- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

Virginia Republican leaders yesterday reached a tentative transportation deal that relies on long-term borrowing, higher fines for dangerous drivers, several fee increases, surplus money and possible regional taxing authorities.

The agreement, which also includes land use and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) reforms, breaks a long, bitter dispute between Republicans in the House and the Senate over how to fix the state’s aging road and mass-transit system.

“This plan represents the best opportunity we’ve seen over the last year to enact a comprehensive package to control sprawl, reform VDOT and jump-start critical projects,” said House Speaker William J. Howell, Stafford County Republican.

The proposal includes an increase of the diesel fuel tax from 16 cents a gallon to 17.5 cents a gallon, higher penalties and registration fees for overweight trucks and an increase in vehicle registration fees.

It authorizes bonds totaling $1.3 million from 2008 to 2012 and $700 million in bonds after that. It also dedicates $227 million of the state surplus and increases by $250 million the amount of money taken from the general fund, the state’s general checkbook.

The plan avoids a 2 percent increase of the sales tax on vehicles that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, has proposed in his transportation plan.

If the Republican plan survives in its current form, Northern Virginia localities would be given the authority to raise an estimated $383 million through local rental car tax increases, local commercial real estate tax increases, a new real estate transfer tax and a $100 driver’s license fee for new drivers, with an exemption for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Sen. Jeannemarie A. Devolites Davis, Fairfax County Republican, said the money raised would be earmarked for the Metro system, Virginia Railway Express, the Dulles Corridor, secondary roads and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

“The money raised in Northern Virginia stays in Northern Virginia,” Mrs. Davis said. “If you look at the entire plan collectively, we are asking [current residents] to raise $10 extra a year. That is it.”

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, said the plan gives localities the ability “to solve those important quality-of-life issues for ourselves.”

Mr. Kaine, who has made transportation his top priority, said he has “concerns about some elements of this proposal,” but applauded lawmakers for recognizing that the “transportation challenges are significant and statewide.”

“It acknowledges critical, backlogged transportation needs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads,” Mr. Kaine said. “It acknowledges that our transportation funding challenges will require substantial additional revenue if we are to make the investments needed to promote Virginia’s vibrant economy and improve the quality of life for millions of our citizens.”

Under the plan, 16 localities in Hampton Roads could generate $209 million for six projects, including a third underwater tunnel linking the Virginia Peninsula with South Hampton Roads.

Republicans agreed on the package with a little more than a day left before the filing deadline for new legislation. The proposal will go through the normal committee process before it can advance to the entire legislature for consideration.

Lawmakers say the defeat of U.S. Sen. George Allen, Virginia Republican, in the midterm elections last fall and the lingering feeling that the lack of a comprehensive proposal could spell doom for Republicans seeking re-election in the most congested parts of the state this fall helped fuel a greater sense of urgency among party leaders.

Last year, nine months of bargaining and bickering failed to produce a compromise.

High-ranking Republicans were aware that if they allowed the internal dispute over transportation to linger, then Democrats would use it during the election campaigns to portray Republicans as incapable of leading.

As a result, from the onset of the 45-day session, a few House and Senate Republicans — urged on by Attorney General Bob McDonnell and Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Ed Gillespie — met daily behind closed doors to carve out a consensus.

After nine days, the two sides reached a deal.

“I think a lot of people are going to swallow some big toads if this thing is going to pass because there are some fee increases and tax increases in there,” said Delegate Vincent F. Callahan Jr., Fairfax County Republican.

But, “last year wasn’t an election year. That is why the heat is on. That is why people want to come out of the session with something. … I think it’s essential we come out of the session with something positive,” Mr. Callahan said.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide