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Posted at 12:40 PM ET, 02/ 1/2011

UPDATED: Key Democratic panel approves McDonnell's transportation plan

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Rosalind S. Helderman

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) scored a major legislative victory Tuesday, as a key Democratic-led committee approved his plan to spend about $3 billion on transportation over the next three years, largely in borrowed funds.

The Senate Finance Committee altered McDonnell's plan somewhat, notably stripping out a $150 million in surplus cash the governor had proposed devoting to roads that would otherwise be used for education, public safety and other government needs.

But they left the core of his proposal intact, including a plan to accelerate $1.8 billion in transportation bonds approved in 2007 and to issue another $1.1 billion in bonds backed by future federal outlays.

Before the legislative session began, some state Democratic leaders had indicated the party would be starkly opposed to the proposal, because it involved debt financing at a time when voters have been pushing government to reduce its reliance on borrowed money.

But McDonnell appears to have convinced lawmakers that Virginia can afford the debt service for the bonds and now is a good time to spend on roads, while interest rates and construction costs are low.

With the finance committee support and five Democrats sponsoring the bill, McDonnell is almost certain to win approval for the bill in the state senate, likely later this week. The bill has already cleared the House Appropriations Committee and is likely to win approval on the floor of the House of Delegates.

Only two members of the committee voted against the proposal--Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), who said she is concerned about the debt and believes not enough planning has gone into a list of 900 shovel-ready projects McDonnell's office has indicated it would jump-start with the funds.

Sen. Henry Marsh (D-Richmond) voted against it because he said too little money would be spent in his Richmond district.

Even Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) backed the plan--"for now," he indicated.

He otherwise spent much of the committee hearing lecturing Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton and others about the need to raise the state's gas tax to pay for a $20 billion transportation backlog. He noted that all of Virginia's surrounding states collect road money from a higher gas tax but gas prices are now higher elsewhere. "They get the highway money, we get the price increases," he said.

Connaughton and other advocates for the bill said they realize the plan is not a long-term solution for Virginia's road needs but would provide significant new funding to begin to address the state's backlog.

"We will be back next year," Connaughton said.

The Finance Committee meanwhile agreed to pass by indefinitely--essentially to kill--a second transportation proposal also backed by the governor that would have diverted a portion of sales tax revenues in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia to transportation.

Sen. Jeff McWaters (R-Virginia Beach), who sponsored the bill, argued it would devote $1 billion over the next six years to roads in the state's most congested areas. The committee responded it would create a $1 billion hole in the rest of the state budget over that time.

UPDATE 1:30 p.m.: McDonnell has released a statement in response to the committee vote, calling it evidence of "growing bipartisan support" for his package.

His full statement:

I am pleased by the growing bipartisan support for our comprehensive transportation funding plan. Yesterday the majority-Republican House Appropriations Committee approved our proposal. Today, the majority-Democratic Senate Finance Committee did the same. Both Committees approved the plan by wide margins. This plan will get 900 critically important road, rail and transit projects underway across the Commonwealth. Among the projects that will be jumpstarted with this new funding are the Midtown Tunnel tube in Norfolk, the extension of HOV/HOT Lanes on I95/395 and the widening of I-66 in Northern Virginia, work on the Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia, and the widening and improving of multiple sections of Route 58 in southern and western Virginia. The work made possible through this legislation will be seen in every region of our state, and it will allow our citizens to get to work a little quicker in the morning, and home to their families a little sooner in the evening. Good new jobs will be created in the process, and these projects will help spur our economic recovery. For far too long the Commonwealth has failed to invest in transportation. We cannot afford to wait any longer. I thank the members of the Senate Finance Committee for their work today. I look forward to seeing this bill pass the full General Assembly in the next few weeks, and transportation projects getting started all across the Commonwealth in the months ahead. Together, we will get Virginia moving again.

By Rosalind S. Helderman  | February 1, 2011; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  Robert F. McDonnell, Rosalind Helderman, Transportation  
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"$3 billion on transportation over the next three years, largely in borrowed funds."

So much for conservatism.

Here's McDonnell and the rest of you teapartiers problem.

Reality > conservatism.

Posted by: mikefromArlington | February 1, 2011 2:17 PM | Report abuse

It is high time that Virginia’s leaders come to agreement on a transportation plan. In January, the Northern Virginia/DC Metro region was ranked worst in the nation for traffic congestion. The study went on to quantify the cost of traffic delays in NOVA at $1,555 per commuter per year. This is simply unacceptable.

We must invest in our state’s roads and bridges, but we also must make sure that we are not short-sighted when we invest in infrastructure projects. Decision-makers need to consider the full costs of projects over their entire lifespan – this would include both short-term construction costs and long-term maintenance costs. By doing so, taxpayers could rest assured that they are getting the most for their money.

Posted by: CherylZ | February 1, 2011 11:27 PM | Report abuse

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