By: Debbie Messina; PilotOnline.com
About 50 city and county elected leaders from Hampton Roads to Northern Virginia on Thursday urged state lawmakers to find new sources of transportation funding to meet a growing backlog of needs.
The leaders agreed that the shortfall is approaching a critical level, as there will be no state money for new road construction by 2017.
“We need a big idea because we have to have a big fix,” Norfolk Mayor Paul Fraim said. Several projects being planned for Hampton Roads are in the billions of dollars.
The leaders represent what’s become known as the Golden Crescent, roughly following the interstates from Hampton Roads to the Richmond area to Northern Virginia. The region accounts for 70 percent to 80 percent of the state’s population and population growth, employment, sales tax, personal income and gross product.
While the group of city mayors and county Board of Supervisors chairs did not come to a consensus on a transportation funding mechanism, they said borrowing and moving money from other areas of the budget is not a solution. They want something stable and sustainable, possibly a gas tax or sale tax increases.
It was clear that tolls alone are also not acceptable. Most of Virginia’s large projects now in construction or development are public-private partnerships that include tolls, such as the plan to build a second Midtown Tunnel tube, while tolling drivers there and the Downtown Tunnel.
Portsmouth Mayor Kenny Wright applauded when Mary Hynes, chairwoman of the Arlington County board, said: “Tolls tax certain persons while the economic benefit flows to the whole state. Everybody has to participate in solutions to some extent because everyone will benefit.”
Sharon Bulova, chairwoman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said, “There’s an overuse of tolls as a solution and people are starting to object.”
There’s been a “mindset change” about funding transportation in Hampton Roads, Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms said, now that three new road projects will carry tolls the Elizabeth River crossings, the Jordan Bridge and Dominion Boulevard. “Reality has set in… the tolls are higher than expected.”
Some of the leaders took turns bashing state legislators for failing to address the problem. Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, referred to “wimpy General Assembly members.”
“It’s not that they can’t fix the problem, they don’t have the political will to do their jobs,” he said.
Some also took shots at the condition of their roads.
Bulova: “Our roads look like cow pastures because we’re not spending on maintenance.”
And James Burrell of the New Kent County Board of Supervisors, said driving local roads is “like running over a washboard.”
Even though the Golden Crescent is the economic engine of the state, the leaders know they alone can’t influence change.
“It’s not going to be decided here or in Richmond,” said Barry Hodge, chairman of the Powhatan County Board of Supervisors. “It’s going to be resolved by the will of the people.”
That means, he said, they need to know “the depth and gravity of the problem.”
Many agreed that each locality needs to have conversations with residents about the problem so they’ll buy in to taxes and other new revenue sources.
Some suggested building a business case and creating literature for “campaigns” to educate voters.
“We can change the shape of this conversation,” Hynes, of Arlington County, said. “If we’re talking only to the General Assembly members, it will not change.
“It has to be the people in their houses, sitting in their cars, waiting for the train who say – enough.”