Virginia's lawmakers will turn back the clock more than three years Wednesday, renewing old regional battles about how to divide the state's transportation money to finance an ever-expanding list of highways, interchanges, bridges and rail lines.
Gone are the bold conversations that dominated recent General Assemblies about how to find and spend billions of dollars. As they prepare for the start of the 46-day session, lawmakers and state officials say the defeat of transportation taxes in November votes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads put an abrupt end to all thoughts of grand solutions.
In their place are ideas about making slow progress on reducing traffic congestion and proposals about growth and roads that have failed to find majority support among legislators here for more than a decade.
"These resources can't be created out of thin air," said Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). "With the budget shortfalls we have, it would be unrealistic to think about anything but modest solutions."
Warner, who championed the tax increases as a way to raise $12 billion for transportation over 20 years, is now promoting a much less ambitious agenda in which the state would target road and transit "hot spots" that could each be done for less than $2 million.
And he is vowing further change at the Virginia Department of Transportation, which is responsible for most roads in the state. Warner's legislation would require financial plans for road projects costing more than $100 million, quarterly reports to the public and better cooperation with local governments.
Meanwhile, lawmakers who helped defeat Warner's referendum measures in November are following through on promises to offer their own solutions, though they acknowledge that none would provide immediate relief from Northern Virginia's traffic congestion.
"We have built ourselves into a mess which we cannot solve," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), who was elected last year on the strength of his opposition to the transportation tax. "We can only make it better, or less bad."
In Maryland, where the annual General Assembly session also begins Wednesday, debate will focus on whether to borrow money from the state's transportation trust fund to offset a revenue shortfall in the general fund. Also at issue will be whether to increase the state's gasoline tax by 5 cents or 10 cents a gallon to raise transportation money.
Lon Anderson, a lobbyist for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said driver safety issues also are likely to attract attention in Maryland, including legislation to increase penalties on severely drunk drivers and motorists who refuse to take a breath test.
In Virginia, Sen. Kevin G. Miller (R-Harrisonburg) is renewing his efforts to increase the tax on gasoline, but few lawmakers have expressed enthusiasm for raising taxes in a year when all Senate and House seats are up for election.
Cuccinelli is working with other anti-tax lawmakers in Northern Virginia to change the formulas that are used to distribute transportation money across the state and to pass a constitutional amendment to keep lawmakers from using transportation money to balance the overall budget.
Other ideas include increasing the number of Northern Virginians on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, VDOT's board of directors; establishing an inspector general at VDOT; reducing the size of the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge to save money; and giving local governments more power to stop or slow traffic-generating development.
"The vote in November was certainly a vote demanding better growth management," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Schwartz and other slow-growth activists say their proposals, routinely turned back by a property rights majority in the assembly, will get a favorable hearing this year because of the November vote and because of the incoming House speaker, William J. Howell (R-Stafford).
Howell, who represents the second fastest-growing county in Virginia, said he is sympathetic to some of the slow-growth ideas.
"I do agree," he said. "If you build more roads, they will come. If we were to complete the western bypass [around the Washington suburbs], it would be an enormous benefit to developers. You would see sprawl we can't begin to imagine."
But all of the ideas still face serious opposition.
Anti-tax lawmakers who teamed up with slow-growth activists to defeat the transportation tax say they will bolt that coalition if they are asked to support proposals that would slow growth at the expense of landowners.
"If there are outs for property owners that preserve their rights, it has a chance for survival," said Cuccinelli, who met today with a representative of the League of Conservation Voters. "Informally, just as during the referendum, we are working together. But it's difficult to find a middle ground."
And proposals to change the distribution of transportation money threaten to ignite a war between regions.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), the minority leader, mocked the ideas.
"I suspect most of them aren't going anywhere," he said.
But even if they do, they will generate little additional money for Northern Virginia.
A proposal by Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), for example, would consider the number of miles driven when distributing the state's transportation money. And Rust concedes that it would add only $30 million to $50 million annually for the entire region.
"I have consistently said it would not solve Northern Virginia's problems," Rust said. "That was one of the reasons I supported the referendums."
And Rust said he anticipates objections from lawmakers who represent areas that would lose transportation money.
"The pie is only so big and I'm trying to get a bigger slice, and when that happens, someone else gets a smaller slice," Rust said. "I'm a realist. These things take time to get going."
Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he is looking for a compromise to emerge that would add a little money for transportation statewide and distribute more of it to urbanized areas like Northern Virginia.
At best, he predicted, "we can show a modest improvement."
Staff writer Katherine Shaver contributed to this report.