- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell yesterday announced a $938.5 million transportation initiative, one of several that state lawmakers will consider during the upcoming legislative session to try to fix the state’s traffic and road problems.

Most lawmakers agree that the proposals are not a cure-all to traffic congestion, and Mr. Howell yesterday said there were “no quick fixes.”

“State government operating as it did in the first century of motorized travel is not the way to meet the pressing transportation challenges of the 21st century,” the Stafford County Republican said.

The legislative session begins next Wednesday.

The $938.5 million plan proposed by House Republicans yesterdaydesignates money for public-private partnerships, funds rail and transit initiatives and pays debt still owed on completed road projects.

The plan funds the measures using part of a budget surplus from the state tax on insurance premiums and from a proposed “abuser fee” that would fine aggressive drivers.

It also includes a constitutional amendment that protects the Transportation Trust Fund from being raided to balance the state’s general fund budget. The money in the Transportation Trust Fund is designated for building roads and bridges.

Legislators used the fund for more than a decade to balance the state’s budget, and they did not use the depleted fund to address congestion problems in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Under Mr. Howell’s plan, lawmakers would use $90 million from the budget surplus to make a one-time repayment to the Transportation Trust Fund this year. The plan also calls for depositing $127 million this year and $137.9 million next year to the fund with revenue generated by insurance premium tax revenues.

Mr. Howell’s plan includes $100 million raised by Delegate David B. Albo’s proposed “abuser fee” that, if passed, would impose higher fines on drivers who speed or drive drunk, recklessly or with a suspended license.

Mr. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, said $100 million was a conservative estimate based on a similar abusers’ fine that has been in force for four years in New Jersey.

Mr. Howell’s plan provides $75 million that localities can leverage to alleviate highway congestion, $33 million for a rail enhancement fund, $40 million for mass-transit capital projects and $60 million for public-private transportation partnerships.

Mr. Howell said public-private partnerships to build roads and transportation systems can help relieve congestion. “Taxpayers should not be asked to bear any burden that can be borne by, or at least shared with, the private sector,” he said.

Last month, Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, presented an $824 million transportation plan that also addressespublic-private partnerships, rail and transit initiatives and the Transportation Trust Fund.

Mr. Warner said yesterday he appreciates that Mr. Howell’s proposal is similar to his own and applauded its use of “innovative new approaches.”

“We will be closely evaluating the actual revenue impact of the so-called ‘abuser fee,’” Mr. Warner said. “We will also look very carefully at the long-term budget implications of these ongoing commitments.”

Last year, Mr. Warner proposed allocating existing resources to fund transportation problems and explore public-private partnerships for building roads. His budget devoted $400 million to transportation, but lawmakers rejected that plan.

Mr. Howell said his plan would provide $1.8 billion over six years, compared with Mr. Warner’s plan that would generate $584 million over the same period.

A Senate transportation package expected later this month is likely to avoid the use of general fund money.

Transportation has long been a problem in Virginia, and lawmakers have not raised taxes to pay for such projects since 1986.

In 2002, voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have raised the sales tax by a half-cent on the dollar to fund transportation projects in those regions.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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