Slow going on funding

General Assembly might not tackle transportation issue until January

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Highway rest stops have reopened, thousands of potholes filled, and $500 million in bonds have been sold. But it will likely be months before the General Assembly meets to pump new funds into Virginia’s aging transportation network.
Gov. Bob McDonnell had promised to tackle transportation immediately, but he made closing Virginia’s $4.6 billion shortfall and strengthening Virginia’s economy his priorities in his first General Assembly session. Transportation was booted to a transportation session later in the year.

It now appears that McDonnell is more likely to call a special session on government reform this fall, and transportation funding may wait until next year’s General Assembly. (However, a government reform session would address privatization of the state’s liquor stores, which McDonnell wants to use for a one-time investment in Virginia’s transportation system.)

An outline on transportation revenue might not be circulated among legislators until this fall. Virginia’s Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton says creating a consensus among legislators will be key to when transportation is addressed. If a consensus is reached, the governor may call a special session. Otherwise, the issue likely would be brought up during the next regular session in January.

McDonnell hopes to avoid a replay of the taxpayer-funded special sessions called by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, which ended in stalemate.

“[McDonnell] is a former member of the General Assembly,” says Connaughton. “He understands how you have to work within the legislature and gain consensus to actually move legislation forward.”

Connaughton is moving forward on a package of transportation reforms. He and his team compiled a list of 150 Virginia and 50 federal statutes they’ve identified that hinder the state’s transportation program. Once that list is finalized, it could be considered by the General Assembly or sent to the Commission on Government Reform and Restructuring, which is developing recommendations on making state government more efficient.

“We have to make sure we get the program tweaked and running better before we can ask for more money to go into it,” says Connaughton.

Meanwhile, current transportation funding continues to fall short of the state’s needs. McDonnell pushed the sale of almost $500 million in bonds earlier this year, which were part of a $3 billion bond package held up because of lower revenues during the recession. But those proceeds were used to keep the six-year highway plan at levels only comparable to last year. The Virginia Department of Transportation is even allowing residents to volunteer to mow state-owned land along roadsides.

McDonnell’s transportation plans took another major hit after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. McDonnell had hoped to dedicate 80 percent of Virginia’s share of offshore drilling royalties to transportation — an estimated $177 million a year. But those hopes were dashed when President Barack Obama canceled planned leases off Virginia’s coast.

Despite these difficulties, some major projects are under way. The first phase of the $2.6 billion project to bring Metrorail to Washington Dulles International Airport is under construction and expected to be completed in 2013.

McDonnell also has pushed for some new revenues. He has asked the Federal Highway Administration to transfer to Interstate 95, the FHA’s conditional approval of tolls on I-81. If the switch is approved, environmental and revenue studies would take at least a year, Connaughton says. McDonnell has said charging tolls at the North Carolina line would raise $30 million to $60 million a year for I-95 improvements.

The governor also has focused on smaller projects that are popular with the public. He reopened 19 closed rest stops by transferring money from the state’s emergency maintenance fund this year and organized a pothole-filling blitz after one of the worst winters on record in Virginia.

Other progress has been made on public-private partnerships, a major focus for McDonnell. High-occupancy toll lanes are under construction on a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway in Virginia and negotiations are ongoing with Elizabeth River Crossings about projects in Hampton Roads. They include adding a second tube to the Midtown Tunnel, renovating the Downtown Tunnel and extending Martin Luther King Freeway. McDonnell has also sought bids for a new 55-mile Route 460.

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