve raising taxes. Their solutions include diverting existing revenue to transportation and finding ways to improve the performance of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
"It's very easy to say we're going to raise taxes and give the money to VDOT," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who has said that although he wants the delegates' effort to get a fair hearing, he does not support tax increases.
Kaine, who has outlined his own statewide transportation tax plan, has talked for months about his willingness to consider ideas on raising money that would be targeted for the state's most traffic-congested regions. But he wants more.
"Governor Kaine has consistently said that he could support regional self-help proposals, as long as there was an accompanying statewide transportation piece as well," his press secretary, Kevin Hall, said last week.
That view is in line with leaders in the Senate, who also have maintained that a Northern Virginia plan could work only if it were linked to a statewide tax increase to provide money to maintain and improve rural roads. They say the state's less populated regions are also in desperate need of better roads to draw jobs and reverse economic decline.
"You need it to be statewide," said Sen. William C. Wampler Jr. (R-Bristol), a Senate budget negotiator. "For those in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, you have to put a statewide plan on top of a regional plan to make the numbers work, so there's enough money for them. And regional plans don't solve the needs in the rest of the state."