- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

RICHMOND — Proponents of a referendum to let Northern Virginia voters decide on a regional tax increase for transportation projects would find a sympathetic ear in the governor's office if Democrat Mark R. Warner wins the Nov. 6 election.

They would have a significantly tougher selling job if the next governor is Republican Mark L. Earley.

The candidates also differ sharply in their views on the Virginia Department of Transportation. Mr. Warner advocates a comprehensive management shake-up to end project delays and cost overruns. Mr. Earley favors more modest changes in an agency that he says has become a political "whipping boy."

Gov. James S. Gilmore III last year vetoed legislation to allow voters in traffic-choked Northern Virginia to impose a local income tax to pay for highway projects. Proposals for a regional sales tax increase for transportation failed in the 2001 General Assembly.

"Should a region of the commonwealth say, 'Hey, we don't feel like we're getting our fair share and we want to try to act on an appropriate referendum,' I think the region ought to have that right to take it to the voters," Mr. Warner said in an interview with Associated Press reporters and editors.

Mr. Earley stopped just short of vowing to veto a regional tax referendum bill.

"I'm not interested in raising taxes," he said. "I'm not interested in saying to a locality, 'Go solve your own problem.' I want to say to Northern Virginia and to other areas of the state that the transportation challenges we have are so important that you need statewide leadership brought to bear, and statewide resources brought to bear."

On the VDOT issue, Mr. Warner frequently cites the highway-building agency as an example of fiscal mismanagement by the Gilmore administration. VDOT is "an organization in desperate need of a management change-up," he told the AP panel.

"I am committed to making that management change-up and I'm committed to not having an agency where you have hundreds of millions of dollars in cost overruns and no one being held accountable," Mr. Warner said.

He often points to the soaring costs of overhauling the Springfield Interchange, the junction of three major freeways. The "mixing bowl" project originally was estimated to cost $350 million. The latest figure is $585 million.

Mr. Earley is much less critical of the transportation department.

"I'll say two things, and both of them are true: I think VDOT has unfairly been a whipping boy for some politicians when it comes to transportation. On the other hand, I think as with any state agency, particularly with large state agencies such as VDOT, you constantly have to be looking at how you can do things more effectively," he said.

Mr. Earley has proposed spending an extra $1.8 billion on roads and mass transit over the next four years. That would be a 14 percent increase in VDOT's annual $3.2 billion budget. The money would come from bonds leveraged from the state's share of federal transportation funds and from the state's tax on insurance premiums.

He includes commuter rail expansion in Northern Virginia, Interstate 81 widening in western Virginia and a third bridge-tunnel crossing in Hampton Roads as projects that could benefit from the new funds.

Both candidates said they would promote telecommuting. Mr. Earley said technology-savvy Northern Virginia is especially conducive to telecommuting, but Mr. Warner said the initiatives should be expanded to other regions.

Mr. Earley and Mr. Warner both have transportation ideas that reflect their backgrounds. Mr. Warner is a technology-oriented businessman who has made a fortune in the cellular telephone business, and Mr. Earley is a lawyer and former state attorney general.

Mr. Warner said that when new roads are built, the state should install conduit pipe for fiber optics. That would spare the expense of digging later, and the state "can rent out these telecom rights of way and recoup part of the cost of roads," Mr. Warner said.

Mr. Earley said he would create a litigation strike force to deal with lawsuits filed to stop transportation projects.

Mr. Warner says Virginia's six-year highway improvement plan and 20-year needs assessment should be replaced with a planning system that looks 50 years ahead.

He also says he would demand more efficient use of outside consultants by VDOT. He cites a 1999 legislative report that the agency's use of private consultants increased by 230 percent between 1994 and 1998.

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