- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Northern Virginia business leaders yesterday urged local General Assembly members to support a regional sales-tax referendum that would help pay for roads and transit improvements throughout the region.
Representatives from 20 local business organizations said an increase in the sales tax would provide a "stable, predictable" source of revenue to help build and widen roads to relieve traffic congestion.
"We need dedicated revenue funds," said William Lecos, senior vice president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "Let voters choose whether to tax themselves and dedicate that money to transportation."
At a news conference in Falls Church yesterday, the leaders did not specify how much of an increase they would like to see the General Assembly pass, but did say the tax increase would not apply to food. The current sales tax in Virginia is 4.5 percent.
They also said the referendum must include a list of specific transportation projects that would be paid by the tax increase should voters adopt the referendum.
What they don't want to see, they said, is a repeat of last year's legislative session, which ended with a budget impasse. As a result, the leaders asked members of both parties to set aside their differences and work together to come up with solutions for the area's traffic problems.
"The bottom line is it's unacceptable to live by political gridlock," said David Guernsey, chairman of the REGION coalition.
The leaders are following in the steps of Gov.-elect Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, who maintained throughout his campaign that he would support allowing Northern Virginia residents to vote on a sales-tax increase.
Meanwhile, a recent poll shows a plurality of Northern Virginia voters 51 percent would vote against such an increase, even though 55 percent of them supported letting the issue go to referendum.
To show their support for the referendum, the business leaders yesterday signed the 2001 Northern Virginia Transportation Compact, a list of proposals business organizations believe would best fund the region's transportation projects. The compact will be given to the General Assembly.
The business leaders said they briefed the Northern Virginia delegation on the proposals Monday night.
State Delegate Jeannemarie A. Devolites, Fairfax Republican, said last night she would support a sales-tax referendum. Ms. Devolites said the referendum is the best option lawmakers have to fix transportation problems in the region.
"If we don't correct it, people will look at other areas to work and live, and as a result, the businesses will follow them," Ms. Devolites said. "Then we'll see a huge downturn in the economy, which will be worse than what we've seen already. We've got to respond to their plea for help."
The business leaders said they would prefer a transportation-only referendum. But they added they would support one that also helps fund education, in addition to transportation, if that will be politically easier.
"We are committed to a passing of legislation that has the greatest chance of going through with the voters," Mr. Lecos said. "We want to find the best vehicle. We are as strongly supportive of a transportation agenda as we are of an education agenda."
Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce Chairman Michael Carlin agreed. "If there is a way a consensus can be achieved, this group will support that," Mr. Carlin said. "We will do the best we can to achieve what we can achieve."
The leaders also proposed creating a Northern Virginia Regional Transportation Authority, which would be made up of not more than 11 persons who would make quick decisions on transportation projects.
All business leaders agreed there are already several interregional government bodies, including the transportation board within the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. But, they argue, the groups take too long to make decisions.
The sales-tax increase would be one piece of the puzzle, however. "The dollars gained by a referendum will not solve our problem altogether," said Huey Battle, chairman of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce.
Business leaders also proposed other methods to finance transportation projects, including using bonds, setting up tolls, or creating special tax districts to fund much-needed projects.
The business leaders also suggested that the General Assembly look at redirecting existing state revenues to transportation infrastructure. Some of the methods include dedicating surplus general fund revenues to infrastructure development and redirecting more funds from the motor vehicle license fee.


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