GOP Drafts Broad Plan For Va. Transportation

"This really has been a remarkable occurrence," said Del. William J. Howell, who is leading the GOP effort despite past objections to tax increases. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007

RICHMOND, Jan. 18 -- Senate and House Republicans proposed a multibillion-dollar transportation plan Thursday that would raise taxes and fees in Northern Virginia, impose stiff fines on bad drivers and launch a round of borrowing to build the state's most-needed road projects.

After weeks of negotiations, long-feuding GOP leaders, who control both chambers of the General Assembly, said they will also push for localities' authority to control sprawl and for changes aimed at making the state's transportation department more efficient.

The lawmakers' plan, if approved, would be the first time in 21 years that the state has poured substantial amounts of money into new road and transit projects that could one day improve the region's commutes. But it is far from a done deal, drawing cautious praise from Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and concern from Democrats and conservative, anti-tax Republicans.

"This really has been a remarkable occurrence," said House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who is leading the GOP effort despite past objections to tax increases.

If adopted by the General Assembly before it adjourns Feb. 24, the proposal for more than $1 billion of new transportation money every year could ease traffic congestion across the state and in the Washington area by widening freeways, expanding Metro, adding local routes and clamping down on the sprawl that contributes to maddening morning and afternoon traffic jams.

"They haven't abandoned Northern Virginia," Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said of his fellow lawmakers who crafted the proposal for a historic investment in the road and transit network. "In fact, what they've done is come and save us, basically, and get us out of this gridlock."

The plan alters the state's political landscape in an election year by ending a stalemate within the Republican Party that nearly caused a government shutdown last year. The long-standing anger about traffic from weary commuters and anxious business executives now shifts to Kaine and his fellow Democrats.

The governor, who made transportation the heart of his campaign and proposed a $1 billion tax increase last year, did not immediately embrace the proposal. He expressed concern about some details of the plan, echoing Democrats' fears that funding for schools, colleges and other state programs would suffer.

"We must use reliable, long-term funding to build and maintain a 21st-century transportation system while keeping the commitments we already have made in the areas of public education, public safety and public health," Kaine said in a statement.

Some Republicans accused Democrats of already opposing the proposal so they can campaign against a "do-nothing" Republican legislature in November. "Frankly, I think the Democrats want us to fail," said House Appropriations Chairman Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax).

But some GOP lawmakers, including the Senate's most powerful member and some key House conservatives, were not present at the announcement of the deal, signaling that approval of the landmark proposal is not guaranteed even by their own party.

Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said borrowing billions of dollars and using money that ought to be going toward public schools, colleges and health care is a terrible idea.

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