Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles ordered the state highway department today to put some workers on double shifts to speed up road building and appointed a commission to study state transportation problems.
The 30-member commission named by the governor, who has made transportation the number one priority of his young administration, is charged with recommending new ways to finance transportation projects in time for a special legislative session in September.
The panel will be headed by state Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) and has three members from Nothern Virginia: Charles G. Gulledge of Arlington, chairman of the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority; Omer L. Hirst of McLean, a real estate broker and former legislator, and Theodore C. Lutz of Falls Church, business manager of The Washington Post.
The selection of Willey to head the commission could avert a showdown in the current regular session of the legislature over highway financing. Willey, the powerful chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, has been reluctant to wait for a special session to tackle road problems, and has introduced bills to increase taxes immediately on gasoline and vehicle titles. With both men now having a vested interest in the special session, a compromise between the governor and the senator appears likely.
Baliles said he and and his new highway commissioner, Ray D. Pethtel, want "plans developed and put on the shelf, ready to be used when funds are made available."
"I want the location and design process expedited," Baliles said, including "the immediate expansion of the use of computer technology." The governor said he had been told that plans that take highway department workers a day to put on paper can be done by a computer in five minutes.
"I've always been amazed in reading the history of World War II how roads and bridges were built almost overnight in foreign lands in order to move troops and supplies." Today, he said, "it takes years to draw a set of plans and even longer to build from the plans."
Baliles said that he and Pethtel believe "these preliminary activities can be shortened by as much as one year." The shortcuts would not include "a lessening of public participation or environmental impact studies ," Baliles said.
In his State of the Commonwealth message just after his Jan. 11 inauguration, Baliles called for abandoning Virginia's traditional pay-as-you-go method of paying for road construction, saying it cannot keep up with inflation and modern-day needs.
He called for dividing the highway trust fund, which gets money from the gasoline tax, into two parts, one for maintenance and one for construction. Under the present formula, maintenance projects take precedence.
Money for new construction could come from increased gas taxes, bonds, tolls or other sources that the commission recommends, Baliles said.
Baliles said his new orders "will require more money and personnel. So be it. Spending money now will save us money later," he said at a press conference.
"No matter what the new commission recommends, or the legislature approves in regard to highway financing, we cannot get any projects moving until the preliminary design and engineering work is done," he said. "That process must be time-compressed."
Baliles said that if the commission recommends, and the legislature approves, the issuance of general obligation bonds for roads, there would be time after the special session to get the question on the November ballot.