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McDonnell's transportation plan gets support from across aisle in Va. Senate

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2011; 7:47 PM

RICHMOND - Five leading Democrats in the Virginia state Senate have crossed party lines and agreed to co-sponsor a transportation package advanced by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, significantly boosting the chances that one of the Republican governor's top legislative priorities for the year will pass the General Assembly.

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The Democratic senators' move also undermines a leading attack their party's leadership had been pressing against McDonnell since he proposed the $3.3 billion plan late last year: that it represented Washington-style borrowing that voters have rejected.

The five Democrats - including the top two members of the all-important Senate Finance Committee - said they have been persuaded by McDonnell's arguments that the state should borrow now, while interest rates and construction prices are low, and infuse money into crumbling roads.

"We're in desperate need of doing something with our transportation system," said Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), one of the five. "We're coming out of a recession - we need to put people back to work. If there's any time to borrow money, this is a good time to do it, with the interest rates being low."

It is still early in the legislative process; McDonnell's transportation plan has not yet been heard by relevant committees and could still face amendments and shifting support. But the Democratic sponsors mean McDonnell will probably have the votes he needs to guide the package through the Senate, where Democrats hold a narrow majority.

All eyes will now turn to conservatives in the GOP-led House of Delegates, some of whom have said that they are wary about the plan because it involves significant borrowing, about $2.9 billion in bonds.

Of that amount, $1.8 billion would come from accelerating bond issues approved by the General Assembly in 2007. But McDonnell has proposed issuing an additional $1.1 billion in debt that would be supported by earmarking a portion of future federal highway funds for annual payments.

In addition, he wants to create an "infrastructure bank" with $150 million in surplus dollars and $250 million in funds identified through an audit of Virginia's transportation agency.

In a separate bill, McDonnell also will ask the General Assemblyto divert $140 million in sales tax revenue generated in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to transportation - a proposal likely to spur more Democratic opposition, since it would mean siphoning money that would otherwise go to other core services such as schools and police.

Transportation advocates, who have largely embraced McDonnell's plan, think it represents only a down payment on Virginia's multibillion-dollar needs in road and bridge building and transit.

But passage of the plan would represent one of the most significant investments in state roads in recent years. McDonnell's office has released a list of 900 projects it thinks could be jump-started in the next three years if the package is approved.

McDonnell devoted a significant part of his annual State of the Commonwealth address to the package when the session began, and passage of the plan would be an important victory for the governor, now serving his second year in office.

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