Gov. Terry McAuliffe, D-Va., is chairman of the National Governors Association

DALLAS – Virginia’s new $1.4 billion per year transportation infrastructure program has become a point of contention between the Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates.

Republican contender and current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli called the plan unconstitutional and poorly focused after its adoption earlier this year by the Commonwealth’s General Assembly. Democratic hopeful Terry McAuliffe backed passage of the plan but said it has its flaws, and remains committed to “mainstream solutions” to the state’s transportation problems.

The transportation infrastructure spending plan initially proposed by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell is expected to generate more than $800 million over the next five years.

The plan, which went into effect July 1, reduced the per-gallon tax at the pump with a higher sales tax on wholesale fuels. Some state sales tax revenues are also shifted to transportation efforts.

Virginia reduced its flat fuel tax of 17.5 cents per gallon to 11.1 cents per gallon based on 3.5% of the statewide average wholesale price for a gallon of gasoline and 6% for diesel.

In his transportation platform, McAuliffe said the new funding law will address growing gridlock on Virginia roads.

“Virginia has just seen passage of the first significant bipartisan compromise on transportation funding in 27 years,” McAuliffe said. “It wasn’t perfect, and there are plenty of things I disagree with, but inaction on transportation was no longer an option.”

Although Cuccinelli opposed the new transportation plan, which he called “a massive tax increase,” he has promised the work will go forward if he is elected governor on Nov. 5.

“I didn’t agree with the plan that went through this year,” Cuccinelli said during a recent appearance on the MSNBC cable TV network. “However, it’s through. It’s done. That battle is over.”

Cuccinelli said during the TV interview that voters now must decide whether “frugal Ken” or “union-friendly Terry” should oversee the multi-billion construction program funded by the new law.

Cuccinelli released a transportation plan on Oct. 23 that would transfer much of the responsibility for extending and maintaining the state highway system to larger counties.

“We need to develop better working relationships between state and local governments to ensure those highest priority traffic congestion and capacity problems are addressed first and that we have a comprehensive approach to addressing the transportation needs of each community, he said. 

“Such an approach will identify transportation problems, rank them by priority, anticipate the return on investment, and review and evaluate the ongoing projects to ensure they are on track,” Cuccinelli said.

In addition to the transportation spending plan, McAuliffe also backs an extension of the Washington Metrorail transit system to Dulles International Airport, a new coastal light rail system linking Virginia Beach and Norfolk, and widening a congested two-lane highway in southern Virginia.

McAuliffe’s support for the infrastructure funding plan and the Metrorail extension to Dulles are expected to boost his numbers in the northern Virginia suburbs.

However, voters statewide are split on which candidate has the best transportation solution.

Despite a lead of 45% to 38% over Cuccinelli in the latest poll from the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, a Washington Post poll in September found a 35%/35% tie over which candidate had the best transportation solution. Another poll indicated that only 6% of those surveyed agreed that transportation was the most important issue in the 2013 race.

McDonnell signed the infrastructure spending bill despite Cuccinelli’s written opinion that the measure unconstitutionally imposed higher taxes in some areas than it levied on others.

“We appreciate the attorney general’s ongoing constructive legal and constitutional advice to this office relating to these bills recently passed by the General Assembly,” McDonnell said in a statement before he signed the measure into law.

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