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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Thursday, February 09, 2006

GOP will unveil transportation plan today; A1

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

RICHMOND — Republican House of Delegates members want to start building new roads now and have put the Virginia Department of Transportation on notice.

Republican leaders in the House will announce a plan today to raise around $1 billion for transportation annually without raising taxes while starting construction on a number of major projects.

GOP officials declined to release details of their plan before today’s scheduled press conference, but said earlier this week that the plan would not include tax increases.

Instead, House leaders want to take an amount similar to the $625 million in “one time” transportation funding included in former Gov. Mark R. Warner’s final budget and make it a recurring funding source for transportation, according to Republicans in the House of Delegates.

Existing revenue streams, rather than new taxes, would be dedicated to transportation.

Those funds would be combined with an “abuser fees” bill sponsored by Del. Dave Albo, R-Fairfax, and Del. Tom Rust, R-Herndon, which would generate $128 million per year by charging annual fees for people convicted of felonies and misdemeanors behind the wheel, up to $1,000.

Drivers with four demerit points on their license would also be charged $100 each year, plus $75 for every point over four.

The plan may also contain a provision to dedicate taxes on auto insurance premiums to transportation, Republicans said. It would spend roughly the same amount of money as a Senate plan and another put forward by Gov. Tim Kaine.

Kaine’s plan, which would have raised taxes on auto insurance and the sales tax on cars and trucks, was defeated in the House Finance Committee on Monday.

A number of senators, including Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., R-Winchester, have warned that paying for transportation improvements from the state’s surplus, projected to be $860 million by the end of the year, would force cuts in education and other key services.

Taking money from the general fund would force roads to fight with other “800-pound gorillas” such as education and public safety when times get tight, Potts said.

But that’s a false choice, according to Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal.

State revenues seldom go down, he said. Since 1996, revenues have climbed steadily from $12.7 billion to $23.6 billion in 2005. The slowest rate of growth was 1.3 percent, from 2002 to 2003, according to figures from the Virginia Department of Accounts.

“As long as I’ve been here, the revenues have never gone down,” Athey said.

House leaders also have their own version of a “lockbox” for transportation funds: road bonds.

The plan to be released today will call for the state to go to the bond market for large capital projects.

A specific list of what would be paid for out of the box won’t be released until today’s press conference, but Republican sources have said expansion of Interstate 81, a new crossing or expansion of the Hampton Roads bridge-tunnel complex and widening of Interstate 66 are likely candidates, as is an expansion of rail lines from Manassas to the Virginia Inland Port in Front Royal.

Putting the money into bonds out of the gate gets projects moving and keeps the money from being diverted to other projects, the general fund or anywhere else.

Once bonds are floated, “you’ve got to pay the bills,” Athey said, declining to comment further on the specific plan.

The plan would also allow VDOT to begin building new projects quickly, rather than waiting for funding to reach the 80 percent mark — the typical starting point.

Kaine has said he supports a new source of dedicated revenue for transportation, but is willing to compromise to get traffic moving again.

In an interview Tuesday, Kaine said bonding out the cost of major projects is something he’d be willing to sign.
“I think the state has some room on the debt side, if we find a reliable revenue source to pay off the debt service,” he said.

But, he wants to see a solid source to pay for it.

“You can’t just borrow without a revenue source that’s earmarked for the project,” he said.
Insurance premiums, said to be a major part of the forthcoming House plan, are one place the money could come from, the governor said.

“I think that could be a good idea,” Kaine said. “That’s a part of [the administration’s] plan, so I’ll look forward to seeing [what the House has to offer].”

The bill is part of a large “carrot and stick” VDOT reform strategy, according to Republican delegates.

“This puts VDOT on ‘probation,’” said one delegate familiar with the plan.

If the agency gets the major projects done on time and on budget, there’s no need to undertake other major changes. But should it fail, some Republicans said it would be time to take a serious look at repealing the Byrd Road Law.

Proposed by Democratic Gov. Harry F. Byrd during the Great Depression, the law gives VDOT responsibility for all county roads in the state except for those in Henrico and Arlington counties.

Bills that shift some transportation planning back to local governments have already been introduced as part of the House package and well on their way to approval.