Northern Virginia efforts to win new funds for the Metro transit system were resurrected tonight when the state Senate's powerful Finance Committee refused to approve any funding for highways and transportation in the state's 1982-84 budget.
By rejecting the transportation funding entirely, the panel made a tactical move that could help Northern Virginians tuck some additional funds for the financially strapped Metro system into the state budget when it comes before a conference committee this week. Earlier efforts to bolster Metro through a proposed 4-cent gasoline tax were dashed in the House last week.
"We're very much in the game, and there are six days left to go," said Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax). "The fat lady hasn't sung yet."
The committee's action tonight reopens the bidding in the Metro game here by granting budget conferees the flexibility to boost the transit system's funding far beyond the $13.7 million granted to it by the House. In so doing, the finance panel's decision gave new leverage to a loose coalition of Northern Virginian, suburban and rural legislators in the House, who last week came within one vote of passing a measure earmarking transportation funds to their own pet projects.
Unless budget conferees write in some specific guarantees for Metro and other highway projects, those legislators now say, they could reject the $263 million gasoline tax package that the Senate and Gov. Charles S. Robb want passed. Robb has said an increase in highway revenues is essential this year to bail out the deficit-ridden highway department.
"I don't think the 21 Northern Virginia delegates are going to vote for the conference report on the gasoline tax unless there's some money in there for Metro," said Sen. Adelard L. Brault (D-Fairfax).
Brault had sought to put the Finance Committee even more strongly behind Metro's fund-raising effort with a proposal to earmark some $42.4 million for the troubled transit system. That proposal had won the support of Senate majority leader and acting finance committee chairman Hunter B. Andrews (D- Hampton) who offered a companion amendment that would have brought his Tidewater district the funds necessary to build a bridge-tunnel across Hampton Roads.
Both proposals were contingent on the passage of the $263 million gasoline tax package, authored by Finance Chairman Edward E. Willey (D-Richmond) and approved by the Senate. State finance experts say the package, which centers on a 3 percent tax on the wholesale price of gasoline, could result in a retail price increase of as much as 4 cents a gallon.
Brault and Andrews insisted that their proposals were "flexible" and did not commit the Senate to full financial backing of the transportation projects, but they backed off when other members of the Finance Committee resisted, fearing that approval of the proposals would back them into a corner.
"If we approve this, the Senate would get locked into a figure of not less than $13 million for Metro, and I don't want to get locked in that way," said Sen. Herbert Bateman (R-Newport News).
Gov. Robb has endorsed the highway department's pleas for up to $360 million in additional maintenance and construction money, but until now has remained aloof from legislative squabbling on just how the appropriation is to be funded. Yesterday, however, Robb's secretary of transportation, Andrew Fogarty, who helped draw the Andrews and Brault proposals, appeared before the committee to lobby for them. He declined to comment afterward on what significance their rejection might have for the governor.
Brault's proposal called for approval of some $20 million toward paying off Metro construction debts over the next two years, thus helping provide the system with the "stable and reliable" funding source that federal officials have said it needs. Without such a source of funds, U.S. Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis warned recently, Virginia stands to lose about $100 million in federal funding for Metro construction.
An earlier effort to win Metro funding failed in the House last week when a freshman delegate inadvertently failed to vote in favor a 4-cent gasoline tax proposal that would have provided an additional $13.2 million for the system.
That proposal, which had attracted support from throughout the state, contained allocations also for a host of highway and transportation projects ranging from rural road construction to metropolitan mass transit needs.
In other action tonight, the finance panel approved a $30 million increase in funding for teacher salary increases, virtually assuring that the average state teacher salary will rise between 9 and 10 percent in each of the next two years.