The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, December 19, 2005

Transportation panel has fourth meeting; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Virginia has serious transportation problems, but finding a politically feasible way to fix them — or even talk about fixing them — is more complicated than it looks.

Members of the Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force met for the fourth time on Friday at Virginia Commonwealth University to try to hash out a final recommendation for legislators.

The panel, convened by Senate President Pro Tem John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, sifted through more than $1.4 billion in possible new or increased taxes and policy reforms and spending priorities to guide staffers in drafting legislation for the upcoming session.

But the money discussion hit a major roadblock Friday when panel members confronted a fundamental political reality — what to do about the House of Delegates.

Virginia’s upper and lower houses are both led by Republicans, but the two part company on matters of taxes — most notably during the 2004 session.

Senators signed off on a $1.5 billion tax hike, but it took a mini-revolt by moderate Republicans in the House to get the measure through.

Raising $1 billion per year in new taxes may not provide enough money to pay for the state’s transportation needs, said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington.

But the House won’t have anything to do with a $3 billion tax hike, said Sen. Martin Williams, R-Newport News. Fuel tax increases, sales taxes on gasoline and regional sales levies won’t fly, he said.

The sales tax has generated concern from gas station operators in particular, said Ben Davenport, the chairman of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce, one of the non-elected members on the panel.

Profit margins on gasoline sit at about 12 cents per gallon, and adding a sales tax raises the total price. That makes it more expensive for operators to accept credit cards.

Credit card companies generally charge merchants a percentage of each purchase for providing their services.

“Everything on the table” had best include some political pragmatism, Williams said.

“We’d better think of something we can reasonably raise and get though the General Assembly,” he said.

It’s about needs, not about politics, said Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania. The proposal should be a real plan to fix Virginia’s transportation problems.

“I can’t make my decisions based on what the House of Delegates” will go along with, he said.

If that’s how the committee will operate, “then we might as well pack up and go home.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, called for unity from the outset.

“I want this to be citizen-driven,” he said. “This is our child. We ought to adopt it.”

The problem they’re trying to address is a thorny one. Drivers in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads spend more time sitting still than they do moving during rush hour.

And that’s not the only problem.

Starting in fiscal 2002, there wasn’t enough money dedicated to maintain the state’s massive road network, which started to siphon off funds for new construction.

Former VDOT Commissioner Phil Shucet has warned that the state will have no construction money left by 2025 unless something is done.

The General Assembly convenes on Jan. 11.