Lawmakers Strike Deal on Highways
By Craig Timberg
Northern Virginia eventually could get as much as $300 million in new money for transportation projects under a deal struck today between the region's representatives in the House of Delegates and rural, downstate lawmakers.
Winning new highway money at a time when Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has shown little interest in the issue has become the top priority of Northern Virginia's delegation here. To press their case for precious road funds, Northern Virginians have sought alliances with downstate lawmakers.
Those efforts bore fruit today, when a powerful House subcommittee voted to triple Northern Virginia's request for transportation funds -- from $104 million to $300 million -- and to link the plan's fate to that of a massive highway project in Southwest Virginia and $59 million in new spending on mass transit across the state.
The result is a $659 million, multi-year bond plan that lawmakers say is likely to move to the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. Even some supporters acknowledge that the bill may be too costly to win approval from Gilmore and the Republican-controlled state Senate, but Northern Virginia lawmakers say it's the best chance they have to get improvements to key commuter thoroughfares, such as Routes 1, 7 and 123.
"I think it's good news for Northern Virginia," said Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax), after she and other lawmakers agreed to the deal today.
Bills to restrict knives in public schools and to curb out-of-state garbage also moved forward today.
But no issue is being watched more carefully by the Northern Virginia delegation than the transportation bond plan. If approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gilmore, it would bring an immediate infusion of $104 million in transportation money to Northern Virginia, with more to come over the next several years.
The immediate projects would include $27 million for widening Route 123 through central Fairfax County, $10.1 million for safety improvements on Route 15 north of Leesburg, $10 million to widen Route 7 from eastern Loudoun County to the Reston Parkway and $12.2 million for two new intersections on Route 1 in Prince William County.
The second bundle of road money, nearly $200 million, would not come to Northern Virginia until a funding source for paying off the bonds is approved in a future legislative session. Lawmakers say that would be easier to do if the bonds already were approved by the Assembly.
That also is the logic of downstate lawmakers who are eager to see $300 million approved to complete the widening of Route 58 along the southern edge of the state. Lawmakers there see the project as key to promoting economic development in a region that has lagged behind the rest of the state.
"We may have a little wedding," said Del. Whittington W. Clement (D-Danville) of the deal with Northern Virginia. "All the stars seem to be lining up."
The outlook is hazier in the Senate. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax), a member of the Senate committee that would have to approve the transportation package, said, "I don't think that's how it's going to fly over here."
Some lawmakers say that Gilmore also may resist committing such a large sum to transportation during the current session of the legislature, particularly since he has recently appointed a commis sion to study the issue statewide and to set spending priorities.
Gilmore's plan for spending the state's surplus of nearly $900 million includes no new spending on roads.
The governor also is wary of endorsing any costly programs that could make it more difficult for him to implement the remaining three years of his plan to phase out the property tax on cars in Virginia.
Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner said today that Gilmore had not studied the House transportation plan, but he added, "The governor will look into the legislation and see how it fits into an overall transportation plan for the commonwealth."
The best bet, many lawmakers say, may be a compromise that ends up closer to the $104 million in transportation spending that Northern Virginia lawmakers began pushing for two weeks ago. That amount could be repaid by directing part of the recordation tax -- money that already goes to the state every time a piece of property changes hands -- to local needs such as transportation.
Such a plan would satisfy Gilmore's insistence that no taxes be raised to pay for new projects, particularly for more pavement in congested Northern Virginia.
"We have our best opportunity for innovative financing" in years, said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William).
A Senate subcommittee approved bills to curb the import of garbage to Virginia, including a ban on garbage barges on rivers, new restrictions on the location of new landfills and a cap on the dumping of garbage at the state's largest landfills at last year's levels.
The House, by a 75 to 24 vote, passed a bill sponsored by 15 Northern Virginia lawmakers that would make it a felony to bring a knife with a blade longer than three inches onto school property.
Del. Robert H. Brink (D-Arlington), the bill's chief patron, said it would fill a gap in existing laws, which bar certain kinds of knives from schools but do not mention knives in general.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
Staff writers R.H. Melton and Donald P. Baker contributed to this report.
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