- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2003

FAIRFAX — A little more than a year after Northern Virginia voters rejected a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements, there is talk of increasing another tax for the same cause.

In its 2004 legislative agenda, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission calls for raising the gas tax by 10 cents, with all the money raised going to the Transportation Trust Fund. Of the $70 million NVTC expects it would raise each year, the commission wants 60 percent.

“We need money for our transportation needs, and it’s got to come from somewhere,” NVTC Chairwoman Elaine McConnell told the Associated Press in an interview. Calling transportation “our chief problem,” Mrs. McConnell — who is also a Fairfax County supervisor — said the region has “not had sufficient money to do a lot” toward solving it. Along with congestion, there are also air quality concerns.

Mrs. McConnell was a big supporter of 2002’s failed ballot referendum that would have increased the region’s sales tax from 4.5 percent to 5 percent. About $5 billion would have been raised, with 41 percent of the new money earmarked for mass transit. Rejection, Mrs. McConnell said, has left the region with major traffic problems and little cash to alleviate them.

She said the region continues to be shortchanged by the state, which needs to realize “we’re still the bread basket of Virginia and they need to help us.”

Increasing the gas tax requires approval from Richmond, and Mrs. McConnell said it remains to be seen if someone will “stick their neck out” to sponsor it. “How do we build roads … without money?”

Del. Harry J. Parrish of Manassas, who chairs the House Finance Committee, has submitted legislation that would raise the gas tax by 6.5 percent per gallon. Several other influential GOP members have indicated a willingness to consider an increase.

Also on the commission’s legislative agenda is convincing the state to mandate that Virginia Railway Express passenger trains are not pushed aside by freight operators on tracks owned by railroads to which the state contributes money.

Most of VRE’s tracks are owned by freight operators CSX and Norfolk Southern, which sometimes creates problems for VRE. On Dec. 18, a CSX derailment preventing some VRE trains from running and delayed them the next day when backed-up freight trains were given preference on the tracks.

McConnell said the commission is considering extending VRE to Richmond, but that the decision depends largely on the freight lines. “When we started it, I thought it would go to Richmond,” she said. “We’re building farther and farther out now, and … commuters they just crowd those highways, and poor old [Interstate] 95 has a real problem.”

Extending Metrorail to Tysons Corner and Washington Dulles International Airport is also a project NVTC supports as part of its 2004 legislative agenda.

The state set up the NVTC nearly 40 years ago to plan Northern Virginia’s transportation system.

Its directors come from Fairfax, Loudoun and Arlington counties, plus the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church.

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