Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), responding to business and political leaders who say he hasn't paid enough attention to Northern Virginia's transportation needs, accused his critics today of wrongly proposing higher taxes or fees as the only solution to the region's traffic problems.
Gilmore focused on remarks by the new chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, James W. Dyke Jr., who had applauded state Sen. Warren E. Barry (R-Fairfax) and other Northern Virginia legislators for calling on the governor to rethink his policies and requesting a meeting to discuss transportation issues. Dyke, a Fairfax lawyer, said he was disappointed that Gilmore has ruled out a tax increase to pay for the region's multibillion-dollar transportation needs.
Gilmore said his newly appointed commission on transportation funding is charged with finding creative ways to finance road, rail and mass transit projects for a state increasingly beset by traffic congestion problems, particularly along the Interstate 95 corridor.
"If you just raise taxes without going through any of that process . . . that just means you're for taxes," he said today. "So if the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce is for tax increases, I do not join them in that."
Tony Howard, a spokesman for the Fairfax chamber, said today that his organization "is not in favor of raising taxes. . . . The governor is absolutely right. We believe we should look at all options . . . but we were disappointed that from the outset, the governor took one of them off the table."
Even while criticizing the chamber and the lawmakers, Gilmore said that "nothing is off the table" when it comes to addressing transportation needs. But "I demand something much more precise and careful in their analysis than just simply the Democrats' calling for an increase in taxes, which they seem to do every day."
The letter that Barry sent to Gilmore late today contained the names of 23 of the 35 members of the Northern Virginia legislative delegation--including those of seven Republicans---but its language was toned down from a draft version circulated last week.
Gilmore and other Republicans are sensitive to the politics of transportation in this election year, when every seat in the General Assembly is on the ballot. The issue resonates acutely in Northern Virginia, which is bracing for years of headaches over the reconstruction of the "mixing bowl" interchange in Springfield and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Barry said he got a call from an administration official Monday morning saying "they thought the wording [of the draft] was a little severe or inflammatory. . . . They weren't very happy with it."
The tone of the final version was conciliatory. It praised Gilmore for signing a $104 million bond package for the region during this year's General Assembly session, but it repeated the threat that if Gilmore doesn't pay more attention to the region's traffic woes, "our only alternative will be to independently explore the measures necessary to properly serve our constituents."
Barry also repeated the lawmakers' observation that "major businesses have already relocated due to congestion; others are considering such a move."
The long-term effect of traffic congestion, the letter continued, "will be a loss of tax revenues to the commonwealth, unless we provide the joint leadership now to address the problem."
In his statement in support of Barry's effort, Dyke said that "one critical short-term fix would be to return some of the record-high state income tax revenues to local governments for their transportation and school construction needs. . . . We urge the governor to revisit his position and keep an open mind about creating a dedicated revenue source" to help resolve traffic congestion.
The Fairfax chamber, which has 2,400 member companies with 400,000 employees, is a potent political force in local and legislative races.
Del. Kenneth R. Plum (D-Fairfax), the state Democratic Party chairman, jumped at the chance to criticize the Republican leader, saying, "We need an immediate response from Governor Gilmore," who was derided as "Governor Gridlock."
Barry isn't happy with Democrats trying to make a partisan issue of his letter. "This is a bipartisan effort to address what we see as a critical problem," he said.
Also today, at a luncheon with 900 school board members from across the state, Gilmore criticized Democratic legislators for frustrating his campaign goal of hiring 4,000 new elementary school teachers before his term ends. Only 600 jobs have been budgeted, he contended.
Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said that 604 positions were designated by the legislature to reduce class size through the third grade and that an additional 1,400 teachers may be used as specialists in reading or technology, as well as to shrink class sizes through the sixth grade.
CAPTION: Sen. Warren E. Barry and others say Northern Virginia's transportation needs aren't being adequately addressed by Gov. Gilmore.