Long-Fee­ble N. Vir­ginia Panel Finds It­self Sud­denly Em­pow­ered

Road Plan’s Ap­proval by Law­mak­ers and Gov­er­nor ‘Breathes Life’ Into Group

The Washington Post Sunday - - Virginia - By Eric M. Weiss

For the past five years, the North­ern Vir­ginia Trans­porta­tion Author­ity met once a month in a bor­rowed of­fice in Fair­fax County. With no staff, no re­spon­si­bil­ity, no money and, some­times, no quo­rum, the body did not do much.

But its pur­pose and mis­sion changed dra­mat­i­cally last week, when the Repub­li­can-con­trolled leg­is­la­ture and Gov. Ti­mothy M. Kaine (D) agreed on a trans­porta­tion fund­ing deal that makes the author­ity one of the most pow­er­ful bod­ies in North­ern Vir­ginia.

The deal gives the author­ity power to levy taxes to raise hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars for new trans­porta­tion projects that it gets to de­cide whether and when to build. The body also has the le­gal author­ity to is­sue bonds that could raise sev­eral bil­lion dol­lars that could be used for projects.

“The leg­is­la­tion breathes life into the author­ity, which has been on the books since 2002, and for the first time puts trans­porta­tion plan­ning, fund­ing and ma­jor lan­duse de­ci­sions in one place,” said Vir­ginia Trans­porta­tion Sec­re­tary Pierce R. Homer.

Scott K. York (I), chair­man of the Loudoun County Board of Su­per­vi­sors and a mem­ber of the author­ity, was more suc­cinct: “Now we’ll ac­tu­ally have some­thing to do.”

The Gen­eral As­sem­bly formed the author­ity in 2002 to ad­min­is­ter what was ex­pected to be bil­lions of dol­lars raised by a sales tax in­crease in North­ern Vir­ginia. But vot­ers re­jected that pro­posal, leav­ing the author­ity with lit­tle to do other than draw up some long-term wish lists.

The quasi-elected, quasi-in­de­pen­dent setup of the author­ity is un­usual, if not un­prece­dented, in a state in which de­ci­sions — par­tic­u­larly those in­volv­ing taxes — are made al­most ex­clu­sively by di­rectly elected state and lo­cal of­fi­cials. Al­though most author­ity mem­bers are elected, they are not elected to this board and are there­fore not di­rectly ac­count­able to any­one out­side their ju­ris­dic­tions. At the same time, be­cause those mem­bers have to face vot­ers some­where, they are not im­mune from pub­lic sen­ti­ment.

The author­ity’s next meet­ing is at 7:30 p.m. Thurs­day at Ge­orge Ma­son High School in Falls Church. Mem­bers will be­gin con­sid­er­ing their new re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, al­though they said the ses­sion will not fo­cus solely on them. The meet­ing is open to the pub­lic.

The author­ity, which has 14 vot­ing mem­bers, is com­posed of the top elected of­fi­cial, or a de­signee, from each of the nine North­ern Vir­ginia ju­ris­dic­tions. The House of Del­e­gates ap­points two mem­bers; the state Se­nate ap­points one; and the gov­er­nor ap­points two.

The author­ity also has two non­vot­ing mem­bers, the di­rec­tor of the Vir­ginia De­part­ment of Rail and Pub­lic Trans­porta­tion and the state trans­porta­tion com­mis­sioner.

Mem­bers’ terms are not lim­ited. Top elected of­fi­cials serve as long as de­sired, as long as they re­main in their elected po­si­tions. De­signees serve at their plea­sure.

The author­ity can­not raise any tax it de­sires. The leg­is­la­ture des­ig­nated a hand­ful of fees and taxes, in­clud­ing in­creas­ing reg­is­tra­tion and in­spec­tion fees and rais­ing ho­tel and rental car taxes, that mem­bers can ap­prove.

The money raised for projects, ex­pected to be $350 mil­lion to $400 mil­lion a year, will come up short of the es­ti­mated $700 mil­lion that author­ity mem­bers say is needed an­nu­ally to fix the re­gion’s trans­porta­tion sys­tem.

“It’s a half to two-thirds to­ward the goal,” said David F. Sny­der, a coun­cil mem­ber from Falls Church and a for­mer chair­man of the author­ity. “But no one would have dreamed this was pos­si­ble four months ago.”

The author­ity has com­pli­cated rules, de­signed to pro­tect the in­ter­ests of the small­est and largest ju­ris­dic­tions, that guide how it will de­cide which projects get built.

Any mea­sure must be ap­proved by two-thirds of all mem­bers and two-thirds of the nine lo­cal gov­ern­ment mem­bers. Plus, the lo­cal gov­ern­ment mem­bers vot­ing in fa­vor must rep­re­sent two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion of mem­ber ju­ris­dic­tions.

The re­gion has about 2 mil­lion peo­ple, and two-thirds of the pop­u­la­tion would be about 1.3 mil­lion. That gives Fair­fax County, with a pop­u­la­tion of nearly 1.1 mil­lion, some­thing close to veto power.

“It’s an ab­so­lute con­cern,” said Bryan E. Polk, vice mayor of Manas­sas Park and the city’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the author­ity. “There are con­cerns on our part that the in­ner ju­ris­dic­tions’ trans­porta­tion re­quire­ments are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent than the outer ju­ris­dic­tions of Prince William, Loudoun, Manas­sas and Manas­sas Park.”

Author­ity mem­bers said pick­ing projects has been made eas­ier be­cause of the author­ity’s one sig­nif­i­cant ac­com­plish­ment of the past five years: com­pi­la­tion of a pri­or­i­tized list of $16.6 bil­lion worth of needs.

The author­ity’s “Trans­Ac­tion 2030” plan, com­pleted in 2005, sets out a long list of road, tran­sit and trail projects to im­prove com­mutes across the re­gion. The projects dif­fer from those funded or sched­uled for con­struc­tion.

Projects are grouped by cor­ri­dor, such as Route 7 or Route 28, rather than ju­ris­dic­tion, in the hopes of lead­ing to a re­gional view of re­liev­ing con­ges­tion.

“There’s no se­cret in what comes next; just look at the 2030 plan,” said Ger­ald E. Con­nolly (D), Fair­fax County Board of Su­per­vi­sors chair­man and its rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

Still, al­though there is a plan, there is no mech­a­nism to de­cide which projects go first. Also, the money raised by the new taxes will not come close to build­ing all the projects, so mem­bers will have to de­cide which to post­pone. Sev­eral mem­bers said they will seek in­put on pri­or­i­ties from their lo­cal elected boards and lobby for those.

No process for pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion has been worked out, al­though mem­bers pledged to in­clude pub­lic com­ments and par­tic­i­pa­tion in pro­ce­dures. Some mem­bers also said they ex­pect to hold pub­lic hear­ings. Staff writer Ti­mothy Dwyer con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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