WASHINGTON - Virginia faces a nearly $3 billion shortfall in funding for transportation projects after the General Assembly ended a special session in the early morning hours yesterday without passing any legislation that would have raised money through tax increases to cover the shortfall.
The assembly's failure to act also effectively killed the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and the bonds it had hoped to issue.
If the legislature had supported Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's proposals to increase statewide and regional taxes for transportation, it would have marked the first significant infusion of revenue for northern Virginia transportation needs in more than 20 years.
But on Wednesday, the House of Delegates, which is controlled by Republicans, killed a Senate bill that would have raised the state's gas tax, as well as other statewide taxes. And the Senate, controlled by Democrats, axed a House bill that would have increased taxes only in the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions.
A House committee on Wednesday briefly revived Kaine's proposal to raise $1.1 billion a year in taxes and fees that would have given the NVTA the authority to issue bonds, but the bill died at the hands of both parties in the full House.
Each year in Virginia, about $1.5 billion is spent to maintain roads and an additional $1 billion to construct them. But Virginia officials are projecting they will fall $3 billion short over the next six years.
The state's mounting transportation needs were highlighted in mid-June when the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a six-year plan that would cut hundreds of projects and transfer $2.75 billion from the state's transportation construction fund to its transportation maintenance fund. Without legislative help, the board will have to follow through with its plans to ax about $1.7 billion of planned and proposed northern Virginia road projects and delay additional projects across the state that carry a price tag of about $400 million.
Virginia officials have had to rethink their approach to transportation funding since February, when the state Supreme Court handed down a decision concluding that the NVTA did not have the authority to levy taxes and fees, and therefore could not issue bonds.
The justices said that only the General Assembly had the authority to levy taxes and fees. The ruling threw a wrench in the NVTA's plans to issue nearly $2 billion in debt in the coming years to pay for various transportation projects and forced the cancellation of its planned $102 million debut in the bond market. Now, according to Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the NVTA, the authority "has nothing to do."
"It means the bonds we were preparing to issue, the projects we were preparing to break ground on, are done," he said yesterday.
Delacey Skinner, Kaine's communications director, said it is unlikely that the governor will call another special session before January when lawmakers return to Richmond. And from the party-line votes during the special session, it seems that lawmakers will remain split on how to fund transportation projects in the future.
"It doesn't look like anything is going to be done," Zimmerman said, echoing the sentiment from other sources. "In principle, it could happen in two years. That's a lot of time to go by. But anything can happen in the future, right? We can be hit by a comet."