- The Washington Times - Friday, July 6, 2007

The landmark transportation package that Virginia lawmakers passed in the 2007 General Assembly now appears to be more of a liability than a re-election asset for some, as voters and localities are threatening to deal with the legislation in court.

“Not a lot of people are running around town bragging about transportation anymore,” said Delegate Jeffrey Frederick, a Prince William County Republican who opposed the agreement that for years split Republican and Democratic lawmakers. “People just have eggs all over their faces.”

Such responses are a dramatic change from those earlier in the year in which lawmakers celebrated the multi-billion dollar road-and-rail plan that relied on long-term borrowing, regional taxing authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, the state surplus, new fees on habitually bad drivers and a $10 increase on vehicle registration fees. Fully enacted the package could generate more than $1 billion a year.

With all 140 seats in the General Assembly up for re-election Nov. 6, challengers are not missing the opportunity to tell voters the new fines and regional taxing bodies will cost them, despite lawmakers boasting about avoiding massive tax increases.

“The transportation package that came out of Richmond this year with the abuser fees, I think people are turned off by that,” said former state Delegate John Chapman “Chap” Petersen, a Democrat who is challenging incumbent Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis, Fairfax County Republican.

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said increased public scrutiny is good.

“For whatever reason it has not gotten the sort of public attention it deserves,” said Mr. Stewart, a Republican. “This is a big deal. This is a significant tax increase.”

On Tuesday, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors voted to challenge the constitutionality of giving the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a 14-member body that is appointed, the power to levy taxes and fees to raise as much as $300 million a year for roads.

“We don’t believe it is constitutional to allow an unelected body to raise taxes on Northern Virginia citizens,” said County Supervisor Mick Staton, a Republican.

Supervisor Lori Waters, a Republican, said the board thinks members of the authority should be elected so voters can hold them accountable.

“I don’t feel like I have fair representative as an elected official, even though I voted against the tax increases,” Mrs. Waters said.

Though a legal struggle could delay or even kill a series of construction projects, Mr. Stewart thinks the biggest concern is where the money will be spent after 2007.

“The problem is once you impose the taxes they are imposed forever, and there is no specific list of projects that are going to be funded starting in 2008,” he said.

State Delegate Robert M. Marshall has for months questioned the constitutionality of the transportation package.

“The alienation of responsibility and accountability is woven through the fabric of this legislation,” said Mr. Marshall, a Prince William County Republican.

On two occasions, Mr. Marshal requested opinions from Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell’s office but has yet to received a response.

“The constitution is very clear that the only people who can raise local taxes are a board of supervisors, city councils or members of a regional government that was elected by the citizens of the jurisdiction to which [the tax] applies,” he said.

Now that Loudoun plans to go to court, Mr. McDonnell is unlikely to weigh in because the attorney general does not give opinions when something is headed toward litigation.

McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin said yesterday only that the “acts of the General Assembly are presumed to be constitutional. We believe the transportation plan is constitutional, and we will defend the plan per our statutory obligation.”

Before the issue can make it to the court, the Northern Virginia authority will decide next week what, if any, of the seven taxes they will impose.

Each tax needs the support of six of the nine jurisdictions. If a tax is passed, it will trigger the court battle.

At the same time, state lawmakers continue to be bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from Virginians angry about the stiff driving-related fines — including $1,050 for speeding 20 or more mph over the limit.

“I think the politics of the transportation bill have been turned upside down because of the abuser fee,” Mr. Frederick said. He also questioned whether the fees, which are charged only to Virginia drivers, violates the equal protection of law.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, attributed a lot of the anger to misinformation being peddled in the blogosphere.

“Some Internet journalist has spread a story that Virginia introduced a $3,500 traffic ticket,” he said. “It is a total pile of misinformation. It’s been a huge headache.”

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