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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, July 18, 2005

Candidates differ on transportation issues; B1

Gubernatorial hopefuls have varying visions for future of state’s roads

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

The three men who want to be the next governor of Virginia all agree: Something has to give to get traffic moving again.

But they also have very different ideas about how to make gridlock a thing of the past — ideas that will define the nature of roads in Virginia for years to come.

There are some similarities. Republican Jerry Kilgore, Democrat Tim Kaine and independent H. Russell Potts Jr. agree that transportation issues will be the key issue for the new governor and General Assembly when they return to Richmond in January.

All have pledged to put the state’s transportation funds off limits to raids by the General Assembly, with Kaine and Kilgore both proposing a constitutional amendment to that effect.

Beyond that, the three candidates would be hard-pressed to be more different in their approaches. To understand how the
planned changes differ, it helps to understand the status quo.

At present, the Virginia Department of Transportation is responsible for the construction and maintenance of all public roads in the state, under the auspices of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

But it hasn’t always been so. Before 1932, the state was responsible only for state highways. Cities maintained their own streets and counties maintained their own roads. But the Secondary Roads Act changed all that.

The brainchild of Democratic Gov. Harry F. Byrd, Sr., the act was designed to give local governments, particularly rural counties, some financial breathing room to deal with the Great Depression. Today, only two counties in Virginia, Henrico and Arlington, maintain their own roads.

Kilgore, a former attorney general, has proposed a change in that rubric: the creation of regional transportation authorities.

Instead of tying big project decisions, taxes and bonds to the state level through the General Assembly and the Commonwealth Transportation Board, regions would be able work together across county lines and take matters into their own hands.

“The state has a responsibility to provide for major highways and rural roads, and we need to invest more in transportation at the state level,” said Kilgore, introducing his transportation plan in April. “But all the answers are not found in Richmond, and all the decisions should not be made there either. I trust the people driving on the roads, not the bureaucrat staring at a map in Richmond.”

Kaine, the lieutenant governor, dismisses the idea of regional authorities, saying Virginia has only one transportation network and needs a single authority to coordinate the show.

“We don’t need to take our limited dollars and create a new level of government,” Kaine said.

Localities need planning authority and need to sit down at the table together, but taking back the secondary road system would take things too far, according to Delacey Skinner, Kaine’s press secretary. That would take the form of Rural Planning Organizations, modeled on the federal Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which coordinate urban areas’ transit needs.

That doesn’t mean financial decisions and other power will be sent places other than Richmond, Skinner said. Localities will still be dealing with the Virginia Department of Transportation, albeit a reformed one.

Kaine and Kilgore don’t go far enough, according to Potts, the Republican state senator from Winchester.
Potts said he would consider anything to get Virginia’s traffic moving again — including letting counties try their hands at running road systems again.

“We ought to give them the flexibility” to deal with local transportation problems, he said. That might include sending chunks of VDOT’s funding and staff back to the counties.

Byrd’s vision for the road system was based on the fact that counties had a hard time finding engineers and other necessary professionals — and the money to pay them — during the Depression.

Today, there’s hardly a locality of any kind in Virginia that doesn’t have an engineer on staff or at the very least available in the community, he said.

If elected, Potts promises a special session of the General Assembly to draft transportation funding legislation and to get work crews on the roads as early as next July.

Election Day is Nov. 8.