'An Uphill Struggle' for N.Va. Roads Plan
Friday, September 15, 2006
A $417 million plan by Northern Virginia Republicans designed to ease area traffic problems faces the same obstacle during an upcoming special session of the General Assembly that has thwarted similar efforts all year: opposition from House leaders to new taxes or fees.
"It's an uphill struggle," said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (Fairfax), who helped draft the plan. "Obviously, we have a lot of obstacles. We have a lot of folks who don't understand how severe the problem is in Northern Virginia."
Rust and other backers of the regional proposal, which would raise and spend money only in Northern Virginia, have gained the support of some business leaders, local government officials and their counterparts in Hampton Roads, who are crafting a similar measure for that traffic-plagued region.
But House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) signaled the difficulty the plan faces this week when he said Virginia can address its transportation needs with existing resources.
Such declarations confound most lawmakers in Northern Virginia -- especially Republicans, who hear daily from frustrated constituents seeking congestion relief and who are watching with growing alarm as Democrats prevail in election after election dominated by traffic and growth concerns. Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine swept Northern Virginia last year promising solutions on both counts.
"Ninety percent of the calls I get to my office deal with some kind of traffic problem," said Del. David B. Albo (Fairfax), a primary author of the regional proposal. "At least let me solve my own problem. If you're not going to help me out, at least help me solve my own problem."
Lawmakers have spent nearly the entire year trying to agree on a plan that would start to fix traffic problems that have become among the worst in the nation. They are again heading to Richmond at the end of the month for a three-day special session dedicated to coming up with transportation solutions, and they are going there with divisions that have persisted all year.
Albo and others say their let-us-help-ourselves plan makes sense because Northern Virginians are desperate for relief from gridlock and are willing to pay for it themselves, even though businesses and residents pay the largest portion of state taxes.
Howell said he recognizes the urgency of the issue, particularly in Northern Virginia, but he believes tax increases in a year of nine-digit surpluses would be irresponsible.
"It's easy to go out and say, 'Let's raise a million dollars,' " Howell said. "There's an overwhelming majority of my caucus that says: 'This isn't a good idea. If we can't find reliable, continuing money, then we shouldn't be doing this.' "
Those who support the Northern Virginia proposal say that's exactly their aim, too. The plan would assess a variety of charges, including fees as high as $7,000 on new homes as well as higher fees to register new vehicles. Backers say the costs would be paid primarily by the newcomers most responsible for growing congestion on state roads.
Because most of the burden would be borne by businesses, the average Northern Virginia resident would pay only $30 more per year, Albo said. "What an incredible bargain this is for people," Albo said.