Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) plans to propose using general tax revenue to pay for major road projects, a break with tradition that would be part of a nearly $2.5 billion statewide plan to speed construction and answer demands of commuters and business leaders in Northern Virginia, officials said today.
Gilmore today was putting finishing touches on the most important transportation speech of his administration, to be delivered Tuesday on a Washington area radio program, and aides said he would not deviate from his opposition to new taxes for transportation.
Instead, they said, Gilmore is focusing on other sources of money, including Virginia's general fund, which amounts to more than $20 billion a year in sales, income and corporate taxes, and the state's share of the national tobacco settlement, which could provide up to $1.6 billion for transportation.
With two months left before elections that will decide the balance of power in the General Assembly, Gilmore is hoping to trump Democratic adversaries who have hammered away at him all summer, saying he has neglected an issue vital to the prosperity of the Washington suburbs. WTOP radio (107.7 FM, 1500 AM) will carry Gilmore's remarks starting at 10 a.m.
After the governor's message, Gilmore and Republican surrogates across Virginia plan a major public-relations offensive on his transportation spending, with a county-by-county analysis of projects already underway that the GOP hopes will silence Democrats on the issue for weeks to come.
Gilmore is not expected to announce major new construction initiatives in Northern Virginia, but will recommend more money to speed projects that are already planned, officials said. They said Northern Virginia would get just under half of the governor's $2.5 billion package.
In a booming economy, Gilmore would be able to use what one senior aide described as a "steady and consistent" supply of dollars to the general fund -- the state's huge pot of revenue from income taxes and other levies -- for outright construction or to cover long-term bonded indebtedness for such projects, or both.
That would mark a significant departure from time-honored policy in Virginia, which has used its transportation trust fund, roughly $1 billion a year, to pay for its highways in cash. That money comes from gasoline taxes, fees on car titles, a small portion of the state sales tax and other money earmarked specifically for road projects. Although fiscally conservative, the state's pay-as-you-go policy has been criticized over the years as short-sighted and ultimately not cost-efficient.
Gilmore's immediate preference -- and aides stressed that his transportation plan was still a work in progress late today -- is to avoid as much long-term debt as he can and earmark dollars straight out of the general fund.
"This is a precedent for Virginia," one administration official said.
The general fund is the granddaddy of state financing and in good times is constantly refreshed by steady streams of money from sales and income taxes, as well as corporate taxes.
By contrast, the much smaller transportation trust fund is replenished from a more limited pool of tax revenue.
"I'm all for it," exulted Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), a transportation committee chairman who urged Gilmore and his staff to push for general-fund money for transportation.
Rollison argued that if Gilmore eventually dips into the general fund -- and the legislature would probably have to approve that step -- the money could be replaced fairly easily with surging state revenue from the strong economy, tobacco settlement money or other funds.
Aides said Gilmore may consider some limited sale of bonds to pay for transportation, a move Democrats pounced on today as inconsistent with his opposition to their earlier proposal for school construction bonds.
"It now seems especially ironic and hypocritical," said Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
J. Kenneth Klinge, a Northern Virginian who chairs a Gilmore-appointed commission on transportation, said today that Gilmore may touch on the region's traffic headaches but will also speak more broadly about the needs of the entire state.
"This is not about just Northern Virginia tomorrow," Klinge said today.
Added Dwight C. Schar, a Northern Virginia developer who, like Klinge, advises Gilmore on suburban traffic needs: "Anything that he does isn't in a vacuum for Northern Virginia, and he will provide funds for transportation problems all across the state."
Schar and Sidney O. Dewberry, a construction magnate based in Northern Virginia, were key members of Gilmore's kitchen cabinet on Tuesday's speech, which will cap months of frustration for a governor eager to expand road funding well beyond the conventional trust fund.
"He wants to treat transportation in a way that's different than it's been for 50 years," one Gilmore ally said.