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Transportation Plan Squabble Continues as Deadline Looms

Mon March 13, 2006 - Southeast Edition
Angela B. Hurni



As Virginia’s General Assembly neared its session’s March 11 adjournment, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine held on to the hope that reasonable individuals would come to an agreement expected by the Commonwealth’s citizens — the approval of a definitive transportation plan.

CEG went to press prior to the March 11 deadline.

All parties involved, the governor, the Senate and the House of Delegates, agreed that this is an urgent issue for Virginia. The disagreement boiled down to where the money for the plan would come from and how much would be designated for the plan.

Kaine’s transportation plan, which was similar to the Senate’s plan, would raise as much as $4 billion over four years, much of it from new taxes. The plan presented by the Republican-controlled House, which opposed many of the new taxes and fees proposed by the governor’s plan, would commit more than $2.1 billion in additional funding for transportation over the next four years. The House made it clear that its proposal is in addition to more than $4.4 million in taxpayer funding that has already been dedicated and used for Virginia’s transportation agenda.

Upon entering office this January, the governor mapped out “The Kaine Transportation Plan” based on the state’s transportation needs and feedback from town hall meetings and from his constituents’ comments and letters. The plan is comprised of three key principles and components: better planning, greater accountability and responsible investments. The slogan for the plan sums up its goal: “Grow Right, Get There Faster.”

“This is a fiscally responsible plan that addresses our transportation challenges in creative ways,” Kaine said. “We will change the way we do business, always insisting on accountability and providing local officials with the tools they deserve to better link transportation and land use planning. We will partner with localities and the private sector, relying on modest, reliable revenues generated by those who actually use our transportation network.”

The “Better Planning” component of the plan recommended that land use and transportation decisions are coordinated so that development in the state doesn’t overwhelm roads and infrastructure. The current system, in which local governments make land use decisions followed by the state’s transportation decisions, is woefully outdated. The result of that inconsistent arrangement is confusion, bigger traffic delays and frustration.

The better planning solution still allowed for local governments to make their own land use decisions; however, two proposed bills would require better coordination between localities and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT). One bill in the General Assembly requires that “rezoning plans are submitted with traffic impact statements,” thereby, encouraging VDOT to offer valuable input on how proposed developments would fit with local roads and transit options. The other bill clarifies an existing law that allows localities to reject rezoning requests if a proposed new development would overwhelm the transportation network.

Another aspect of better planning involved strengthening what Kaine called an ineffectively used Intermodal Office that exists within the state’s transportation jurisdiction. A successful Intermodal Office, according to the governor’s plan, would establish better connections between roads, rail, transit, ports and airports.

The “Greater Accountability” component of Kaine’s plan proposed a “simple Constitutional amendment” that would guarantee that transportation funds be used only for transportation needs. Without this guarantee, Kaine said he would not sign any legislation for new taxes and fees or general fund money to increase revenue for transportation.

In actuality, a large part of the battle over the transportation plan is about the general fund. The governor’s office and the Senate are adamant that the general fund should not be used as an original source of transportation revenue. Historically, the general fund supports other needed programs in the state, including public schools and public safety and that is the way they want it to remain.

On the other hand, a majority of the House of Delegates, the House Republicans, insisted that using general funds for transportation is nothing new and the practice also was used in the 1980s. In the Feb. 19, 2006, “Report of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation,” the Delegates insisted their entire budget proved that any money coming from the general fund would not be taken away from other needed programs.

The report stated: “Frankly, we believe far greater damage is done by neglecting our transportation system, thereby hampering the economic growth and job creation that generates funds to support our ongoing commitments to priorities like education, law enforcement, healthcare and the environment.”

Another aspect of the greater accountability component had to do with continued performance improvements at VDOT. Current figures released by VDOT show an increase in projects finished on time and on budget since 2001, and Kaine said he wanted that trend to continue. Recently released figures for the first half of fiscal year 2006 (July 1, 2005, through Dec. 31, 2005) show VDOT delivering 82 percent of its construction contracts on time and 88 percent within budget.

“For a second year in a row, the men and women of VDOT have raised the bar on performance with project delivery,” said Acting VDOT Commissioner Gregory A. Whirley. “We will continue our relentless focus to operate the agency more efficiently and meet the bottom line: complete, on-time and on-budget, high-quality projects that help to reduce congestion, improve traffic flow and increase safety.”

Additionally, Kaine wanted greater accountability by having a commission develop measurable goals for Virginia’s transportation investments. These goals include investing in the most critical projects first, ensuring that the traveling public gets the most for their money and holding elected leadership accountable for the transportation network’s performance.

Lastly, the third part of Kaine’s transportation plan involved responsible investments and reliable funding. The premise of this component is that users of the transportation network should pay for the freedom of using that network. Several bills have been proposed to establish transportation-related fees that would aid in jump-starting new investments in road construction, rail and mass transit.

Proposed bills included a 2 percent increase in the auto-titling fee and an increase in registration fees, in the range of $8 and $18 depending on weight, for heavier vehicles since they do more damage to roadways. Two bills, which have been rejected by the House of Delegates, proposed to increase sales tax on automobiles and the tax on auto insurance premiums.

One popular bill was aimed at a specific group of drivers, called “abusive drivers,” who cause accidents that block roads and stall traffic. With this bill, abusive drivers would pay higher fines for driving under the influence, reckless driving and other serious offenses.

Jeff Southard, executive vice president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance (VTCA), a trade association and spokesman of the transportation construction industry, supported the transportation plan presented by the governor.

“The House has only proposed one new revenue stream — bad drivers,” explained Southard.

Another matter that Southard, Kaine and the Senate agreed upon was that the House had too much money allocated for projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Kevin Hall, press secretary of Kaine, said, “Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia are big winners. The rest of Virginia pays for it. Gov. Kaine said that whatever the solution is, it needs to be statewide. Rural Virginia has challenges equally important to them.”

In addition to passing a comprehensive transportation plan, Kaine has another item on his agenda: finding a commissioner for VDOT.

The recruiting firm, Korn/Ferry International of Washington, D.C., had been selected to conduct a nationwide search for a transportation leader of the agency.

“We are launching a nationwide search for a transportation professional who will continue our significant VDOT reforms, and oversee a new era in the way we develop and improve Virginia’s transportation network,” said Kaine. “This search will be done in a professional and bipartisan manner to make sure we get the very best person for the job — a commissioner who can serve multiple governors.”

Regarding the Assembly’s March 11 deadline, Hall said, “The governor has the power under the constitution to keep them in session until a budget is passed.”

As the deadline approaches, neither negotiators for the House and the Senate will guarantee that there will be an agreement on a transportation plan before the deadline.

“Gov. Kaine believes there is sufficient time for a compromise to be reached,” explained Hall. “He has also made it clear that he is willing to keep them here in session if he has to.”

In the meantime, Kaine’s town hall meetings throughout the state continue to be successful. He has already held meetings in Norfolk, Salem/Roanoke, Woodbridge and Martinsville to drum up support for his transportation plan. The Culpeper area will host a meeting in March. CEG