- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

ROANOKE — Money that Virginia uses for schools, health care and public safety must not be diverted to pay for bonds to finance transportation projects that mainly benefit urban areas, officials from rural localities told Gov. Timothy M. Kaine yesterday.

But Virginia must approve legislation to address the more than $100 billion backlog in state transportation projects, they said.

Mr. Kaine met privately for more than an hour with 25 elected officials from western and southern Virginia. Afterward, he vowed to remove a provision in a bill passed by the General Assembly that funds $2.5 billion in transportation bonds with nearly $200 million annually from the state’s general fund.

State officials should not “get in the habit of taking big chunks of money out of the general fund,” Mr. Kaine said, because it would “hurt the ability of local officials to deliver programs to their citizens.”

Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, would not say what revenue source he will suggest to replace that money, but noted that some officials at yesterday’s meeting favored an increase in the gasoline tax that Republican authors of the bill have said they would not consider.

Charles W. Ahrend, a member of the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors, said he supports a gasoline tax increase even though he’s a Republican. He wondered what changes Mr. Kaine could make to the bill that will be “acceptable to everybody.”

“I hope we don’t end up without a bill,” Mr. Ahrend said. “I’m worried about the rural roads in our county. We have a lot of needs. We have growth coming.”

Mr. Kaine’s meeting was the second of three scheduled with local officials before he proposes amendments to the legislation. He said he heard “strong consensus” from western Virginia officials yesterday and those in Northern Virginia on Wednesday for changes in the bill. He travels to Hampton Roads today.

The governor appeared confident that the General Assembly, which struggled to pass the transportation bill at its recent session, will go along with amendments.

“I’m getting people who participated in the drafting of the bill calling me to say, ‘Governor, here are five or six changes that we really need to make,’ ” Mr. Kaine said.

The rural officials called for more money for projects in which the state shares costs with localities and said the bill contains little, if anything, to maintain their secondary roads or transit systems.

“We have what we used to call gravel roads, but because of low maintenance we call them dirt roads,” said Wythe B. Sharitz, chairman of the Wythe County Board of Supervisors.

Joe N. Chambers Jr., chairman of the Buckingham County Board of Supervisors, said he was upset that the bill would take from the general fund but not help his county. “It’s going to do nothing for Buckingham County,” he said.

Lynchburg Vice Mayor Bert Dodson Jr. said his city needs to upgrade its old transit system. “We need buses,” he said.

In traffic-clogged Northern Virginia on Wednesday, Mr. Kaine said officials told him the component of the package that would shift responsibility for planning and building secondary roads to their localities was a “nonstarter.”

Regional components of the package for that area and Hampton Roads include taxes and fees that cities and counties would levy. They would generate an estimated $400 million for the fast-growing D.C. suburbs and about half that amount for southeastern Virginia.

Local officials interviewed yesterday said they supported Mr. Kaine’s ideas on transportation. That support could be a factor this fall when Democrats hope to increase their numbers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

All 140 seats in the Senate and House of Delegates are up for election in November.

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