McDonnell plans to delay legislative fixes on transportation

Sen. J. Chapman Petersen calls the legislative delay a
Sen. J. Chapman Petersen calls the legislative delay a "bombshell." (Tracy A Woodward - Washington Post)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 2010

RICHMOND -- Despite making transportation a top priority during last year's campaign, Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R) said Thursday that he will not propose a fix during this year's legislative session.

"There are only so many things the General Assembly and I can do well in a short period of time," McDonnell said in an interview. "I don't think that there are enough hours in the day for the General Assembly to evaluate that plan and for me to build the consensus to get it passed."

As a candidate, McDonnell pledged to tackle transportation right away, and as recently as last month he said he would propose ways to fund transportation "at some point during his first year."

McDonnell, who will be sworn into office Saturday, said that he might call legislators back to Richmond late this year for a special session to find road and transit funding, but only if he can forge a compromise among warring factions of the divided legislature.

"We are not going to go into a session and fail," he said. "That's a waste of taxpayers' money."

During his campaign, McDonnell announced a lengthy plan to pay for Virginia's growing list of traffic woes without raising taxes -- privatizing liquor sales, adding tolls on Interstates 85 and 95, starting offshore oil drilling and setting aside a portion of sales tax collections in Northern Virginia to pay for regional projects.

He said his proposal would generate about $1.5 billion a year over 10 years, but critics accused him of diverting money from schools and other core services. "We've been talking about it now for a long time," McDonnell said during the campaign. "It's time to stop talking and start building."

McDonnell repeatedly criticized his Democratic opponent, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath, for failing to introduce a detailed transportation plan and instead pledging to establish a bipartisan commission to reach consensus on the issue.

"That's a bombshell," Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax) said of McDonnell's delay. "I seem to recall that Governor-elect McDonnell campaigned on the idea that he had a plan -- that he beat up Creigh for not having a plan -- so I'm very surprised not to see legislation to enact that plan during this session."

The state's first Republican governor in eight years said his four top priorities for the 60-day legislative session that began Wednesday will be to create jobs and spur the economy, reform education by opening more charter schools and putting more dollars into classrooms, make government more efficient and pass a budget on time without a tax increase. He said he will announce his legislative package next week.

Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-supported group that lobbies for transportation funding, said he was not surprised to learn of the delay, considering that the state is facing a $4.2 billion budget shortfall over the next two years. But, he said, "it's very important that we not lose another year on this."

Virginia has struggled over where to find money for its infrastructure, with Democrats and Republicans at odds over raising taxes or finding other ways to raise money. The state's transportation budget shortfall, in the billions, has led to thousands of job cuts and hundreds of unfinished projects.

McDonnell said he will push four transportation proposals immediately, although none of them would provide new money. He said he will move quickly to reopen the 18 rest stops closed because of budget cuts, raise the speed limit on portions of rural interstates, develop partnerships for road improvements with private companies and issue bonds that were approved in 2007.

"The citizens will see some significant action in short order on transportation, but with regard to the legislative reforms, some will have to wait until another time," he said.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who has long tried to broker an agreement on transportation, said that legislative leaders are in the same place they have been in for the past few years: Senate Democrats want to raise taxes, House Republicans don't.

Albo said McDonnell wants to conduct a top-down review of government to show Democrats that there are some savings that could be used for transportation before he approaches them about other proposals.

"Bob is saying there's no need to have a knock-down, drag-out if he doesn't have a solution this session," he said.

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