A state task force searching for solutions to Virginia's traffic gridlock will recommend giving regional authorities the right to levy special transportation taxes and build toll roads if their localities first approve them, commission members said today.
The statewide commission, appointed in May by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), was finishing up an interim report to be made public Wednesday. It will propose an array of solutions to traffic congestion, avoiding statewide tax increases but holding out to county governments the option of localized tolls and taxes.
Members agreed to endorse local ballot questions for taxes on three conditions: if the tax is specified precisely, earmarked for a particular road project and lasts for a certain period of time--"on the theory there are parts of the state where people want this so desperately they will approve it," said Ralph L. "Bill" Axselle, of Richmond, a former legislator who drafted the report for his commission colleagues.
Lobbyists from the region's county governments and even commission members themselves questioned the political reality of trying to steer new taxes or tolls through a maze of ballot initiatives.
"It's going to be awfully hard for us in Northern Virginia to persuade local governments to put it on the ballot," said commission member Sidney O. Dewberry, a prominent construction company executive from Arlington who is close to Gilmore.
Business groups, particularly in Northern Virginia, have supported proposals to generate more revenue for transportation projects, and a new coalition of business groups from around the state held a news conference today to discuss its plans to lobby for highway money in the upcoming session of the General Assembly.
"No tool should be taken off the table, including the possibility of user fees and new taxes," said James W. Dyke Jr., a Fairfax County business leader.
The day-long commission hearing and Dyke's simultaneous news conference two blocks away at the Capitol underscored the essentially political nature of a transportation debate that has raged for months from Northern Virginia to the legislature in Richmond and beyond.
Some regional agencies and quasi-public arms of government already enjoy broad power to seek new revenue, but many officials--Gilmore chief among them--have been reluctant to seek it, fearing higher taxes would be political poison in a booming state economy that has fostered a low-taxation atmosphere.
Gilmore is intractable on the issue of broad-based tax increases for transportation, but his 21-member commission, chaired by J. Kenneth Klinge, of Alexandria, a veteran GOP operative and respected transportation expert, is opening the door a crack to the specialized regional taxes. The commission plans to deliver a second report next summer before the panel dissolves a year from now.
"Everybody up my way says transportation is a priority," Klinge said during a discussion of Gilmore's idea to dip into state general fund money for projects. "Well, let's find out."
As the Klinge commission met nearby, Dyke, who heads the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, announced a business coalition that he said will put the force of 10,000 companies and 1.5 million workers behind a new push for a statewide injection of transportation money.
"We're not looking for a Republican solution or a Democratic solution," Dyke said. "We want a Virginia solution."
Dyke was joined by his counterparts from Roanoke, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond's Axselle in warning lawmakers they may be the target of "consequential politics"--meaning, withdrawn financial contributions--if they do not help on transportation.
Mike Carlin, a Washington area utility company executive and chairman of a group calling for dramatic increases in transportation funding, said the coalition's creation was a watershed event that could eventually raise significantly more money for the suburbs.
Dan Bannister, a high technology executive also of Fairfax, representing the region's leading business round table, said the clock is already running on a timely solution to the region's needs.
"Now we've got to get down to business," Bannister said.
CAPTION: Gov. James S. Gilmore III