Virginia Democrats kept the focus of their campaign on transportation today as seven challengers in legislative races joined the call for a special session of the General Assembly devoted to unclogging the state's roadways.
The push for a one-day special session is unpopular among most Republicans and Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), who dismisses it as a publicity stunt. The petition drive to force the session requires two-thirds of the members in both the House and Senate, more than double the number who had signed up by this afternoon.
But with control of the General Assembly at stake in the November elections, Democrats are eager to claim the burgeoning transportation issue as their own, particularly in the crucial battlegrounds in Northern Virginia, where experts say it will cost billions of dollars just to keep traffic from getting worse.
Today the Democratic challengers--all but one of whom were from the Washington suburbs--said only immediate legislative action would push the state's road-building program back on track.
They favor using the special session to infuse $200 million of state surplus into transportation, though Republicans contend that all but $60 million of the surplus is dedicated by law to other purposes.
In the long term, Democrats favor a $1 billion package, mostly from new borrowing, although they hint that another proposal may emerge by the election.
"The governor's refusal to act is one more indication that he does not believe that transportation is a serious problem," said Democrat Leslie L. Byrne, a former congresswoman challenging Sen. Jane H. Woods (R-Fairfax). "It's time for the General Assembly to take the lead on this issue."
"The Democrats have put a plan on the table," added George Lovelace, a former delegate challenging Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R-Fairfax). "It provides nearly $1 billion in new transportation money right away."
Gilmore has called transportation a top priority and urged new, creative thinking on how to ease traffic problems, but there is a growing call for old-fashioned spending from leaders of both parties.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax) has proposed a $3.5 billion package over seven years, but many other Republicans are waiting for Gilmore to take the lead with a major new transportation proposal before the end of the month.
His spokesman, Mark Miner, dismissed the Democratic news conference as grandstanding and said Gilmore will have an announcement soon.
"Political rhetoric is not going to address Virginia's transportation needs," Miner said. "Sound policy will, and that's what the governor is working on."
Miner also pointed to a poll released today by researchers at Virginia Tech showing that Gilmore has a 75 percent approval rating statewide and that 35 percent of Virginians think not enough money is being spent on transportation. Among the vote-rich regions of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond, nearly two out of five Virginians say the state should spend more on transportation.
"I guess both parties are playing poker right now," said Michael J. Henry, director of the Joint Democratic Caucus. "We're trying to see who can put the biggest chip on the table."