Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles broke his silence today on a measure to increase the state's gasoline sales tax, saying he wants the additional $236 million it would raise this year as "start-up funds" to accelerate highway construction.
The governor stopped short of endorsing the legislation as passed by the Senate, apparently fearful he might add to its opposition in the House of Delegates.
Until today Baliles, who took office last month, had indicated that the best time to address highway finance issues would be in the special legislative session he has said he will call in September.
The governor ended his neutrality on the revenue proposal of state Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) this afternoon at the initial meeting of his Commission on Virginia's Transportation in the 21st Century, which Willey chairs. The commission's report is expected to provide the basis for actions that the special session seems certain to take to speed highway construction.
One member of the transportation commission, Warren N. Martin, a Piedmont Airlines executive, interpreted Baliles' statement today as a sign that he "caved in" to Willey.
Baliles was careful to avoid giving any impression that he had changed his position. "While I am not endorsing S.B. 79 [the Willey bill] as it now stands," he told the commission, "on the basis of the revenue likely to be produced by that measure, we could accomplish a great deal . . . .
"I cannot yet discuss the details of the measure I will support," he continued. "Certainly, a responsible legislative process requires statesmanship, negotiation and compromise."
Pressed by reporters afterward, Baliles said that he would like to use the added revenues to finance preconstruction and right-of-way acquisition costs for 799 road projects scheduled during the next six years.
"There is some reluctance to embrace S.B. 79 on the House side," he said. "The question is how to work out the differences and generate the funds."
Baliles said he plans to "talk with some more members of the House."
Baliles said he is "purposely not honing in" on the language of the bill to avert further division. "I'm interested in the result," he said.
Willey, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, introduced the gasoline tax increase despite Baliles' plans for a special session that also is expected to consider revenue-raising measures that would address what the new governor said will be the top priority of his administration.
In addition to increasing the tax on gasoline by a penny, to 12 cents a gallon, Willey's bill would raise a number of other motor vehicle-related fees, with the stipulation that the proceeds go to highway construction. Ordinarily, gasoline tax money funds both highway construction and road maintenance, with the latter taking preference.
Del. Lewis W. Parker Jr. (D-Mecklenburg), a member of the House Finance Committee, said the some members of the panel don't want to vote for a tax increase until they know how the money will be spent.
Baliles also disclosed that the state highway department, responding to his orders, is "now ready to adopt new procedures which can expedite projects by at least 20 percent, and that preliminary plannings and design work can be reduced by as much as 13 months on major construction projects. The bottom line is that the department can cut an entire year off the typical project from the day it is first initiated."
Among procedures to speed the process, Baliles said, are overlapping engineering and right-of-way acquisition; working double shifts on computers; improving contract oversight; putting deadlines on consultants and ending delays in soil testing labs.
"I want to see time-savings increased 25, 30 percent and more," Baliles said.
Even with the accelerated schedule and additional start-up money, Baliles said, "it would take 40 years to meet Virginia's currently identified road needs."
Several members of the 40-person commission wanted to make sure an accelerated construction schedule would not result in waste.
"How much money could you really spend in a year?" Willey asked State Highway Commissioner Ray D. Pethtel. "Prudently," the senator added.
When Pethtel said that decision is "partly the responsibility of this commission," Willey accused him of "passing the buck."
"We can spend all that's available in the legislature," Pethtel responded.
Sen. Charles L. Waddell (D-Loudoun), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, quipped that "Northern Virginia contractors have advised me they can handle all the business we can send them."
Former governor Mills E. Godwin Jr. of Suffolk, one of four former governors on the panel, said "the first question most people want to know" is what limitations will be placed on the speeded up transportation program.
Godwin said delays in road building have not always been the fault of the highway department. He said many projects were stalled "because of environmental concerns -- many of them completely justified."