Since 2002, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has been an orphan entity. With no staff, phones, fax machines or office space, its members had little choice but to hold meetings only to make up wish lists.
Given no fundin
g mandate by the General Assembly and by voters who turned down tax hikes, its 15 members, comprised of the most powerful lawmakers in the region, continued to meet monthly, holding out for the day when it would have the money and the mandate to solve the region’s intractable transportation problems.
That day came last Wednesday, when the Virginia Legislature voted overwhelmingly to approve the most meaningful transportation funding bill in a generation. Suddenly, the little-known NVTA, which had been granted the power and function of preparing a long-range transportation plan for regional transportation plans in Northern Virginia, was back in business.
“I call this the cicada cycle,” said Fairfax County board chair Gerald Connolly. “Every 17 to 21 years the State Legislature gets serious about funding transportation projects in Northern Virginia.”
The NVTA has wasted little time with its mandate, with members calling for an open public meeting this Thursday evening, April 12 at George Mason High School in Falls Church. There it will begin soliciting public comments on its TransAction 2030 Plan, forged and accepted last fall, putting into motion how to spend $550 million in annual outlays for repairing the region’s clogged road arteries and expand mass transit.
The TransAction 2030 Plan documents more than $16 billion in unmet transportation needs, declaring that the region’s highway and transit systems are rapidly deteriorating and buckling under the crush of over capacity. The group has called for $700 milion in annual fixes over 23 years.
“Back in 2002 we had anthrax scares and the sniper shooting at people on the Beltway,” said Kala Quintana, director of outreach for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “Voters weren’t really focused on fixing transportation. But when the vote came last week, the fact that we had a plan already in place was a huge positive. The bottom line here is we’re really ready to move forward.”
Members of the group are hoping to implement a balanced approach to its projects, by creating a network of road, transit and bike facilities which provide a 72 percent increase in the number of transfer stations that allow travelers to connect between modes, such as bus to rail.
They’ve urged a doubling of the number of Metrorail stations in Northern Virginia, with extensions along the I-66 and I-95 corridors, and hope to add light rail transit and/or bus rapid transit to the Route 7, Route 28, Crystal City-Potomac Yards and Columbia Pike corridors.
This new network would increase highway capacity by 8 percent above what is already planned in the region’s Constrained Long-Range Plan, and it adds 600 miles of on and off-road trails to the region’s bicycle network. “Northern Virginia jobs generate 50 percent more state taxes than anywhere else in the state,” said Chris Zimmerman, the group’s vice chair. “So retaining and attracting jobs here that are within a reasonable commute time for workers benefits everyone in the state.”
Chip Badger, director of Transportation for the Virginia Dept. of Rail and Public Transportation, which is administering the more than $3 billion in annual funds, said that Northern Virginia has assembled “quite a list” of priorities but none have yet become prioritized. “The bill’s passage comes as great relief to Northern Virginians who’ve been struggling with congestion for a long time,” he said. “It should get very interesting very quickly.”
Supervisor Mick Staton (R), who represents the Sugarland Run district of Loudoun County, questioned the constitutionality of the NVTA’s new powers to allocate tax dollars raised by the transportation bill. “The problems that I have is the constitutionality of entrusting that funding with an unelected body,” said Staton. “Unlike other boards, we don’t get to pick who our representative on the NVTA, and that member may disagree with most of his constituency on priorities.”
In Loudoun County, where Staton is chair of the Transportation and Land Use Committee of the Board of Supervisors, the top priorities according to him include the building of interchanges at Route 7, the widening of Route 50, the completion of Route 659 and a widening from two to four lanes, the four-laning of Route 606, and the completion of Battlefield Parkway. “Rest assured, none of these projects will make the top of the list for NVTA,” Staton argued. “Fairfax County can now steer that money wherever it wants it to go…”
Five of the 15 members of the NVTA live in Fairfax County. “My constituents are going to ask a lot of questions if you’re taking money from them to improve Fairfax County roads,” he said. “It’s the biggest cop-out I’ve ever seen.”
Connally scoffed at the notion. “Not only are those concerns unfounded, but as a group (under the 2030 plan) we were the first in Virginia that has prioritized our projects.”
His number one project? “Rail to Dulles, of course,” Connally said. “If we are to accelerate funding on the federal level, the state and local money should get rolling first.”
Six of the 16 members of the NVTA are from Fairfax County. “My constituents are going to ask a lot of questions if you’re taking money from them to improve Fairfax County roads,” he said. “It’s the biggest cop-out I’ve ever seen.”
The vote in Richmond
Last Wednesday’s vote on $3 billion in transportation funding came after years of partisan bickering, and could help Gov. Tim Kaine (D) form a legacy. At the end of the seven hour special session, Kaine retreated to his newly-remodeled office in the State Capitol, closed the door and told a reporter, “All in all, I think we had a pretty good day.”
Kaine said the bipartisan compromise legislation would now allow the state to protect newly-generated transportation dollars in a “lockbox,” so Virginians would not be concerned that the funds would be diverted to other purposes. “Some of this money goes to work almost immediately in Northern Virginia,” Kaine said. “I think it was a pretty good deal in the end.”
