Legislators set to grapple with transportation issues

Published 12:00 am Monday, January 14, 2008

SMITHFIELD—The region’s transportation woes — finding funding to correct them as well as identifying suitable mechanisms to turn that revenue into solutions — continue to be a major concern as state legislators gear up for the 2008 General Assembly session that begins Wednesday in Richmond.

At a pre-legislative breakfast forum Friday at The Smithfield Center in front of a sizeable audience, the four state legislators who represent Western Tidewater spoke on a wide range of issues, but fixing transportation issues, and how to pay for them, remained the center of attention.

&uot;Of course,&uot; said Sen. L. Louis Lucas (D-District 18), &uot;transportation is going to be one of our biggest issues.&uot;

The forum, The Richard J. Holland Pre-Session Legislative Breakfast Forum, was sponsored by the Isle of Wight-Smithfield-Windsor Chamber of Commerce.

&uot;We’ve got an ugly transportation baby,&uot; Delegate William K. Barlow told the audience, &uot;but it’s our baby and we want to see to grow.&uot;

Barlow, who represents the 64th District that includes parts of Isle of Wight, Southampton, James City and Surry counties, and parts of Franklin and Williamsburg, said, &uot;I don’t want to be an alarmist,&uot; but warned of a &uot;critical juncture we’re in with regards to transportation.&uot;

He added, &uot;It’s not [an issue] we can do, it’s one we must do&uot; to continue economic growth.

Funding for many transportation issues was a headline-maker during the 2007 session that produced the eventual formation of the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority and instituted abusive driver’s fees.

Both met with differing receptions.

The Hampton Roads Transportation Authority included provisions to raise or create taxes, increase fees and the cost of some services in the counties and cities located in the authority’s region.

One of the first acts taken by the transportation authority was to ask the General Assembly to reconsider some of the fees and taxes created last year. Once such suggestion was raising the gas tax from 2 percent to 5 percent.

Sen. Fred Quayle (R-13th District), said that it unlikely to happen.

&uot;The market,&uot; or current rising price of gasoline and the specter of even higher prices, &uot;is not helping.&uot;

He said &uot;it might be an easier sell&uot; if the outlook for prices was brighter.

But he said, &uot;I think I can about assure you that the abusive fees will be [amended and] applied to out-of-state drivers.&uot; Currrently, the high fines are levied only against in-state drivers.

Barlow admitted that establishing what he called &uot;dangerous drivers’ fees&uot; last year was &uot;a desperate measure to get revenues for transportation,&uot; but that the money is needed for repairs to be made to the system.

Those fees, he said, were designed to generate a steady revenue stream earmarked for improvements, but that the thinking was faulty. Drivers either would not, or could not, pay the higher fines, preferring to risk losing their licenses. But if caught, those drivers could end up in jail, which would, Barlow said, &uot;be a burden on us all.&uot;

In other issues, Windsor Mayor Marvin Crocker asked the delegation to watch for opportunities to fund improvements to Route 460, &uot;to make transportation through town safer, It’s a safety issue,&uot; he said.

Dana Dickens, president of the Hampton Roads Partnership and former mayor of Suffolk, asked the delegation to work together on local issues.

Delegate Roslyn Tyler (D-75th District) said the delegation tries to &uot;caucus ourselves&uot; and works together &uot;to look our for Hampton Roads’ behalf.&uot;