The Virginia Senate approved a bill today that would allow handicapped drivers to use the Shirley Highway's car-pool lanes, despite protests from several Northern Virginia legislators that the measure would open the way for countless other special interests to gain access to the restricted lanes.
"You're going to get the bill next election year to open it up to people over 65, or expectant mothers, or schoolteachers, or anyone else who would like to get to work in a hurry," said Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria) in opposing the measure. He called the bill "appealing on its surface, devastating in its impact."
The Senate also approved a resolution, sponsored by Mitchell, initiating a study by state and regional highway officials of bus transportation in the Washington suburbs. Mitchell said the study could be a prelude to Northern Virginia governments replacing Metro bus service with their own buses.
The handicapped bill, sponsored by Democratic Sens. Charles J. Colgan of Prince William and Charles L. Waddell of Fairfax and Loudoun counties, passed by a 24-to-14 margin. It would allow cars with handicapped or disabled veteran license plates to use what highway officials call the "high-occupancy vehicle" lanes on I-95 and I-395.
Those lanes are restricted during rush hours for buses and vans and cars with four or more passengers. Interstate-66, which has similar car-pool rules inside the Capital Beltway would not be affected by the bill because the traffic restrictions were imposed by the federal government, Waddell said.
Colgan said he was asked to introduce the bill by a wheelchair-bound woman who has too much equipment to take passengers in her van and so could not possibly join a car pool. "Give a few people a helping hand," he urged his colleagues.
But Mitchell and Edward M. Holland (D-Arlington) said the bill would set a dangerous precedent, increasing the pressure from motorcyclists and two-passenger sports car drivers who also want access to the lanes.
Holland said the bill would make it difficult for state police to enforce the car-pool rules, since they would have to check license plates as well as count heads.
The handicapped bill and the resolution calling for a study of Northern Virginia's buses now go to the House of Delegates where their prospects are uncertain.
Meanwhile, Mitchell was able today to steer Alexandria's charter bill out of the Senate Local Government Committee, in spite of rumblings against a controversial provision that allows the city to continue running background checks on handgun buyers.
Background checks have been required in Alexandria since 1944, about the same time they became law in neighboring Fairfax and Arlington counties. But a recent series of opinions from State Attorney General Gerald L. Baliles gave Alexandria officials concerns that the city doesn't have the specific authority to regulate gun sales.
Last year, a broadly drawn bill that would have legitimized Alexandria's gun ordinance failed to get out of a House committee. This year, the city decided to include the provision in its omnibus charter bill, an annual piece of legislation. An identical bill is now making its way through the House, where the opposition of gun supporters is likely to be more vocal.
A Senate subcommittee divided on the gun proposal last week but today, the full committee reported out the complete charter bill -- and left the gun provision intact.
Puzzled, Sen. Peter Babalas (D-Norfolk) asked Mitchell if he hadn't heard from the National Rifle Association on the bill. "No," said Mitchell, "they did not take a position and I am very grateful that they didn't."
Mitchell does expect NRA opposition to another bill that would ban the manufacture, possession and use of Teflon-coated, armor-piercing bullets. The Mitchell bill, similar to a local bill approved recently in Alexandria, is tougher than a bill backed by Gov. Charles S. Robb. The administration bill would simply make it a crime to use Teflon bullets in the commission of a felony.
"I think the administration's bullet bill is a worthless piece of legislation," said Mitchell. "It's better than nothing, but barely. It doesn't accomplish much when someone is killed to know what kind of bullet was used."