- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 10, 2001

Business groups in Virginia and Maryland will urge lawmakers to boost transportation funding when the states begin their annual legislative sessions today.

The groups also are pushing for lower taxes and less-expensive health insurance.

Transportation is the top priority in both states, though, according to business leaders and politicians. Recent surveys show that the Washington area has the second-worst traffic congestion in the nation behind Los Angeles.

"Transportation has replaced education as the number one issue among constituents on both sides of the [Potomac] River. It's the biggest concern in the Washington area," said Maryland Delegate Peter Franchot, Takoma Park Democrat.

In Northern Virginia, 18 chambers of commerce and other business groups have joined forces to push a proposal for a regional transportation authority.

The panel would strip the state Department of Transportation of the authority to decide which road and transit projects are built in Northern Virginia.

Tony Howard, spokesman for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, one of the groups pushing the proposal, said the panel would not levy taxes, but it would be able to issue bonds to pay for transportation projects.

The authority, to be composed primarily of elected officials, also would be able to sell the naming rights for major roads to corporations in the same manner stadium names are sold.

"If the state is unable to fix Northern Virginia's traffic problems, then we want them to grant us the ability to help ourselves," Mr. Howard said.

Northern Virginia business leaders have pushed proposals for a regional transportation authority before, but this is the first time they have not asked lawmakers to give the panel taxing authority.

State Sen. Martin E. Williams, Newport News Republican and chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said regional authorities are a good idea, but they must be crafted carefully.

"You don't want to give them unlimited power. You don't want to create something citizens will be fearful of," he said.

In Maryland, the state Chamber of Commerce is urging lawmakers to fill a funding gap of $27 billion over 20 years in the state's Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for road and transit projects.

A bill last year by Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Cumberland Democrat, would have earmarked 1 cent of the state's 5-cent sales tax for the trust fund. The bill passed in the House but died in the Senate. It is unlikely to be revived in 2001, business leaders said.

Mitch McCalmon, a lobbyist for the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said his group wants the state to use a portion of its $375 million budget surplus to help fill the gap. Republican leaders have said the state is spending its surplus too fast.

Meanwhile, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has proposed spending $750 million on new transit projects, including $267 million for expanded bus services in Rockville, Greenbelt and Southern Maryland.

Mr. McCalmon said the chamber supports the initiative but wants the state to pay for new highways.

The chamber has outlined broad goals for new roads but will not focus on a contested proposal for an intercounty connector linking interstates 95 and 270 or a new Potomac River bridge between Montgomery and Fairfax counties, Mr. McCalmon said.

Gigi Kellett, an official with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group, an organization that battles suburban sprawl, said environmental groups are unlikely to support new roads.

"We think a skeptical eye should be placed on any proposal for new highways or highway expansions," Ms. Kellett said. She cited a new study by her group that suggests highways lead to sprawl.

Business organizations also are pushing for lower taxes and less-expensive health insurance.

Maryland business groups are lobbying lawmakers to reduce the state's income tax by 15 percent. Legislators approved a 10 percent cut over five years in 1997. Mr. Glendening has said further cuts could jeopardize the surplus.

The Fairfax Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, wants the state to test projects designed to make it easier for Virginia's small businesses to buy managed care plans.

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