A Virginia Senate committee today killed a bill that would have raised more money for road and transit projects, the last of the major proposals in this General Assembly session to improve the state's transportation system.
The measure, approved by the House of Delegates, would have used about $100 million raised annually from car insurance taxes to borrow more than $1 billion over the next seven years for transportation projects statewide, sponsors said.
Members of the Senate Finance Committee said it would have further depleted state funds and strained the government's debt limit at a time when Virginia is trying to correct a $1.2 billion imbalance in its two-year, $50 billion budget.
The transportation bond bill was one of several measures proposed in the wake of the defeat in November of regional transportation taxes proposed for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads as a way of financing projects that could relieve traffic congestion.
"I'm disappointed that the senators didn't see the need for funding transportation," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), a proponent of the transportation tax referendum and co-sponsor of the bond bill, HB 2750. "Maybe next year we'll be able to put together a coalition to do something positive for transportation."
Under last year's transportation tax proposal, the sales tax would have been increased in the two regions. That would have raised $5 billion over 20 years to finance road and transit improvements in Northern Virginia alone.
Some legislators interpreted the rejection of both proposals in the Nov. 5 referendums as a sign of public distrust of state government and as a message to them not to raise taxes; others took the votes as a mandate for the state to give local governments greater control over the commercial and residential growth that can lead to traffic congestion.
Northern Virginia lawmakers came to Richmond with revised plans to ease traffic, but none of those efforts approached the magnitude of the sales tax proposals. Nonetheless, they have all died. Legislators said some proposals, such as increasing the gas tax, may have fared better if assembly members were not facing reelection in November.
Even without Rollison's bill, the insurance tax money it identified was supposed to have been used for transportation funding beginning in 2000. Instead, it is being used to help balance the state's general fund. Rollison said the money, which local or private sources would have been required to match, could have kick-started efforts to ease congestion on Northern Virginia's major roads and in the Dulles rail corridor.
Senators said Rollison and other House leaders lobbied hard to pass the proposal.
Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) was unconvinced and said Rollison's measure was a "disjointed effort" that betrayed sound fiscal policy. "It seems to have been put together rather quickly and hurriedly to deal with pressures from certain quarters," he said.
Tax measure opponents maintain that the answer to transportation problems is to change the culture in the Capitol, a message they said was relayed in the tax vote. "Some of the difficulty we're having is simply people have been here a long time and don't want to change," said Sen. Ken Cuccinelli (R-Fairfax), an opponent of the sales tax increase.
Cuccinelli's proposal to reduce the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge from 12 lanes to 10, which he said would have freed $500 million for other projects, was quickly dismissed this year by the Finance Committee. Members said bridge construction was so far along that it would have actually cost more to replan it.
Another measure before the Finance Committee would have prohibited lawmakers from borrowing money from the transportation trust fund to balance the state's general fund. Backers said it was an attempt to ensure that all funds intended for transportation projects would go toward them and that it would help restore faith in state government.
Committee members killed the measure after expressing concern that it would unduly tie lawmakers' hands.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), co-sponsor of HB 2750, said Northern Virginia's traffic won't improve until voters in other parts of the state face the same grinding commutes. If that happens, he said, a coalition to fix transportation can build in the assembly.
The six votes for Rollison's proposal came from senators from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The nine against it were spread across the rest of the state.
Marshall said the state now must rework its method of allocating money for transportation. "Next year will be a bloodbath on redoing the transportation formula," he said.
Other proposals to raise money for roads and transit included a plan by Sen. Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) to borrow a larger amount than proposed in HB 2750, but that withered over concerns about its reliance on debt.
Several lawmakers who fought the sales tax increase pushed controlled-growth proposals they said would slow development until roads and other infrastructure were in place, but the measures never got out of committee. Some tried unsuccessfully to increase taxes on gas.
"Part of the reason that there's just despair is that there's no money for good projects of any type," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who voted for both transportation proposals before the Finance Committee. "We'll be living with the defeat of the referendum for years to come -- in traffic."