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GOP Drafts Broad Plan For Va. Transportation

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 19, 2007; A01

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.

"To come up with something that's born out of panic is not really good government," he said.

Advocates for managed growth were wary of the proposal but congratulated the party for proposing sharper tools for local governments to control development.

"The underlying cause of our transportation problems are poorly planned land use and poor community designs that add to our traffic," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

The eagerly anticipated news conference ended a month-long negotiation between three lawmakers from each chamber that was organized by Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R). "The failure to find solutions to our transportation problems imperils our future prosperity," McDonnell said in a statement.

Under the plan, taxes on diesel fuel would rise, and fees to register heavy trucks would increase. Rental car taxes would go up, and drivers with bad records would pay higher fines. Taxes on commercial real estate and the sale of a house would go up. And new drivers would pay an extra $100 the first time they get a license.

The plan also envisions dedicating half of future surpluses to transportation projects and diverting $250 million from other state programs starting in 2008. And the state would borrow $1.3 billion in 2008 and an additional $700 million in 2012, repaying the debt with money raised through the plan.

Some of the fees and taxes would require the approval of city councils and boards of supervisors. Republican lawmakers said that would ensure that the millions raised from Northern Virginia residents would be used for projects in the region.

But those requirements inject another element of uncertainty into the proposal.

"I applaud the fact that the Republican leadership, after dithering for a year, has come to the conclusion that the transportation crisis is real," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "As long as they are willing to stay flexible, I'm sure local government officials will work with them to make it even better."

The plan does not spell out how the money would be spent. Northern Virginia's 2030 plan calls for widening Interstate 66 and Routes 7, 28 and 29. The dream list of projects includes larger, more efficient interchanges across the region; Metro service to Centreville, Potomac Mills and Dulles International Airport; a wider Capital Beltway with high-occupancy toll lanes; and numerous improvements to smaller roads and bridges.

The total cost: $21 billion.

The Republican transportation package would not pay for all of those projects, officials said. But by leveraging the money to borrow more, they said Northern Virginia would finally have a realistic hope of making many of the projects a reality in the next decade.

Just a few months ago, House GOP leaders celebrated their victory over Senate counterparts after refusing to give in to Senate demands for higher taxes during a special session in September. Kaine had called the special session after lawmakers failed to reach a compromise in the regular session, nearly shutting down state government.

But the election six weeks later changed everything, some lawmakers and other political observers said. Republican George Allen's defeat for a second term in the U.S. Senate shocked the party's leaders and sparked a series of urgent conversations about how the party can win elections.

"Think about where we were in 2006," said an exuberant Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City). Now, he said, "there has been compromise. Boy, that's almost a new term to put into our legislative encyclopedia."

But the celebratory mood at the Capitol was tempered by a harsh reality: The plan still must be voted on by the legislature and then signed by the governor by the time the General Assembly leaves town at the end of next month.

"Now we start the legislative process," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach).

Staff writers Tim Craig and Amy Gardner contributed to this report.

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