By Eric M. Weiss and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 20, 2008
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and several Democratic lawmakers yesterday urged Republicans to get behind the governor's proposal to raise taxes by $1 billion to build more roads and maintain the state's aging transportation infrastructure.
Kaine spoke just hours after the Commonwealth Transportation Board voted to approve a six-year spending plan that cuts hundreds of projects statewide and transfers $2.75 billion from new projects to the state's near-empty maintenance fund.
State transportation officials slashed more than $1.7 billion worth of planned and newly proposed Northern Virginia road projects, saying that there was no money to pay for them. The board also delayed an additional $398 million worth of projects.
In Northern Virginia, the six-year plan's biggest cuts include $380 million to widen Interstate 95 from six to eight lanes in Prince William County, $200 million to widen Route 7 from four to six lanes in Fairfax County and $68 million to widen Belmont Ridge Road in Loudoun County.
Officials said the cuts were necessary because of shortfalls in projected tax revenue, a slowing economy and increasing maintenance costs.
Kaine has called a special session for Monday to try to get the General Assembly to agree on a plan that would increase funding for transportation and eventually restore some of the projects killed yesterday.
"No state, no nation can be a nation in advance with a degrading infrastructure," Kaine said yesterday at a Richmond news conference. "That is why we are standing here today. Virginia, with so many things going right, has nevertheless allowed a transportation infrastructure challenge to worsen and fester, and it is not going away; it's not going to get any easier."
Kaine's plan includes a 1 percent increase in the sales tax in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads; food and medicine would be exempt. He also proposed a statewide 1 percent increase in the sales tax on automobiles, which would be phased in over a year, starting in January, and a $10 increase in annual vehicle registration fees.
To raise more money for public transportation, Kaine proposed a statewide 25-cent increase in the grantors tax -- paid by people who sell their homes -- which is now 10 cents per $100 of assessed value.
"Adult leadership means taking adult responsibility to solve challenges," Kaine said.
Although several House and Senate Democratic leaders stood alongside Kaine yesterday, the outlook for passage of his proposal appears bleak.
Republicans who control the House of Delegates said they would act quickly to defeat a statewide tax increase, perhaps as early as Monday or Tuesday, when the Finance Committee is scheduled to review it.
House Republicans want an independent audit of how the Virginia Department of Transportation is spending tax dollars.
"House Republicans want to make sure government is functioning properly before even considering asking for more money from hardworking families," said Del. Samuel A. Nixon Jr. (R-Chesterfield).
Kaine also faces a hurdle in the Senate, where Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) is vowing to push his own proposal.
Saslaw wants increases of one-quarter percent in the sales tax and one-half percent in the car titling tax. He also is proposing a 5- or 6-cent increase in the state's 17.5 cent-a-gallon gas tax, which would be phased in over five or six years.
Saslaw said his proposal would raise $650 million annually, when the gas tax increase is fully phased in, and would "solve our problems for a decade or two decades."
In the past, Kaine has resisted calls to increase the gas tax, but he said yesterday there is a "high likelihood" he would sign one if approved by the General Assembly.
GOP delegates are floating a number of options, including tolling interstate highways and reauthorizing regional taxing districts in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
The cuts to the statewide plan came on top of the loss of $454 million in projects proposed by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. The NVTA projects were to be financed by taxes and fees on Northern Virginia residents. But the authority's taxing powers were ruled unconstitutional by the Virginia Supreme Court this year.
The NVTA cuts included funding for Metrorail, Virginia Railway Express and a proposed $29 million interchange at the Fairfax County Parkway and Monument Drive in the Fair Lakes section of Fairfax.
House Minority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights) said there would be little incentive for House Republicans to act as long as Democratic leaders are pushing two competing plans.
"We certainly would be willing to fix the biggest piece that is broken, which is the regional plans, and that would take care of the immediate problem," Cox said.
Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said the scaled-back statewide spending plan places relatively more emphasis on transit and on safety-related maintenance on bridges and pavement. State law requires that maintenance come before spending on new projects.