The consensus, finally, was bi-partisan. “People are just sick and tired of sitting in traffic,” said Sen. Jeannmarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax). “They understand this was going to take a huge infusion of cash to make the problem better, so we’re happy we could reach a compromise with the governor.”
The transportation legislation was formed out of compromise between Kaine and House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who just two weeks ago was vowing to vote against a package out of concerns on how it would be funded. Kaine’s plan, which successfully passed the House by a vote of 85-15, establishes local taxation and borrowing of $3 billion over a decade. The Senate voted 29-10 in favor of Kaine’s amendments.
Howell said the hammered-out compromise was forged over multiple cell phone calls between the governor and Republican lawmakers. “Voters wanted a good solution and I believe we delivered one,” Howell said.
About 140 delegates and senators will stand for reelection this fall, so there was a palpable eagerness among many lawmakers not to be seen as ineffective on legislating a transportation solution. Howell, in particular, said previously that Kaine and the Democratic lawmakers were attempting to box them into inaction, in order to score political points to regain control of the House and Senate.
For his part, Kaine said that Democrats can now campaign in a unified fashion as a party than can “get the important work done.”
“Under Democratic leadership, we’re the best-managed state in America,” he added, as he walked back to the Governor’s Mansion at the end of the day. “We are the most business-friendly state and o
ur educational system is near the top in this country. That’s a lot Virginians can be proud of under Democratic leadership.”
Less noteworthy moments for Kaine came when the two Republican-held houses rejected by large margins his ban on smoking in bars and restaurants and blocked his vetoes of bills to expand the use of the death penalty. Both Houses overrode Kaine’s veto of laws that would make the killers of judges and witnesses eligible for the death penalty, and the House voted to override his veto of a bill that would make accomplices eligible for capital punishment, by a margin of 59-40. However, the Senate agreed with Kaine, so the bill will not become law.
But Republicans charged that the governor’s veto of the death penalty legislation shows he’s a liberal-leaning and out of touch with law-and-order voters. A staunch Catholic, Kaine said he was morally opposed to the death penalty but that he would uphold state law. Since being inaugurated last year, Kaine has allowed four executions but halted one because the convicted killer was suspected of being mentally ill.
Since 1976, Virginia has put to death 98 inmates, more than any state other than Texas. “Virginia is second-in-the-nation in the number of executions it carries out,” Kaine said. “While the nature of the offense targeted by this legislation is very serious, I do not believe that further expansion of the death penalty is necessary to protect human life.”
The House Democratic caucus chair, Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria), and a majority of other House Democrats voted to override Kaine’s vetoes on the death penalty. I have tremendous respect for the governor’s strong faith-based objection to the death penalty, but on this issue, we respectfully disagree,” said Moran, a leading candidate for governor in 2008 and last year’s Virginia Sheriffs Association Legislator of the Year. “As a former prosecutor, I strongly feel the highest penalties should be available for the most heinous crimes.”
Moran said these crimes included those that directly enabled murder for hire, kill a judge or witness in a criminal case, or those that assist in terrorism. “These are dangers to our society and warrant the maximum sentence available,” he said. “Virginia families deserve the safest streets we can provide and that means the maximum deterrent for our most violent offenders.
Sen. Patsy Ticer (D-Alexandria) disagreed.
“We’re number two in the country for killing people,” Ticer said. “We didn’t need any new categories for the death penalty.”
Smoking ban defeated
There was more support among fellow Democrats for Kaine’s proposal to ban smoking in public areas, though that measure too was defeated. Virginia would have become the 22nd state in the country to ban smoking in bars and restaurants.”It was just too much too soon,” said Moran. “The fact that the effects of second-hand smoke were being debated on the floor was a significant accompliment alone.”
Virginia’s Restaurant and Hospitality associations had lobbied vigorously to oppose the smoking ban, and Richmond is home to the headquarters of the world’s largest cigarette maker, Phillip Morris.
“Virginia had an opportunity to be a real leader on something that’s inevitable,” said Del. Adam Ebbin (D-Fairfax). “This was a real disappointment.”
Republican lawmakers said the governor’s proposal was too broadly defined because it did not make exceptions for things like hot dog stands and catering services, and might have also banned smoking at catered weddings, sporting events, county fairs and private clubs. I’m still opposed to a widespread, general ban on smoking in public,” argued Kaine. “The bill, with my amendment, was narrowly targeted to prevent smoking in restaurants, which I feel is an important step to protect the health of both patrons and employees.
Democratic legislators vowed to bring up the smoking ban again when the legislature reconvenes in January.
By 7:10 pm, both Houses had wound down their business, and the new electronic boards inside the legislative chambers flashed the message, “The House and Senate are at Ease.”
Lawmakers streamed out of the State Capitol building, open for the first time after a $111 million renovation, past the signs of “fresh paint” and the looming statues of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. The first day back at the Capitol, after reopening after three years of renovations, had gone pretty well, according to most. One lawmaker was overheard saying to another, “Pretty fancy digs here…Kind of fit for a queen.”
Speaker Howell said the session took a little longer than expected, but, all things considered, “I was very happy with how it went. A good session, all in all.”