House transportation bill to face Senate Democrats

RICHMOND — The path forward on a long-term plan to fund transportation projects in Virginia will have to move through skeptical Senate Democrats, though it was still unclear Wednesday what a final package might look like.

A version of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s proposal survived the House of Delegates but the state Senate rejected its own version of the bill on Tuesday after Democrats balked at the ideas of swapping the gas tax for a higher state sales tax and of paying for transportation using general fund revenues.

Sen. A. Donald McEachin (D-Henrico) said Wednesday that Democrats were still looking for a substantive plan that would generate closer to $1 billion a year for the state, steer clear of the general fund and not rely on would-be revenues from the passage of federal legislation related to the collection of Internet sales taxes. That legislation, they have said, has stalled in Congress.

“I think that’s the signal we sent last night,” said McEachin, who dismissed accusations that Democrats were unwilling to bargain. “We’re still willing to roll up our sleeves and do some hard work.”

On Tuesday, the Senate sent its legislation to the Finance Committee, effectively killing it and raising doubts about the prospects for the House measure on its way to the Senate. The House-approved bill is now the only surviving version of the governor’s package, and the Senate could amend or kill it.

“I’m very disappointed,” McDonnell (R) said in an interview Tuesday night. “I think the Democrats have a lot of answering to do tonight. They’re going to have to tell us what they’re willing to do. This is a party that says no to everything but higher taxes. I think the Democrats are way out of touch and they need to start being reasonable.”

While Senate Democrats were in lockstep Tuesday, four House Democrats voted in favor of their chamber’s transportation proposal: Rosalyn R. Dance (Petersburg), Luke E. Torian (Prince William), Roslyn C. Tyler (Sussex) and Onzlee Ware (Roanoke City). They cited regional concerns among their reasons for breaking with their party to support the bill.

Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax), who voted against the Senate version of the plan, said her Republican colleagues did not offer a plan with adequate funding for public transit projects.

“I’m looking for . . . a plan I can sell to my constituents,” Howell said. “I haven’t seen that yet.”

Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance President Bob Chase said the House bill is “very much a work in progress.”

“The emphasis in the House has been to get something out,” said Chase, an early supporter of McDonnell’s plan. “I think it’s been crafted . . . in a way to try to show as many legislators as possible that there’s something in the bill that they ought to like. Where the bill stands now doesn’t necessarily preclude anything from being considered in conference.”

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the House’s version of the governor’s plan is “still a very flawed bill.”

“Eliminating the gas tax makes no economic or transportation sense,” Schwartz said Tuesday. “If it reduces gas prices like the governor projects, it is likely to increase the amount of driving, decrease transit use and increase congestion, especially in the two most urban regions of the state. There is nothing in this to guarantee that local jurisdictions across the state will get the local funding hey need. There’s no way to make this plan better at this point.”

Schwartz also wasn’t optimistic about the plan’s chances for improvement in a conference committee, which he predicted would be “disastrous” for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

“Once it goes to a closed-door committee . . . dominated by the governor’s party, you are unlikely to get a bill that would address the many concerns that the metro regions have identified. The worst thing would be to have such a flawed plan move forward.”

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