Barlow pessimistic about transportation solution

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 21, 2008

When Del. William Barlow addressed the crowd at a chamber-of-commerce

sponsored breakfast at the Franklin Baptist Church in late April after the 2008 General Assembly session, he spoke of one of the major issues facing lawmakers today: how to fix traffic congestion in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. He said the state’s biggest economic engines don’t only need

to move commuters along their highways but — especially in the case of Hampton Roads — to move imported or manufactured goods to be distributed nationwide.

He recapped the disaster that accompanied efforts at the 2007 session when two bills were passed hastily and signed by the governor calling for higher fines for aggressive drivers, as well as creating the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority, which was empowered to raise fees and impose new taxes.

Neither approach was met well. Barlow called the public reaction &uot;hostile.&uot; The fees were quickly repealed at the 2008 session and the fines imposed are to be refunded, and a state Supreme Court decision deemed a transportation authority in Northern Virginia unconstitutional, thereby rendering the Hampton Roads authority impotent.

Another crack at conquering the transportation problems awaits next week.

When Virginia lawmakers gather in Richmond on Monday in a special session to discuss transportation and how to fund deficiencies in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia, it seems no stone may be left unturned.

And that could be the problem: so many ideas, so few agreements.

Gov. Tim Kaine called the session that begins at noon to focus on approving methods to fund fixes to transportation woes in the state’s largest economic regions. The governor unveiled a plan in May to initially raise around $400 million a year to build new roads, new tunnels and bridges and generally keep traffic moving.

Other lawmakers have their own plans to push next week while special interest groups are telling the lawmakers to do something — anything — to make money available to pour asphalt where currently there isn’t any.

But with so many ideas being proposed and such little consensus to support any one of them, at least one delegate is pessimistic.

&uot;At this point,&uot; said Barlow (D-64th), &uot;expectations are not particularly high.&uot;

Barlow has stated in gatherings of area groups that he favors a statewide approach to solving the transportation problem at a regional level. He said he believes the revenues generated by Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia have a tremendous carry-over effect to all corners of the state and that taxpayers throughout the commonwealth benefit from improvements made in those two regions. Virginia has the country’s third largest highway system behind only California and Texas.

Barlow was one of about 30 lawmakers from Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia who met in Richmond last month advocating a statewide approach to solving traffic headaches. Nearly half of the General Assembly members represent voters in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

&uot;We are the new urban majority,&uot; Del. Paula Miller (D-Norfolk) told The Washington Post after the meeting. &uot;We have some political muscle here, and it’s time we flex it.&uot;

However, Barlow said, the leadership of the Republican-controlled House of Delegates &uot;has made it clear that any statewide tax would not be acceptable&uot; and that any bill suggesting a statewide tax would never make it out of committee.

Still, Barlow said, &uot;The potential is there to get something done.&uot; But in his next sentence, Barlow said, &uot;Right now, things don’t look so good.&uot;

In early May, Kaine introduced a plan to raise more than $1 billion annually by fiscal year 2012 that contains no gas tax increase.

&uot;During the past several weeks I have talked to legislators, local elected officials, business leaders and other citizens about addressing our transportation problems,&uot; Kaine said in that May announcement.

&uot;Based on those discussions, I am offering a plan that is simple, statewide and sustainable to address the growing shortfall in our maintenance needs and provides dedicated funds to address our statewide and regional transportation needs.&uot;

Kaine’s plan calls for no gas tax increase but does call for increases in the existing statewide motor vehicles sales tax, the statewide annual vehicle registration fee, as well as increases the retail sales tax in both regions, dedicates regional sales taxes to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, and dedicates regional sales taxes to seven regional projects in Hampton Roads, including the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

Kaine also introduced methods to fund transit, rail and innovative solutions to reduce traffic congestion like teleworking and ridesharing.

After announcing his sweeping plan, Kaine scheduled 10 &uot;town meetings&uot; stops across the state to pitch his proposal.

Within minutes of the announcement, however, leading Republicans ripped the Democratic governor’s plan.

As a result, Barlow said, &uot;The governor’s plan was dead on arrival.&uot;

Even Barlow said the governor’s plan lacked a strong appeal.

&uot;I don’t agree with all the particulars,&uot; he said, &uot;but it does have a statewide component.&uot;

Then, late last week, state Sen. Ken Stolle, a Virginia Beach Republican, floated another plan: Install toll plazas on the commonwealth’s interstate highways to raise money for transportation improvements.

&uot;We’re talking about concepts,&uot; Barlow said of that and other proposals making the rounds. &uot;We haven’t seen the bills, and the devil’s in the details.&uot;

Still Barlow said he’s of the mind to get something passed next week and build on whatever proposal wins favor.

&uot;This transportation problem can be solved by the right proposal being passed at the General Assembly,&uot; he said. &uot;Amendments could be added later to improve the bill.&uot;

At that post-legislative breakfast at Franklin Baptist Church, Barlow told a story that illustrates the history of Virginia transportation.

&uot;Some of the young people [in the audience] probably never heard of [former Virginia governor and senator] Harry Byrd,&uot; Barlow said. Before Byrd began improving roads throughout the state, signs advised drivers passing along dirt and mud passages to &uot;choose your rut carefully; you’ll be in it for the next 10 miles.&uot;

Barlow didn’t say it at the time whether it was a literal warning or Barlow’s attempt at offering a metaphor for the current dilemma facing the General Assembly.