-- Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) will propose a one-time cash infusion to build roads, bridges and transit projects across the state but will not call for higher taxes on gasoline when he presents his budget to lawmakers next month, he said in two speeches Wednesday.
Warner said the state's vibrant economy will produce as much as $900 million more in state revenue than had been projected, providing an opportunity to boost road construction that has been lagging for years.
Although he declined to say how much he wants to earmark for transportation, Warner also vowed to pay off years of accumulated transportation debt, renew the state's focus on mass transit and enable localities to build their own smaller roads.
Finding solutions to the state's transportation crisis has eluded the businessman-turned-governor, who is entering his last year in office. In 2002, voters defeated Warner-backed ballot measures in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads that would have pumped billions of dollars into road construction. And this year, Warner and lawmakers abandoned a $1.6 billion tax increase for transportation as too costly and politically risky.
Now, the governor says he wants to find modest ways to improve the situation for the state's frustrated commuters while recognizing the political reality that raising the gas tax -- the state's primary source of road-building money -- is unlikely to pass the General Assembly in an election year. The current tax is 17.5 cents per gallon.
"It's not going to be a part of our proposal. I don't see a lot of appetite for it," Warner said of the gas tax after speaking to business executives in Richmond. "Virginia has enormous unmet needs, [but] we're going to try some new things. We're going to try local control. We're going to look at rail and transit in a fresh way."
Warner said he would not provide details of his plan until after Thanksgiving, but he spoke broadly of a desire to get projects moving more quickly and to make better use of limited state resources.
"This program will make use of the resources we have available to us," Warner told members of the state's transportation board. "The transportation package . . . will be the next step in our continued efforts . . . to ease congestion, create jobs and make Virginia more economically competitive."
By redirecting smaller projects to the local level, Warner said, the state could slash some administrative costs. "Some of these communities believe they can do these projects quicker, smarter, cheaper," Warner said. "Let's give them a chance to try it."
Warner's proposals were met with disappointment by some of the state's leading business executives, who said they believe Virginia needs to invest more heavily in its road and transit network. Michael Anzilotti, the chairman of the Virginia Business Council, said no responsible politician should automatically reject raising the gas tax.
"I don't know how you can take the gas tax off the table when 10 cents would raise $500 million, and we've all seen gas prices go up and down 10 cents and it didn't affect anyone's driving habits," Anzilotti said. "Political purposes -- that's the only reason we are not going to do a gas tax increase."
But Warner's go-slower approach appears to be part of an emerging consensus among Republican and Democratic state leaders, including both men who are running for governor next year. The topic is likely to dominate the 2005 General Assembly session when legislators convene in Richmond on Jan. 12.
In speeches Wednesday to the Conference on Virginia's Future, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine (D) all embraced the idea of a one-time infusion of cash for roads, and all three strongly rejected an increase in the gas tax.
Howell said at the conference that his Republican caucus will be unveiling "innovative" transportation proposals in the next week or two. "I don't think anybody disagrees we need more money," he said. "But I don't think you are going to see it coming from the traditional sources."
Kilgore, who is his party's presumed nominee for governor, said he opposes "outdated, ineffective efforts of the past, such as a gas tax increase." He said the largess from the state's booming economy should be used to "jump-start transportation projects that are already on the books."
And Kaine, who is Kilgore's likely opponent in the governor's race, vowed never to seek an increase in the gas tax unless Virginia approves a constitutional amendment to prevent the legislature from raiding the state's transportation fund in tight budget times.
"So long as we have a transportation fund with a hole in it, I don't think it's right," he said. "The people sent us a very strong message in 2002. Unless we show them we listened to what they said, we can't very well go back and ask them for more money."
Kaine and Kilgore each used their speeches to the business group to highlight their themes for next year's campaign. Kilgore talked about reducing "excessive taxation, limitless litigation and redundant regulations." Kaine promised to "stay the course" set by Warner and to end "gimmicks, bitter partisanship and sound bites."
But transportation dominated Wednesday's talks.
Philip Shucet, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation, said his agency will seek ways to be more efficient and work more with private partners to build roads.
But like some of the business executives at the conference, Shucet said the state must eventually confront the bottom-line need for more money.
"The debate that needs to take place is what we are going to do with the long-term investment in transportation," Shucet said. "I look forward to an engaging debate and discussion on these topics."