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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Delegates focus on reform of Va. transportation; A1

Changes seen as first priority; funds will come second

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

Reform, not revenue, is the driver behind the emerging House of Delegates transportation plan.

Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine and leaders in the Virginia Senate both announced plans to fix the state’s ailing transit system last week that contained some land-use and Department of Transportation changes, along with about $1 billion per year in new transportation funding.

But the House GOP caucus is taking a “reform first” approach, leaders said Tuesday.

“We think it’s important first to lay the groundwork for some reasonable reforms in land-use, which is tied to transportation, then also some proposals to some significant changes … in the way [the Virginia Department of Transportation] does business,” said Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, the chairman of the caucus’ policy committee.

With all the talk about new taxes and revenue streams, reforms might wind up being an afterthought, Athey said.

“We had better make that part of the debate at this point, or we may wind up with another huge tax increase and two or three years from now none of the transportation improvements that have been promised as a result of it will end up happening,” he said.

No fewer than 10 reform bills are already working their way through committees, according to Paul Nardo, chief of staff for House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford.

Bills that would expand the use of “design-build” contracts at the state and local level have already been passed by the House and moved on to the Senate.

Others that would privatize interstate maintenance and the operation of the state “Intelligent Transportation System” and widen the field of financing options for public-private partnerships are in committee now.

Athey has offered House Bill 1506, which would allow any local government that has seen more than 5 percent population growth from 1990 to 2000 to accept proffers from developers.

Current law allows proffers in those localities who have seen 10 percent or more growth from one census to the next.

Two other bills, HB 1528 and HB 1529, require local governments to add transportation improvements such as roads and their costs to their capital improvement plans.

Once the reforms are on the books, the House is open to more transportation revenue, Athey said.

Moving money from auto insurance taxes to transportation is one place House leaders are looking for money. That would shift more than $111 million to transportation in fiscal 2007 alone.

Touching the general fund is bad mojo, argued state Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester.

Potts took to the floor of the Senate on Tuesday afternoon to lay out what he thought was wrong with transportation plans both seen and unseen.

Both the Kaine administration and Senate leaders have put forward plans that would raise about $1 billion per year in new revenue dedicated to the state’s transit system.

“Some are suggesting that we can find these funds in the general fund,” Potts said. “There is no way in the name of God that we can fix transportation out of the general fund unless we make massive cuts to education, health care and public safety.”

Calls to spend the state’s surplus — some $545 million at the end of the last fiscal year and projected to be $860 million by June 30 — are misguided, according to the senator. The $545 million is already spoken for, and future windfalls aren’t guaranteed.

“Yes, we did end fiscal 2005 with a good year,” Potts said. “We also need to look at the sources that generated these funds.”

At the bottom line, the surplus came largely from federal homeland security spending in Northern Virginia, he said.

“Is this the star to which we want to hitch our transportation wagon?” he asked. Today’s surplus is tomorrow’s deficit.

“As sure as I’m standing here, we’ll see a new recession in a few years,” Potts said.

But the alternatives proposed by the Senate are just as unpalatable to the House, Athey said.

One of the major funding sources in the Senate plan is extending the sales tax to gasoline at the wholesale level — likely a 10-cent per gallon levy.

“We all know where that’s going to end up,” Athey said, “with people who are already paying tremendously high prices on gasoline.

A $1 billion tax hike when the state is flush with cash is a hard sell, the delegate said.

“I don’t know if the majority of the Senate has the stomach to do that again, two out of the last three years,” he said. “We running close to a $2 billion surplus. I think taking off the table using funds from that surplus that we could dedicate to transportation is a mistake in the final analysis.”