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
"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
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
"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."