RICHMOND, JULY 11 -- Gov. L. Douglas Wilder today kicked off a campaign aimed at winning voter approval of a new method of financing highways and mass transit that could accelerate such projects by as much as five years.
Virginia voters will be asked on Nov. 8 to approve two constitutional amendments that would allow the use of "pledge bonds" to finance specific transportation projects.
The bonds are so named because the state would pledge to repay them using existing gasoline taxes and other transportation-related revenue.
Counties and cities also could sell such bonds to finance local transportation projects, including airports and ports, with the bonds to be repaid from existing tax sources.
Wilder (D), who has promised not to raise taxes during his four-year term, emphasized that adoption of pledge bonds "will not be creating any new money," and compared selling the bonds to taking out a mortgage to buy a house.
"Build the road today and pay for it by using the gas taxes from drivers traveling along the road you built," he said.
Under current law, he said, "we must slowly accumulate the money . . . and then start construction when we have saved up enough." Meanwhile, he said, "the price of the house or the road steadily increases."
Pledge bonds, initially proposed by Wilder's predecessor, Gerald L. Baliles, and embraced by the legislature, could finance as much as $1.2 billion in construction over the next four years. The limit is determined by a complex formula that is based on recent revenue collections.
The bonds would be repaid, probably over a 20- or 30-year period, from the collection of taxes on gasoline, vehicle sales and licenses, and a portion of the state sales tax.
Unlike regular transportation projects, which are built on a schedule approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, projects financed by pledge bonds also would require the approval of the General Assembly.
Transportation Secretary John G. Milliken said approval of the measure by voters could result in some construction beginning as early as next summer. He said the transportation board could recommend projects in December, and the legislature could approve or change them by the end of February.
Although it is most likely that the money would be used to accelerate projects already in the works, Milliken, a former chairman of the Arlington County Board, said it is conceivable that new projects would be approved by the assembly.
Some skeptics have warned that giving legislators the power to decide where and when roads will be built could spark parochial fights pitting one part of the state against another.
Perhaps anticipating such concerns, Wilder said he intends to "ensure that what is suggested is consistent with the broader needs of the commonwealth and with the particular fiscal limitations which may exist at the time any proposal is made."
Steve Haner, spokesman for the Joint Republican Legislative Caucus, said that while "not all members of our party" endorse the concept, a number of GOP legislators supported pledge bonds when the referendum was endorsed by the assembly this year.
Pledge bonds initially were proposed by Baliles and endorsed by a special session of the legislature in 1986 that increased transportation spending by about $450 million a year.
Because of a question about the constitutionality of pledge bonds, a test case was sent to the state Supreme Court, which found them unconstitutional. To overcome the court's objections, the Baliles administration set in motion a long procedure that culminates with this fall's referendum. The procedure included overwhelming passage by two General Assembly sessions of resolutions calling for two constitutional amendments, one for the state and another for localities.
Wilder named a bipartisan panel today to help him boost the referendum. It is co-chaired by Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr. and Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, who are fellow Democrats, and Republican lawyer and former legislator Wyatt B. Durrette Jr., who lost to Baliles in the 1985 gubernatorial election.
Wilder said he did not ask Baliles to help because he was certain the former governor is busy establishing his law practice here.