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

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Funds for I-81 just one difference in two Va. budgets; B1

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

They both spend a lot of money.

But only one of the two surviving transportation plans in the General Assembly has specific funds set aside for Interstate 81 improvements.

Budget writers in the House of Delegates and Senate rolled out divergent visions of where spending should go in the commonwealth over the next two years on Sunday, setting the stage for a final confrontation between the two Republican-controlled bodies as they work toward a spending plan that can get a majority in both houses.

It would be difficult for the two plans to be more different.

House leaders want to spend about $2 billion over the next four years in addition to current budgets with no tax increases, while the Senate wants to expand that funding to about $4 billion through a series of tax hikes.

Both plans generate money through “abuser fees” levied on bad drivers, but the House gets the lion’s share of its money from the general fund. The Senate applies a tax to the wholesale cost of gasoline and triples the grantor’s tax, a levy on home sales.

One area of local interest where the two part company is money for improvements to Interstate 81.

Out of $600 million earmarked to come from the general fund next year, delegates have included $75 million for spot improvements that would alleviate bottlenecks and help traffic flow more smoothly along the highway, like the addition of climbing lanes in steep areas.

The budget draft also includes $45 million to upgrade rails from Front Royal to Manassas.

Rail officials and delegates describe the area as a bottleneck impeding traffic between Norfolk Southern’s two primary north-south lines in Virginia — one follows the I-81 corridor through the Shenandoah Valley, while the other sticks close to U.S. 29 through Central Virginia to Lynchburg.

Improving the Front Royal-to-Manassas line would make it easier to ship to and from the Virginia Inland Port, keeping a significant number of big rigs off the highway, according to Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

“We’ve looked at each region of the commonwealth, and have designated projects that will make a difference in ending congestion, increasing safety, and enhancing mobility,” Del. Joe May, R-Leesburg, chairman of the House Appropriations Transportation subcommittee, says in a statement.

The Senate version spends more than $1.1 billion on new highway construction over the biennium, but doesn’t make any specific earmarks for the region’s major highway. Instead, the $663 million in new annual funding will be distributed through existing VDOT funding formulas.

Calls to the office of Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, weren’t immediately returned Monday. Potts is the local member of the Senate Finance Committee, which drafted the bill.

The taxation portion of the Senate plan, Senate Bill 708, passed 34-6 on Friday. Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, whose district includes Shenandoah and Warren counties, was one of six senators who voted against the bill.

There was a lot more in Sunday’s committee action of im-port to the Northern Shenan-doah Valley than roads.
Obenshain and Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, both successfully sought authorization for a new regional jail to serve Shenandoah, Rappahannock, Page and Warren counties in their respective bills.

All four localities have ex-pressed interest in joining forces to study a regional facility, much like the Northwestern Regional Adult Detention Center in Winchester, which serves four local governments.

Legislators stopped new jail construction during the budget difficulties during the early part of the decade.

“The exception will allow the feasibility study to go forward,” Gilbert says in a statement, “so there is a very good chance the study will go forward. Eventually, most of the 15th district plus Warren County could share a regional facility that would end the overcrowding in our county jails.”

Obenshain’s request went a step further, allowing for the state to pick up half the costs of construction, provided the state signs off on the study authorized by Gilbert’s language.

“The prospect for regional cooperation and improved correctional infrastructure in these four counties is an exciting prospect,” Obenshain says in a press release. “I am pleased that these counties can continue to explore the feasibility of this project.”