- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

RICHMOND — Gov. Mark Warner proposed spending $824 million to jump-start state road-building ventures with private partners, expand rail and urban transit projects, and give localities more money to build their roads.

The initiative — part of the budget he offers the General Assembly next week — also includes more than $256 million to retire debt from highway projects completed years ago and add $147 million to finance projects already in the state’s six-year master transportation plan.

Mr. Warner said yesterday that the package — 80 percent of it a one-time infusion of cash — won’t end a transportation crisis billions of dollars short of its needs. But because some of the money is aimed at transit projects that could ease congestion in the state’s most populous regions and could “jump-start” public-private projects, he said it might produce more benefits quicker than a greater sum of cash devoted solely to new pavement.

“Not only will this be a cash infusion, but it will be trying new ways to deliver transportation,” Mr. Warner said, but added, “I acknowledge that this is not going to solve all of our long-term transportation funding needs.”

The initiative uses money from a projected $1 billion state budget surplus and nearly $230 million in federal transportation money, but requires no increases in taxes or fees.

It differs from holiday season transportation projects governors traditionally dole out in that little of it is for designated, state-paid projects. Rather, it creates a $140 million revolving fund of seed money and requires investors interested in partnering with the state on a transportation project to make their case for interest-free loans of up to $30 million. Tolls or fees retire the debt on such projects.

Mr. Warner proposes $80 million to improve transit systems, particularly in gridlocked Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. His transit plan specifically directs:

• $40 million for new Metro rail cars in the Washington suburbs

• $20 million for additional cars for the Virginia Railway Express commuter trains that tie Prince William County and the Fredericksburg area to Washington

• $10 million for buses in Virginia Beach

• $10 million to use statewide to buy new buses

The sum could underwrite 80 to 100 new transit vehicles, from vans to buses, said Linda McMinimy, executive director of the Virginia Transit Association.

“For transit, it’s getting us back on the radar screen,” she said.

For the D.C.-area Metro system, it will allow 10 light-rail trains to expand from four cars to six cars, Miss McMinimy said. Elsewhere, localities will find it easier to add new buses to their fleets with the state paying a larger share, she said.

Mr. Warner’s package also breaks with convention by dedicating nearly one-third of the cash, $256 million, to pay off deficits the state still owed on transportation projects completed as of July 1 of this year. In 2002, transportation deficits totaled $867 million, Mr. Warner said.

He also plans legislation in the coming session that would outlaw deficit road financing in future six-year transportation projects that the Commonwealth Transportation Board adopts each summer.

Mr. Warner proposes $80 million from the state to help cities and counties plan, construct and maintain their own roads rather than languish on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) waiting list.

However, the package doesn’t propose new ways to manage the almost unchecked suburban sprawl that is worsening traffic gridlock in Northern Virginia, where thousands of residents measure their daily commutes in hours.

Prince William County Board of Supervisors member John D. Jenkins said his county has had success managing development and keeping pace with transportation needs. Prince William grew from 283,837 residents in 2000 to 325,324 last year, making it the state’s fourth fastest-growing locality. But Mr. Jenkins acknowledged that a locality has limited authority controlling sprawl.

“It’s impossible for us to say you can’t develop your land over here because the Commonwealth says if you own land, you have a right to develop it. The only thing we can do is impose the restraint on that development that we’re allowed to impose,” he said.

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