Two legislators who were on opposite sides of the Northern Virginia transportation tax referendum last year announced a plan today that they said would provide a "starting point" in relieving traffic congestion.
Dels. John A. "Jack" Rollison III and Robert G. Marshall, Republicans from Prince William County, are proposing to use about $100 million raised by car insurance taxes each year to make what they call "incremental" progress on road and rail projects across the state. The tax money is intended for transportation projects, but is now being used to help balance the state's $50 billion, two-year budget.
Rollison said Northern Virginia stands to get about $35 million from the tax each year, which could be leveraged to raise as much as $350 million. He proposed to use the money to ease congestion in four major corridors -- Interstate 495, Interstate 95/395, Interstate 66 and the Dulles rail corridor.
The plan, presented at meetings of the Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia delegations to the General Assembly, also would require localities or private companies to match the state's investment.
The proposal reflects the political realities stemming from the defeat in November of transportation taxes in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. If the taxes had been approved, the regions would have had a new source of revenue to raise billions of dollars for transportation projects. The new proposal aims to build a statewide consensus to raise millions of dollars from existing funds.
Marshall said this approach would ensure the votes needed to pass any legislation. "If everyone votes his district -- and what dummy doesn't," it will pass, he said.
Rollison said he would like to see privately financed "congestion-priced" toll lanes added to the region's major roads. The lanes would work like high-occupancy vehicle lanes but would also allow access for lone drivers willing to pay a fee. The toll would fluctuate with traffic volume to ensure a smooth ride, Rollison said.
Transportation officials said they have received proposals from private firms to build congestion-priced lanes on the Capital Beltway, Interstate 81 and other state roads.
Rollison said the new proposal "is just a starting point" in relieving congestion, but probably the only measure with a chance to make a difference in a session dominated by the need to close a $1.2 billion shortfall in the state budget.
The proposal would not take effect until July 1, 2004, when the economy is expected to improve and the funds would be available.
"We're staking out a claim right now," Marshall said.
But some Northern Virginia lawmakers, who for the past year have been involved in cutting $6 billion from the budget, expressed concern about taking money from the state's general fund and supporting a proposal that relies on an economic upturn.
Ellen Qualls, spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), said it "may be a good idea, but it's fair to say that anything that is a limitation of how we budget in the future will get close scrutiny."
Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R) said the proposal sounded like a step in the right direction, but he worried about the ability of localities to match funds. "For the really big projects, it's a mighty big hurdle for us to cross because the potential costs would be tens of millions of dollars," he said.
Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), one of the leading opponents of the sales tax increase, applauded the idea of drawing in private-sector money. He also said ensuring that transportation funds go to transportation projects would address some of the concerns voters expressed when they defeated the tax.
"This is tied in intimately with the trust-in-government issue," he said.