- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 22, 2006

RICHMOND — A federally backed effort to upgrade the D.C. area’s mass transit system suffered a setback yesterday in a Virginia legislative subcommittee.

A bill that would have given five Northern Virginia localities the authority to boost their local sales-tax rates by one-fourth of a cent failed on a 5-5 tie to emerge from a House finance subcommittee.

The measure would have allowed Arlington and Fairfax counties and the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax and Falls Church to jointly raise about $50 million per year.

The measure’s defeat by the Republican-dominated legislative panel places in limbo a measure that U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, was preparing to introduce in Congress. It would provide $1.5 billion over 10 years to upgrade the 30-year-old subway and bus system in the District, Maryland and Virginia if those jurisdictions can find matching money.

“This is about as shortsighted a thing as I’ve ever seen,” said J. Kenneth Klinge, a former member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which approves the state’s transportation projects. “This kills Congressman Davis’ bill, as far as I’m concerned. It’s dead as a doorknob.”

Not necessarily, said Davis spokesman Robert White. He said Mr. Davis would push for passage of his bill this year, but he could condition the federal funding on all three jurisdictions’ providing permanent, dedicated sources for their shares.

“A dedicated funding stream doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be a new tax,” Mr. White said. “It could be from dedication of an existing source.”

But without such guaranteed funding, the Metro system will collapse within a few years, Mr. Klinge told the 10-member panel in urging it to pass the bill by Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple. “And if you think it’s bad now, everything will stop in Northern Virginia.”

Elected officials from throughout Northern Virginia had lobbied for Mrs. Whipple’s bill, as well as increased state funding to ease Northern Virginia’s critical and worsening highway congestion problems. It had the support of the region’s most influential business lobbies, including the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, the Northern Virginia Technology Council and the Greater Washington Board of Trade.

“It’s very disappointing,” said Mrs. Whipple, Arlington Democrat. “All it would have done is given us the chance to tax ourselves, and we were willing to do that because Metro is very important to us.”

Republican opponents of the measure said the five localities should be able to find $50 million among themselves without increasing taxes.

“Would it afford the opportunity to do a little financial shift and shuffle, where at the end of the day, without raising any taxes in Northern Virginia, we’ll get the match and local government has all the money to do their existing uses?” asked Delegate Robert D. Orrock, Caroline Republican, the subcommittee chairman.

Mrs. Whipple said that would require either diverting cash from other programs or making up the difference by increasing taxes on real estate, the only revenue source that local governments can adjust without legislative approval.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly said he was disappointed but not surprised that the legislation failed.

“This was a modest proposal that would make a big difference for mass transit in Northern Virginia,” Mr. Connolly said.

He said he was heartened, however, that the vote was so close in a panel with a strong anti-tax leaning. He said he was optimistic that the funding issue could be revived and revisited before the General Assembly adjourns next month.

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