- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

RICHMOND The Warner administration outlined yesterday how short the state will fall in paying for critical road projects, and asked for flexibility in using loans secured by future federal highway funds.
The state could be forced to cut primary and urban road projects in its six-year master plan nearly in half, Transportation Secretary Whitt Clement told a Senate Finance subcommittee on transportation. Secondary road programs would be cut by 43 percent, he said.
Underlying the woeful report is the administration's grim message that Virginia motorists, accustomed to almost unlimited road-building budgets, will have to cope with gridlock and crumbling roads or pay more in taxes.
Sen. Charles R. Hawkins, Chatham Republican and chairman of the Finance transportation subcommittee, asked how transportation projects got so out of balance, especially in Virginia Department of Transportation districts such as Richmond, Lynchburg and Salem.
"There were too many projects in some districts," said interim Transportation Commissioner Ray D. Pethtel. "Too many projects and too little to pay for them. We should have slowed down."
Northern Virginia will lose $350 million former Gov. James S. Gilmore III had promised for interchanges and roads, and no new road projects will be begun in the region for at least two years.
VDOT's Richmond district, facing a $126 million reduction because of a massive bypass project, has used its money for new primary road projects for the next 12 years, according to figures the agency compiled.
Mr. Clement asked skeptical lawmakers for permission to use about $1.2 billion in Federal Revenue Anticipation Notes, or FRANs, in ways other than they were specifically allocated in the transportation funding program the General Assembly approved in 2000.
Sen. William C. Wampler Jr., Bristol Republican, said he was reluctant to entrust FRANs money to cover the state's most immediate statewide needs without first seeing a list of highway projects that will be cut.
"You have to give them the benefit of the doubt in allowing revenues to catch up with obligations; however, they're asking us to agree to a policy that undoes every policy we have passed around here, and we want a plan to associate with that policy," Mr. Wampler said.
Mr. Clement and Mr. Pethtel, who was transportation commissioner under Govs. Gerald L. Baliles and L. Douglas Wilder, from 1986 to 1994, have warned that the transportation projects approved under Mr. Gilmore far outstripped the money available.
The state's six-year plan could be reduced by 21 percent, with reductions amounting to $2.2 billion from 2003 through 2008.
Gov. Mark R. Warner has begun traveling the state, pointedly admonishing voters to expect long-awaited projects to be shelved while voicing support to legislative leaders for a statewide referendum to generate new cash for roads and education.
"As you ratchet down your expectations and produce a six-year plan that's much more realistic, then it's up to the General Assembly to decide," Mr. Clement said. "Maybe they'll be influenced by their constituents, who begin to realize that transportation projects carry a price tag."
Legislative will to approve new taxes, however, is murky at best, and any such plan would find a formidable foe in House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr., Amherst Republican. He has already managed to kill a bill that would have raised sales taxes a half-cent to fund school construction.
Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester, Stafford Republican, said he doesn't think the General Assembly is ready to raise taxes.
"I don't think they want to move in that direction until such time as they see that VDOT's house is in order," Mr. Chichester said.

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