Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) yesterday made his most ambitious foray yet into Virginia's contentious debate over transportation funding, giving new momentum to plans for widening Interstate 66 on both sides of the Capital Beltway and extending rail lines to Tysons Corner, the Dulles area and Centreville.
But Gilmore's plan to add $2 billion statewide over the next six years did not address how much money would come to Northern Virginia. Even if half the total were spent in the region, it would provide at most a fifth of what planners say is needed just to keep traffic from growing worse. [Arlington leaders say widening I-66 would break a federal promise made two decades ago. Page B1.]
"He's to be applauded for venturing into new funding sources, but clearly we need more money. It's progress, but we've got a long way to go," said Robert T. Grow, transportation director for the Greater Washington Board of Trade.
The governor named as a top priority introducing express bus service along the Dulles Access Road, followed by the extension of Metrorail from West Falls Church through Tysons Corner and on to the airport. That $2 billion project alone would require about $850 million in state funds -- consuming nearly the entire amount of new state funds that could become available to Northern Virginia.
Yet the governor also urged the extension of Metrorail to Centreville and the expansion of service on Virginia Railway Express, including express trains between Fredericksburg and Washington and a new line to Bealeton in Fauquier County. For motorists, the fastest relief could come from the completion of 10 road projects -- most notably interchanges on I-66 at Gainesville and on Routes 28 and 29.
With transportation emerging as the hottest issue of the November legislative elections, the governor's announcement provided relief to Republican candidates who have been pounded for weeks by their Democratic opponents.
Gilmore's much-anticipated radio address struck new ground by urging the state for the first time to use general tax revenue to finance roads and transit. The plan, however, makes virtually no mention of borrowing, keeping intact the commonwealth's tradition of paying cash for projects at a time when other states are increasingly borrowing to raise the huge sums needed for transportation.
In Northern Virginia, business leaders praised Gilmore for finally joining the battle to improve transportation, even as they pointed out that additional funds, such as a regional sales tax, would be required if the area is to raise the $11 billion in new money that the bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council says is needed by 2020.
Mike Carlin, chairman of Region, a new Northern Virginia organization representing 15,000 businesses, said his group will continue to advocate a 1 percentage point increase in the sales tax to provide an ongoing source of funds for roads and transit.
Marking what he called a "dramatic departure from the traditional way of funding transportation in Virginia," Gilmore proposed spending general state revenue on transportation rather than relying primarily on gasoline taxes. Under his plan, the state would move $200 million into a new transportation account over the next two years and then add $150 million a year in the future.
He also urged the state to use 40 percent of the money Virginia expects to receive from the settlement of the national lawsuit against cigarette manufacturers, netting another $750 million for transportation. Other measures include technical improvements in collecting gasoline taxes, expected to produce $210 million over six years, and earmarking an additional $200 million for road and transit spending to compensate for money taken from the transportation trust fund to balance the state budget earlier this decade.
In total, this would provide about $2 billion in new transportation funding.
Gilmore said he would also work to reduce the time Virginia must wait before receiving $590 million that the federal government has already promised the state. This could provide Northern Virginia with $138 million, which he said would be directed toward completing 10 projects, in particular the I-66 interchange in Gainesville.
The governor's address had an instant impact on the tempo of the state's political season, as grateful Republicans rushed to embrace Gilmore's program.
"It's innovative, it's dramatic and it's positive for Northern Virginia," said Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (Prince William), a House Transportation Committee co-chairman. "It has the potential to do great good."
It could also be a boon for Republican candidates, said Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (Fairfax). "It does give us the boost we were looking for. It was important that we have a transportation program we could rally behind and work with," he said.
Democratic candidates in Northern Virginia, however, dismissed Gilmore's proposals, in the words of Senate hopeful Leslie L. Byrne, as "a pretty limp effort." Byrne, a former member of Congress, said Gilmore's financial assumptions are flimsy, adding that the plan will falter if the tobacco settlement changes. And she said Gilmore's spending proposal pales in comparison to plans advanced by Democrats and even some Republicans.
"I'm glad the governor's in gear," she said, "but it's first gear."
Gilmore's proposal to tap the state's general revenue would move Virginia into the company of a small number of states that look to general funds for financing road and transit construction, transportation experts said.
Of the $77 billion that states spent on highways in 1997, only about 2.5 percent, or $2 billion, was paid in cash from general revenue, said William Fay, president of the American Highway Users Alliance.
Reliably financing long-term highway and transit projects from general funds can prove nettlesome because of the yearly squabbles among legislators with rival priorities, experts said.
Even some Republicans, such as Rollison, warned that in the high-stakes budget deliberations, which pit region against region, personalities against personalities, "some will view the general fund money as a Christmas turkey ready to be carved up."
"There's going to be a lot of stress and aggravation to hold this together," he said.
Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, agreed. "It will put transportation in direct competition with education for general fund dollars," she said. "That's why there were transportation funds established."
Gilmore's package did not include new bonds financed from either general revenue or the state's transportation trust fund, though even fellow Republicans had urged him to adopt the increasingly common practice.
"You have in Virginia a long-standing practice of pay-as-you-go. He was probably reluctant to change that practice," said Bill Dodge, executive director of the National Association of Regional Councils. "Pay-as-you-go is increasingly rare."
Northern Virginians who contacted The Washington Post's Web site to comment on Gilmore's plan were generally positive, but several urged Gilmore to do more.
In a follow-up interview, Russ Rosen, 43, a government contractor who lives in Fairfax, said Gilmore was shortsighted to reject a tax increase. Rosen said he and his neighbors would support a tax increase if it meant solving long-term transportation problems.
"He as the leader needs to go ahead and say that communities should have the right to use local resources to do that," Rosen said. "I think we need to bite the bullet."
Staff writer R.H. Melton contributed to this report.
CAPTION: AMONG GILMORE'S PROPOSALS (This graphic was not available)