Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles' proposal to create a special fund to ensure massive new highway construction won a reprieve today when an advisory group headed by House Speaker A.L. Philpott, an opponent of the idea, backed off its earlier decision to recommend against it.
The move, taken just before this afternoon's meeting of Baliles' Commission on Transportation in the 21st Century, was at least a temporary setback for Philpott (D-Henry), chairman of the commission's funding procedures subcommittee, and others who favor continuing the state policy that gives road maintenance total priority over new construction.
Baliles has given his commission, composed of legislative leaders, former governors and community leaders, an Aug. 1 deadline for recommending how to finance $10.2 billion in highway needs over the next decade, including such major projects as a Springfield bypass and an outer beltway in Northern Virginia. A special session of the General Assembly is scheduled to take up the matter in September.
In addition to creating separate funds for construction and repair, Baliles wants the commission to study new sources of revenue, including tax increases, issuance of bonds, and more toll roads to break the reliance of gasoline tax revenues. A 1.6-cent increase on July 1 will boost that tax to 15 cents a gallon, and Baliles said it cannot be raised enough more to cover needed improvements.
Many of Baliles' ideas for a crash road-building program are unacceptable to Philpott and other members of the conservative Old Guard, which has insisted on relying on gas tax revenues for building roads on a pay-as-you-go basis for half a century.
Subcommittee member Ted Lutz of McLean, who led the move to withhold the subcommittee's already printed report rejecting separate funds, suggested that with two funds there could be a "one-way window" in which, "in an emergency, maintenance could dip into the construction fund, but not the other way around."
Lutz, a vice president and business manager of The Washington Post who formerly was an official of the U.S. Department of Transportation and Washington's Metro rail and bus system, said that even without a special construction fund, maintenance could take a back seat to repayment of general revenue bonds if the legislature adopts that method of funding some highways.
Philpott answered that "creating separate funds doesn't generate an extra penny," but agreed to go along with Lutz and state Sen. Charles Waddell (D-Loudoun) and wait to see how much money another subcommitttee, on funding options, will recommend spending.
Today was to have been the deadline for the commission's four subcommittees to make their recommendations, but only one -- on critical needs -- did, and it failed to confront a political issue by saying which roads should be built first.
The others apparently will wait until July 21, the last meeting before the deadline, to report their recommendations.
Asked later to explain his change of heart, Philpott exploded, "no comment," adding to a Washington Post reporter, "especially to you." He and others were reportedly upset over a Post story, circulated at today's meeting, on the political ramifications of a stroke suffered by Sen. Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond), the commission chairman.
"It's a good thing for Northern Virginia that we didn't take any votes today," said one commission member, who said speculation by Sen. Clive L. DuVal 2nd (D-McLean) that Northern Virginia would benefit if Willey were unable to resume his legislative duties was seen as "dancing on the grave" of the Senate's most powerful member.