HOT Lane Project Delay Returns Transportation to Forefront of Va. Gov. Race

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009; B02

RICHMOND, Aug. 18 -- A day after the state abruptly announced that it will postpone construction on express lanes on interstates 395 and 95, elected leaders and the candidates for governor began blaming each other Tuesday for failing again to help ease congestion in traffic-clogged Northern Virginia.

Republican candidate Robert F. McDonnell accused Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) of halting the project even though two private companies, not the state, were picking up the tab. "We shouldn't make any excuses," he said. "I won't tolerate excuses."

State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), the Democratic candidate, accused McDonnell and the GOP-controlled House of Delegates of not investing substantial money in roads and transit in the first place. "McDonnell and his supporters have consistently stood in the way of real transportation solutions," he said.

The stalled HOT lanes project, on one of the most congested corridors in a region that is one of the most congested in the nation, has pushed the issue of transportation back to the forefront in the governor's race, especially in vote-rich Northern Virginia, where residents continue to clamor for relief.

Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer informed the two companies Friday of the postponement, saying in a letter that borrowing money for the ambitious project in recession-racked financial markets was not prudent.

On Tuesday, Homer announced more bad news. He told legislators that the state is projecting an additional $900 million revenue shortfall -- a total of $4.6 billion over six years -- although that did not contribute to the decision on the high-occupancy toll lanes.

For years, state lawmakers have tried, but repeatedly failed, to forge an agreement that sets out how to pay for millions of dollars in transportation needs, including proposals aimed at Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the state's most congested areas.

McDonnell and Deeds vow to pump millions of dollars into transportation if elected governor.

McDonnell has said he won't raise taxes, proposes paying for transportation fixes in part by privatizing the state's liquor stores and adding tolls on some highways, and promotes public-private partnerships as a way to "leverage scarce state resources in a way to get major projects built."

Deeds has pledged to come up with a solution in his first year in office but has offered no funding plan and has been criticized for not saying whether he would raise taxes.

"It's ironic that a candidate like Creigh Deeds with no transportation plan -- with not one project or one dime -- would criticize my plan," McDonnell said.

Deeds said he supports public-private partnerships for transportation and other projects, but only in certain circumstances. "Public-private partnerships are a big piece of the future, but you have to incentivize the private sector to get them involved," he said.

The General Assembly passed a landmark package in 2007 -- supported by McDonnell and Deeds -- to add $1.1 billion each year for transportation needs across Virginia. Regional authorities were set to collect taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, but the state Supreme Court ruled that those authorities could not constitutionally levy taxes and fees.

In recent years, Virginia officials have looked for private companies to help pay for major highway projects.

The state is working with a pair of companies to add HOT lanes on I-395 and 95 and the Capital Beltway. The Beltway project has begun and will not be affected.

The companies building the project -- Transurban of Australia and Fluor Enterprises -- will operate and maintain the HOT lanes and will be allowed to collect the toll revenue.

Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-supported group that lobbies for transportation funding, supports public-private partnerships and questioned the state's decision to postpone this one when it wasn't paying for the project. "It does create doubt among private investors and drives up the cost," he said.

The I-395/95 HOT lanes would extend south from the Pentagon to Massaponax in Spotsylvania County, intersecting the Beltway at the Springfield interchange. Construction was to have begun by next summer.

"This is not the right time to be moving forward with a financing of this nature on this project," Homer said.

A large portion of the proposed project falls within the district represented by Del. David L. Englin (D-Alexandria), who said McDonnell might be misreading a much-sought-after delay by some residents in Northern Virginia who oppose the companies' involvement and want time to study the potential effect on their neighborhoods.

"The reason we're forced to rely on these public-private partnerships in the first place is because of 20 years of failure by the General Assembly to make the tough choices necessary to fund transportation," Englin said.

But other legislators accuse Kaine of botching the deal because he is spending too much time on his second job -- chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "It's an absolute failure on his part," Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax) said.

Gordon Hickey, Kaine's spokesman, referred calls to the governor's political action committee, which did not return calls.

Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.

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