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Transportation projects move to Virginia's backburner

By Chris L. Jenkins and Steven Ginsberg
The Washington Post
RICHMOND – When Virginia lawmakers finished their budget negotiations this week, dozens of state programs were sprinkled with more money: Public schools received a billion-dollar increase, sheriffs' deputies got long-awaited raises and dozens of mentally handicapped people finally were taken off year-long waiting lists for community services. State parks received financing for maintenance.

But after the last penny is allocated and the books are closed, little of that $1.6 billion -- if anything at all -- will go to improve the state's network of bridges, roads and rails.

Unless state budget negotiators have an eleventh-hour change of heart on how to spend the revenue from Virginia's new tax laws, virtually all of the transportation projects that legislators and planners envisioned this year will be discarded.

Two years ago, improving the transportation system was the hottest issue in Virginia politics. Now, politicians seemingly can't spare an extra dime for it.

The once-powerful coalition of public and private interests that pressed for major new state transportation projects became disheartened and divided after the defeat of the transportation tax referendums in November 2002.

The lack of new funds will fundamentally change the way the Virginia Department of Transportation operates, said Transportation Secretary Whittington W. Clement.

"VDOT more and more will be a road maintenance organization and less of a construction one," Clement said.
It's likely that the projects that do get built will be those endorsed and funded largely by the federal government or developed by private firms, state transportation officials said.

The proposal to extend rail service west to Dulles will rely on several billion dollars in federal money and awaits federal approvals. Plans for the local share of financing became entangled, at least temporarily, in a dispute over whether the entire region would benefit.

That problem is a common one for regional transportation projects. Some leaders in the District and in Maryland jurisdictions are concerned that the inter-county connector highway project, a top priority for Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), will benefit Montgomery County and the western suburbs of Washington at their expense.

In Virginia's lengthy budget debate this year, education spending was the big winner. Many lawmakers found that championing more money for public schools, a plan that engendered little opposition, was much easier than pushing for road and transit projects.

"That was a real disappointment this session," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), who proposed a measure -- later defeated -- that would have raised $24 million for public transportation by increasing the gas tax in Northern Virginia. "The fact that we took transportation off the table by no means indicates we didn't think it was important. . . . But something had to be sacrificed, and it was transportation."

The omission of new transportation funding comes two years after Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and many legislators from the state's most congested regions won approval for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to vote on new transportation taxes.

Lawmakers decided that if the voters approved increases in the sales tax for those regions, the money would be spent solely on transportation, not education. The measures were soundly defeated. Former delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), who chaired the House Transportation Committee and crafted the referendum measures, lost a primary challenge to an anti-tax conservative.

Those outcomes left many lawmakers leery of wading back into a divisive battle over transportation.

Still, the Senate proposed a budget that included $1.8 billion in new spending on transportation over the next two years. But early in the negotiations with the House of Delegates, the senators dropped the idea in favor of their plan to expand spending on schools. The House, more reluctant than the Senate to consider tax increases, did not propose any significant new spending on transportation.

"Education in a lot of ways now doesn't have the same organized opposition as does transportation," said Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-Fairfax). "But I certainly think that because the referendum failed, many members thought we had our chance to raise money for transportation with the referendum, and when it failed, we thought: 'We had our shot.' "

Other lawmakers noted that Northern Virginia has a strong slow-growth movement that has pressed policymakers to change how and where roads are built.

State transportation leaders said the assembly's tax and spending decisions will mean less money for widening Interstate 95, linking HOV lanes on I-95 to the Capital Beltway, fixing the I-66 interchange at Route 29 in Gainesville and improving Route 50, among other projects.

Clement said a healthy state transportation budget would assign about 15 percent of the available money to planning. "We've got what looks like less than 1 percent," Clement said. "That's very sobering for the next five to 10 years or so."
Warner, who had proposed spending an additional $400 million on transportation, said he hopes the assembly's budget negotiators will make what he calls "a down payment" on the state's road and transit needs.

But in an interview Friday, the governor said he is not optimistic. The advocacy groups who were so active in fighting for the transportation referendum were largely silent during this year's debate on the budget increase, he said.

"The coalition who fought for this didn't hear a lot about transportation," Warner said, noting that lawmakers who held community meetings got earfuls about health care and education and colleges but heard little about roads. Warner said the state will have to turn to an increased reliance on tolls to finance road construction.

Several lawmakers shared Warner's pessimism. They said the legislature will have to wait for another chance to address the state's transportation needs.

But they doubted that 2005 would be the year to do it, largely because it is an election year, and many politicians will be averse to raising taxes and fees again.

"I don't know if we're going to want to go through this again anytime soon," Whipple said.

Some also said that finding solutions to the transportation issues is difficult because Northern Virginia lawmakers have different interests, even though they represent the same region.

Many lawmakers from the inner suburbs are committed to public transit and don't want to see the western edges of the region paved over. And many of the legislators who represent people in the outer suburbs, where congestion is particularly acute, are philosophically opposed to new taxes.

"The state is literally drowning in money now," said Del. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), an anti-tax lawmaker who represents one of the nation's fastest growing regions. "Why we would need to raise any more taxes for transportation doesn't seem to make any sense to me."

But others said more money is needed, even if this isn't the year.

"There are people who are unhappy, who say we should address transportation, who say we should put $100 million in," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan (R-Fairfax), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. "One hundred million dollars? You've got to be kidding. We need big money. That's just a sop so somebody can say we addressed transportation, but we really haven't."

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