Virginia's latest plan for easing congestion

By Robert Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 5, 2011; 6:03 PM

Virginia has a new plan for easing traffic congestion. But then, Virginia almost always has a new plan for easing traffic congestion. That's one of the constants in the commonwealth - that, and traffic congestion. This is maintained by a balance of forces in the state's transportation politics: Virginia voters are determined to find a solution to the traffic jams that plague them emotionally and economically, and they are equally determined not to pay for it.

Some leaders accept that; others try to fight it. Here's a look at the latest developments and some of the history of Virginia's struggle to create a modern transportation network.

McDonnell's finance plan

These are the key elements of the proposal by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), which is now advancing through the General Assembly:

l The governor says his transportation funding bill - introduced as HB 2527 in the House of Delegates and SB 1446 in the Senate - would inject nearly $3 billion into Virginia's transportation system over the next three years, accelerating more than 900 projects statewide to produce congestion relief and economic development.

l The legislation would create the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank, drawing on funds from the 2010 budget surplus and from money identified by auditing the Virginia Department of Transportation.

l Virginia would issue Garvee bonds (Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles), issued in anticipation of future federal funding to support transportation projects. Garvee bonds are a major source of funding for Maryland's Intercounty Connector.

l The state would accelerate the sale of bonds from 2007 transportation legislation.

Key projects funded

These projects and programs in Northern Virginia are in the package:

l Widening Interstate 66 between Gainesville and Haymarket; installation of an active traffic management system on I-66 to better control lane use and reduce congestion.

l Widening a section of Rolling Road in Fairfax County to address traffic congestion likely to result from the wave of new defense employees relocated by the base realignment program.

l Widening Route 7 in Loudoun County.

l Widening Route 28 in Fairfax and Prince William counties.

l Investments in Metro and Virginia Railway Express, including the program to extend VRE to Spotsylvania County.

l Advancing the high-occupancy toll lanes project on I-95 and the high-occupancy vehicle ramp project on I-395 at Mark Center, also related to the base realignment program.

For and against

The debate over the program has involved finances and transportation strategy.

Supporters say: Here's a way to finance some high-impact transportation improvements at a time when construction prices are right, and it can be done without increasing taxes.

Critics say: This is too much borrowing, saddling Virginia with debts that must be paid off long after the governor's term expires. The spending program is a list of projects, rather than a plan to attack the underlying causes of congestion.

Virginia's long road

The debate over how to improve the transportation network has fueled Virginia politics for several decades. These are some landmarks:

1986: Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D), identifying the transportation system as his top priority, won General Assembly approval to finance improvements through a package of tax increases, including one that raised Virginia's gas tax to 17.5 cents per gallon. The traditional method of financing transportation improvements has remained at that level ever since.

1999: Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), criticized by Democrats for showing little interest in the state's transportation problems, proposed a $2.5 billion plan for long-term transportation spending that did not contain any new taxes, relying instead on other sources, including a then-unusual one: the budget's general fund.

2002: Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) won approval to hold a referendum in Northern Virginia on whether to increase the region's sales tax by half a cent to finance $5 billion in transportation improvements over 20 years. Northern Virginia voters rejected the plan that November.

2006: Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) proposed controls on development and offered a complex spending plan for about $4 billion in transportation improvements over four years. The finance plan included a set of tax increases and heavy fines for bad drivers. After a lengthy stalemate, the assembly rejected the plan.

2007: Kaine modified his plan by proposing to spend less and borrow more. A deal with the General Assembly gave the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority the power to raise money locally for local projects. A court ruling later struck down the authority's power, and the assembly repealed the bad-driver fines.

A continuing battle

In Northern Virginia today, congestion is in control. The landscape is filled with big transportation projects, such as the HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway, the extension of the Fairfax County Parkway and the Dulles Metrorail line. But below the mega level, many projects have been slowed or scaled back for lack of funds.

Some that are proceeding, such as the construction of a new interchange on the Fairfax County Parkway at Fair Lakes Parkway, got the go-ahead because of an infusion of federal stimulus money.

The McDonnell administration, like its predecessors, continues to pursue projects that draw on private resources in partnership with the state. This past week, Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton announced that Virginia plans to revive the HOT lanes project, a public-private partnership, along I-95 between Garrisonville and Springfield. Meanwhile, some jurisdictions show stronger interest in adjusting their land-use programs to draw home, office and shopping together, as Fairfax County is attempting at Tysons Corner.

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