The Fauquier County Board of Supervisors last week sent what amounts to a "thanks, but no thanks" note to Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), who in July proposed using state funds to extend commuter rail service to southern Fauquier.
The timing of the letter is important, because the governor's $2.5 billion transportation package--of which the rail extension is a tiny part--will be near the top of the agenda of the new Republican-controlled General Assembly when it meets in January.
In his massive proposal, Gilmore offered some $28.3 million to extend Virginia Railway Express service from Manassas, now the end of the line, to Bealeton. That money would be used to build a VRE station and a new rail yard and to cover the first two years of operating expenses.
In the letter from its chairman, Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott), the board acknowledged the windfall but said, "We are not prepared to assume the ongoing financial commitments requested by the Potomac & Rappahannock Transportation Commission that would impose a 2 percent gas tax on our citizens or reduce funding support of other county programs."
The commission is the state-chartered organization comprising the various local governments that contribute a 2 percent gas tax to a pool that, among other things, pays for VRE service. An estimated 150 Fauquier residents now board the train in Manassas. VRE officials expect that number would double quickly with the extension.
One way for Fauquier to get the rail service, which now runs from Manassas to Union Station in Washington, would be to join the transportation commission and assume the tax. But the current Board of Supervisors and the incoming board to be seated in January have shown no interest. Weeks's letter also makes clear that the board is not interested in making any other major contributions.
The sentiment cuts both ways. The transportation commission has made clear that it would not expect any less of Fauquier than it does of the other municipalities participating in VRE.
"The localities are concerned, and they do not want to have to pay the extra costs associated with the Fauquier service due to the additional track mileage," VRE spokesman Matthew Benka said.
Del. Jay Katzen (R-Fauquier), a proponent of the extension but an opponent of the gas tax, said it would take a new state commitment of money for the proposal to fly locally. "It remains to be seen whether this fits into the picture of the overall transportation package," Katzen said.
Benka estimated the annual operating costs to extend service to Bealeton at $100,000 to $300,000 annually. Compared with Gilmore's overall transportation package, "that's not a lot of money. It is a lot of money from the perspective of a county level."
Virginia Assistant Transportation Secretary Daniel C. Shoemaker, who is part of the governor's brain trust helping implement the new spending, said he did not know of Weeks's letter. "The governor is committed to bringing VRE out to Fauquier County within the year, and we are going to continue to move forward," Shoemaker said.
One way for that to happen, said Alfred H. Harf, executive director of the Potomac & Rappahannock Transportation Commission, would be for Gilmore to increase the state's share of all mass transportation funding.
"At the same time that we're talking about state assistance to this, there's a more general move afoot to increase the degree of state participation in public transportation throughout the commonwealth," Harf said.
Supervisor Joe Winkelmann (R-Center) said that, in the absence of any proposals for long-term funding, he wondered where the support for the rail extension was originating. "The big mystery all along has been who has put this in the governor's package," Winkelmann said. "I don't know how they're going to fund it."
Weeks Steps Back From Vint Hill Firing Line
Board of Supervisors Chairman Larry L. Weeks (R-Scott) last week sent a letter of a different sort to Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), announcing that he was resigning as a board member of the state-chartered Vint Hill Economic Development Authority.
Weeks, who was appointed to the board last spring, said he resigned to deprive opponents of the massive Vint Hill rezoning package pending before the supervisors of the ability to charge him with conflicts of interest.
He said he had learned recently that his service on both boards was going to become a rallying point for opponents of the package, who include members of the Piedmont Environmental Council.
"I thought it best to resign so that did not become an issue," Weeks said.
Kitty P. Smith, Fauquier County field officer for the environmental council, said that the conflict already has occurred. "It's hard to completely divorce yourself once you've been married," Smith said.
The council is seeking to delay the board's approval of the package, which would rezone 403 acres for a high-tech jobs center and an additional 258 acres for as many as 300 houses. The council recently issued a report suggesting a much more scaled-down plan.
"This is one of the biggest rezonings Fauquier County has ever done," Smith said. "They should go slow."
But Weeks said he hopes to gain final approval of the rezoning package while the current board is sitting.
Planning Commission Chairman Harry Atherton, an independent who recently won election to the seat being vacated by retiring Supervisor James R. Green Jr. (I-Marshall), said he thought it more appropriate that the new board, which will be seated in January, get a whack at the rezoning package.
"I would prefer that the incoming board had a chance to look at it, but I recognized when we sent it forward from the Planning Commission for action that it may be approved this year," he said.