- The Washington Times - Friday, April 3, 2009

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell proposed Thursday that his state construct a sweeping network of highway and road tolls that could be leased to private companies, generating new transportation funding to offset declining revenues from gasoline taxes.

The tolls could be modeled after successful projects that have generated billions of new dollars in the Midwest and would allow Virginia to collect user fees from the millions who traverse its roads - from the Interstate 95 corridor that is a key gateway to the Southeast to the Hampton Roads arteries that lead to the state’s beaches and tourist destinations, Mr. Howell told editors and reporters of The Washington Times.

“I love the concept of tolls,” Mr. Howell, a Stafford Republican, said. “I think we’re going to have to see more tolls in Virginia.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Mr. Howell also addressed turmoil within his own party, saying he supported the ouster of state Republican Party Chairman Jeffrey M. Frederick in a State Central Committee vote Saturday but considered it a “distraction” that should not deter Republican efforts to recapture the governor’s mansion and new seats in the legislature.

“I think we’re going to be OK either way because we have the message,” he said.

He also predicted Virginia lawmakers returning to work next week would overturn one or more of Gov. Tim Kaine’s vetoes of gun rights legislation and reject federal money to expand unemployment payments that were part of the Obama administration’s stimulus package. He said lawmakers were concerned because the state would be stuck after the money ran out with continuing the expanded benefits.

“You can’t create a benefit and then say, ‘Sorry, we’re taking it away, the money’s gone,’ ” Mr. Howell said.

Pressed on how to generate new money to solve Virginia’s increasingly clogged roads and also maintain a balanced budget during a recession, Mr. Howell said Virginia should look to Indiana and the city of Chicago, which have leased the operation of toll systems to help fund transportation and other budget areas. Chicago officials in 2005 allowed a consortium to operate and maintain the Chicago Skyway Bridge for $1.83 billion for 99 years and Indiana in 2006 followed suit and arranged a $3.8 billion payment for an agreement allowing a consortium to operate and manage the Indiana Toll Road for 75 years.

Virginia currently has several toll systems set up, including the 14-mile Dulles Toll Road in Fairfax County, but Mr. Howell said more expansive efforts could lead to more state revenue and provide a potential replacement for the gas tax, which he referred to as a “dinosaur” funding source.

“We’re talking about leasing the concession to collect the tolls on those roads,” Mr. Howell said. “It can be a tough political argument to make, but it’s an argument worth making because it’s a sound political concept.

“It’s like the lottery,” he said. “If you win the lottery, would you take $20,000 a year for the rest of your life or would you take an upfront payment? This is just getting a present value for a future income stream. It makes a lot of sense.”

Public-private partnerships are becoming increasingly common as states grapple with a national infrastructure in need of repair: Florida is looking to lease a 78-mile toll road known as “Alligator Alley,” while Virginia itself has formed partnerships on projects like the Dulles Rail expansion and a $2 billion plan to install HOT lanes on the Capital Beltway.

“Today projects are very much tied to the commercial marketplace - Can you get private financing? At what cost?” Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer said. “That’s changed the way projects are developed.”

Still, Virginia in recent years has failed to find enough money to help fund state road maintenance and transportation projects.

The state Supreme Court last year struck down a plan to let unelected authorities collect taxes and fees that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation, and lawmakers also repealed a controversial mechanism that imposed abusive driver fees against Virginia residents and was expected to bring in about $65 million each year.

Since then, Mr. Kaine unsuccessfully attempted to raise about $1 billion in taxes for transportation, and state lawmakers adjourned a special legislative session last summer without a solution.

Mr. Howell also discussed Republican efforts to hold on to their House majority, propel gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell to victory and reverse a recent trend of Democratic success in the state that culminated with Barack Obama becoming the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Virginia in more than 40 years.

Confronted with a $4 billion revenue shortfall, Virginia lawmakers during the state’s recent legislative session passed a budget that was the first in the nation to incorporate federal stimulus funding.

Still, Mr. Howell called the federal stimulus package a “terrible mistake” and said he is hopeful lawmakers will reject amendments made by Mr. Kaine, a Democrat, to enable the state to receive more stimulus funding for unemployment.

The governor this week announced legislative amendments that include providing additional weeks of benefits for persons who lost jobs in declining industries and are enrolled in training. But the speaker contended the state would be stuck with providing the benefits even after the stimulus funding runs out.

Lawmakers will reconvene Wednesday in Richmond to consider the governor’s proposals.


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