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

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Gilbert’s plan for I-81 tabled in committee: A1

Delegate’s bill would have kept interstate from becoming truck tollway

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

RICHMOND — A Shenandoah Valley delegate’s effort to stop plans to turn Interstate 81 into a massive truck tollway came up short in committee Wednesday.

Members of the House Rules Committee voted 8-7 to table House Joint Resolution 143, offered by Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.

The legislation would have asked the Virginia Department of Transportation to call off its negotiations with STAR Solutions regarding an offer from the consortium to build a multilane expansion of the highway financed through tolls.

“It’s technically still alive, but it’s effectively dead,” said a frustrated Gilbert, leaving the House of Delegates chamber on Wednesday.

“I wanted to have this debate on the floor, and not in the Rules Committee,” he said.

HJ 143 had been picking up support in recent days, with a bipartisan group of legislators from Bristol to Winchester signing on as co-patrons.

Groups ranging from preservationists to truckers also expressed their support for the bill, which had become part of a package of legislation that would have put more troopers on the highway as well.

But Del. Leo Wardrup, R-Virginia Beach, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said during the hearing that the legislation was “fatally flawed.”

VDOT officials argued that it would interfere too much with the public-private partnership laws that allow businesses to submit unsolicited proposals to the government.

The vote points to the fact that not everyone in the House understands the situation, Gilbert said.

“You have a lot of folks on [the] Rules [Committee] that have a lot of competing interests from different parts of the state who don’t necessarily understand the special needs we have in the western half of the state,” he said. “Their views are vastly different from ours, and their needs are vastly different from ours.”

Getting close to the House floor debate isn’t much consolation.

“Close only counts in horseshoes,” he said. But “we have what appears to be a very important ally in this, the Speaker of the House [Del. Bill Howell, R-Fredericksburg].”

Still, Gilbert’s efforts won high praise from the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation.

“Delegates Gilbert and [Steve] Landes, [R-Weyers Cave,] and the Valley’s delegation have exhibited tremendous leadership on this issue which is important to all of us along the I-81 corridor,” Howard Kittell, the foundation’s executive director, says in a statement issued late Wednesday afternoon.

Landes, the chairman of the GOP caucus, was one of several co-patrons of the measure and argued in favor of stopping negotiations during the committee hearing.

The highway cuts through many of the Civil War battlefields in the Shenandoah Valley, and any major expansion of I-81 would have a dramatic impact on the area’s historic resources, he says.

“We are grateful for the hard work of our delegation to find balanced, common sense solutions to the future of I-81,” Kittell says.

Interstate 81 wasn’t the only transportation issue before legislators on Wednesday.

The Senate Finance Committee took testimony on bills related to that chamber’s plan to raise taxes and tap the state’s projected $860 million surplus to spend about $1 billion more a year on transportation.

Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, the committee’s chairman, didn’t call for a vote on the proposals, which include a hike in the state’s sales tax on cars from 3 percent to 5 percent.

Instead, Chichester an-nounced, the committee is going to take in Wednesday’s testimony and possibly make changes to the proposals before the Senate.

Back in the House of Delegates, the wait for a GOP transportation revenue package continues, much to the consternation of Democrats.

Democratic leaders in the House recently wrote to Speaker Howell, asking him to set up a bipartisan transportation panel to look at the situation.

Republicans have promised to complete their plan by announcing new transportation revenue before Wednesday’s crossover day, when legislation approved by the House or Senate is taken up by the other chamber.