The Curtain Drops on Act One of the Transportation Debate

Except for the mutual backslapping, the lawmaking is over. HB 3202, the Comprehensive Transportation Funding and Reform Act of 2007, is now law.

House Speaker William J. Howell is touting the bill, not without reason, as the most significant legislative initiative on transportation introduced since 1986. The Republican caucus came into the session desperately needing a political victory. Howell got a big one. Between the transportation act and other legislation — expansion of the death penalty, protection of property rights, reregulation of the electric power industry — Howell can plausibly claim that “the 2007 Session of the General Assembly will be remembered for being one of the most productive in Virginia history.”

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine expressed satisfaction as well: “The bipartisan compromise legislation will allow us to make significant and responsible investments in our transportation system. This compromise offers new tools to officials in traffic-clogged Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to address their regional transportation challenges. The compromise makes significant investments in bus and rail operations statewide, will generate long-needed new revenue for our overworked infrastructure, and protects transportation dollars in a ‘lockbox’ so Virginians can be assured these new revenues will not be diverted to other purposes.”

So, everybody’s happy. But the story’s not over. Better to say that the curtain has dropped on Act One and that it will soon rise for Act Two. The scene now shifts to the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions, to local governments and to the Virginia Department of Transportation. There are three major sets of issues.

First, NoVa and Hampton Roads must empower regional transportation authorities to spend about half the new money to be raised. However, a majority of local governments must go along first, which guarantees debate in each locality over what it has to gain and lose from participating. Before that’s even possible, the legislation may have to survive challenges to its constitutionality. Leesburg Today reports that Supervisor Mick Staton, chairman of Loudoun’s Transportation/Land Use Committee, questions whether the regional transportation authority’s taxing powers are legal. “It’s something that needs to be taken seriously,” he said, adding that the board of supervisors “needs to be prepared to defend its citizens, in court if need be.”

Second, about half the localities in the state will be required to establish Urban Development Areas, where growth, road improvements and infrastructure will be concentrated. That may require extensive changes to local comprehensive plans. Additionally, boards and councils of qualifying jurisdictions will have to consider the desirability of imposing transportation impact fees. That guarantees yet more debate.

Third, VDOT has a new set of marching orders. More outsourcing, new metrics for rating road projects, reclassification of roads and possibly in some instances, devolution of responsibility for secondary roads to local governments.

The transportation issue is far from over. Indeed, it’s about to ratchet up to a higher level intensity. Snap on your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, it’s going to be a wild ride.

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