By Sandhya Somashekhar and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 1, 2008
The Virginia Supreme Court ruling yesterday that undermined a landmark transportation plan might have strengthened the hand of Northern Virginia officials who contend that the state, not local governments, should pay for road and transit projects.
Officials in Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties have maintained that it is the responsibility of the General Assembly -- not local governments or a regional transportation authority -- to increase taxes and fees for local transportation projects. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and many members of the state Senate agree.
But Republicans in the House of Delegates, who have opposed raising taxes at the state level, say that local officials should increase taxes. A year ago, the legislature voted to give taxing authority to a regional transportation panel as part of a statewide $1.5 billion road and transit package.
The Virginia Supreme Court said the law violated the state constitution because Northern Virginians do not elect the panel's members to serve on the transportation authority, even though many of them are elected to their county and city boards.
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said yesterday that to fix the legislation to satisfy the court's ruling, lawmakers should return to last year's proposal allowing Northern Virginia governments, instead of the transportation authority, to vote on tax increases to finance their own transportation improvements.
"What we have to do is go back to Plan A, which is have the local governments actually take the vote to increase the fees," he said. "Once we do that, we are home free."
But local leaders said the Supreme Court ruling affirmed that taxing responsibility lies with the state.
"Remember, we never proposed 'let's tax ourselves,' " said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D). "Neither did the governor. This grew out of the absolute allergic reaction by the House majority to do anything that meant increasing revenues. Today, the Supreme Court has fingered them for that, and justly. . . . It shows you what happens when you lack the intestinal fortitude to do the right thing."
Many state lawmakers agreed with Connolly, suggesting that the philosophical divide between the governor, Senate and House could come up again when lawmakers meet in a special session to deal with the court's decision.
Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) said he didn't agree with the way last year's plan was put together. "I think we should have just imposed the taxes ourselves, and I'm willing to do that now."
House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) sought to play down the ruling's impact on funding transportation. He said he will push to amend the regional transportation plans so they are constitutional, instead of rewriting the plan.
"This is a good plan; it generates $400 million a year in new money that stays in Northern Virginia. It generates $200 million for Hampton Roads," Howell said.
But some local elected officials in Northern Virginia said the court ruling should reopen the discussion about who should pay for improvements.
"They attempted to avoid their responsibility on transportation," said Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large). "They need to go back to the drawing board and fix it in a real and constitutional way."
The Supreme Court's decision was bittersweet for Loudoun, which, along with anti-tax groups and Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), had challenged the right of the transportation authority to levy taxes. Although the county triumphed legally yesterday, the decision imperils tens of millions of dollars in road improvements slated for Loudoun over the next several years.
"I have mixed feelings, because we all know we need major improvements to our transportation network here in Northern Virginia," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Scott K. York (I), Loudoun's representative on the transportation panel.
"But the solution has to be constitutional. We simply need to go back to the drawing board and go forward in a way that is within the confines of the law."
Staff writers Kristen Mack, Bill Turque, Eric M. Weiss and Anita Kumar contributed to this report. Somashekhar and Kumar reported from Richmond.