- The Washington Times - Friday, April 13, 2012

More than 40 transportation projects across Virginia would be endangered if the legislature accedes to Democrats’ demands for $300 million more for the Dulles rail project, the McDonnell administration says.

Democrats have threatened to block a two-year, $85 billion budget proposal for a third time if additional money isn’t added for Metro’s expansion to Washington Dulles International Airport. A vote on a final conference report — which does not include the rail money — is scheduled for Tuesday.

Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said the state would either have to borrow the additional money for Dulles rail or pull it from transportation projects currently in development.

“The General Assembly did not provide us with either additional revenues or additional bonding capacity, so putting $300 million at this time into Dulles rail will have to come out of unrestricted state monies, and the only other state monies are on that list,” Mr. Connaughton said, referring to a list of projects that could be suspended if Democratic lawmakers have their way.

The list details funding for a handful of projects in Northern Virginia, with two in Loudoun County. Those include $42 million in bonds for  an interchange at Route 659/Belmont Ridge Road and $7.5 million to extend the Battlefield Parkway.

It also includes more than $13 million for Phase 1 of construction to widen Route 1 in Prince William County. All told, the bonds for the 41 projects on the list total just over $382 million. The money for rail would have to come from the project list or from state transit money, the bulk of which is already shuttled to Northern Virginia.

The additional $300 million is intended to go toward mitigating future toll hikes on the Dulles Toll Road. Seventy-five percent of the funding for the 11.4-mile second leg of the $6 billion project is slated to come from toll-road revenues. Tolls are currently $1.50 at the main toll plaza and 75 cents at the on/off ramps. According to recent estimates from the consulting firm CDM Smith, tolls for a full trip would reach $6.75 by 2020 and $10.75 by 2030.

The battle over funding for rail-to-Dulles came to a head during a tense meeting in Richmond on April 5 between Mr. Connaughton, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s chief of staff Martin Kent, and about a dozen lawmakers finishing up their work on the budget. A draft letter from the governor’s office informed them that he did not support funding for Dulles rail beyond the $150 million the state has already pledged. Senate Democratic Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax Democrat, looked briefly at it before flinging it away in frustration.

Sen. Charles J. Colgan, Prince William Democrat and a budget conferee, signed the budget conference report. He has not indicated definitively whether he will vote for the bill on the floor, which would likely break the impasse that has forced the legislature into a special session. The 40-member Senate is evenly split between the two parties, and Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s tiebreaking authority does not extend to the budget. Republicans enjoy an overwhelming majority in the House of Delegates, so a positive vote on the budget there is all but assured.

Even to some in Mr. Colgan’s own party, the outcome remains a mystery.

“I honestly don’t know,” said Sen. Linda “Toddy” Puller, Fairfax Democrat, when asked if she thought the Senate would approve the conference report.

The project in Prince William County on the chopping block with the funding for rail added is in Ms. Puller’s district. But she added that she would be inclined not to support the budget unless Mr. McDonnell gave assurances for more funding for Dulles rail.

Lawmakers have fought for years over how to raise revenue to unclog Virginia’s perennially congested roadways, engaging in perpetual battles over whether to raise the gas tax or tap general fund monies, for example, to go toward transportation.

The two major strategies for generating transportation funds from both chambers this year were rejected. The House had gone along with Mr. McDonnell’s proposal to increase the percentage of the state sales tax that goes toward transportation, while the Senate wanted to index the state’s gas tax to inflation. Last year, Mr. McDonnell shepherded through a plan that accelerates bond issuances to allow for up to $1.8 billion in state transportation bonds over the next few years and utilizes $1.1 billion in bonds backed by future federal highway revenues.

But, citing the budget impasse, the state Department of Transportation has begun notifying contractors that they have to prepare to suspend work on projects in progress. If the stalemate continues, it could affect 473 construction and maintenance projects worth $2.7 billion.

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a coalition of area trade groups, said the Dulles rail conundrum is emblematic of the state’s failure to seriously address passing a long-term, sustainable revenue stream for transportation.

“If the governor and the General Assembly won’t put new money into transportation, the question becomes, where do you get $300 million for this or $300 million for something else without taking it from other projects?” he said. “Without new money — you end up dumping one bucket into another bucket. On the one hand, you fill up one bucket, but you have a dozen other empty buckets.”

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors gave its blessing to the second leg of the 23-mile project, but the jury is still out on whether the all-Republican Loudoun County Board will sign off on it before a July 4 deadline.

Lawmakers have been wary about the insistence of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) that it grant a 10 percent scoring bonus to contractors bidding on Phase 2 who enter into a pre-project collective bargaining agreement opponents say favors union labor and could drive up costs.

The state of Virginia has also engaged in a pitched battle with the authority over the so-called project labor agreements and has said the $150 million is in question if MWAA does not back down on the issue.

“As part of the negotiations with the rail project partners and Transportation Secretary [Ray] LaHood, the commonwealth pledged $150 million for the project,” said MWAA spokeswoman Tara Hamilton. “As agreed, we plan to use those funds to reduce future toll rate increases.”

But Mr. Connaughton said state law dictates that they cannot provide a grant that discriminates for or against labor groups on a project.

So what happens if the PLA provision remains?

“At the end of the day, the Commonwealth Transportation Board will not allocate the money,” he said.

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