Va. Transportation Funding Talks Die

By Amy Gardner and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 29, 2006

RICHMOND, Sept. 28 -- The Virginia General Assembly left town Thursday night after failing to reach an agreement on a long-term transportation solution, ending months of efforts by lawmakers and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine to improve the state's highways and transit systems.

Lawmakers cut short a special session on transportation that was scheduled to end Saturday after the Senate rejected a $2.4 billion House plan. That left commuters in the state's most traffic-choked regions -- Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads -- with no hope for relief this year.

The result leaves several Northern Virginia priorities unfunded, including adding more rail cars for Metro, widening Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and widening Interstate 95 south of the Springfield Mixing Bowl. Lawmakers also did not concur on a plan to match $50 million in annual federal funds for Metro operations.

The collapse of the special session was a major setback for a first-year governor who called transportation "Virginia's most urgent need."

"I'm disappointed for those who sit in traffic for long periods of time in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads," Kaine (D) said late Thursday. "I feel bad for communities in rural Virginia who want more road infrastructure so they can have a piece of this great booming economy we have."

The deep split between Republican leaders in the House and Senate that emerged in January carried over to the special session. Conservative House Republican leaders backed a transportation plan funded by a combination of borrowing and existing revenue. Moderate Senate GOP leaders, supported by many Democrats and Kaine, favored tax increases.

The impasse was ensured Thursday when the Senate Finance Committee rejected a series of measures promoted by House Republican leaders to spread $2.4 billion across the state for transportation without raising taxes.

"There are all sorts of different ways of addressing the situation without raising taxes," House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said.

But senators balked at borrowing $1.5 billion with no new source of revenue to pay down the debt. The House proposal also targeted $900 million in existing revenue, diverting money from ongoing state obligations including schools and public safety, opponents said. And the bulk of the money would have flowed for only five years, providing a fraction of the amount-- about $125 million a year -- that had been proposed by a group of Northern Virginia lawmakers for improvements in the region.

"I am disappointed," said Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. "I would have liked to have seen us solve this . . . for the next 15 or 20 years."

The frustration was evident on both sides, with lawmakers wondering why they bothered to spend most of the week in Richmond -- at a cost to taxpayers of about $30,000 a day.

Lawmakers returned to Richmond after failing to come up with a transportation plan during an extended legislative session this year. The disagreement delayed approval of a state budget for more than three months.

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