How Much Have We Lost?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Weekly Column: The Final Stretch: Progress on U.S. 1, Transportation Negotiations and School Reform

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, The Mt. Vernon Voice and Patch in the week of February 19, 2013.

The Final Stretch: Progress on U.S. 1, Transportation Negotiations and School Reform

As we move to the end of the General Assembly session, we are engaged in intense negotiations on the major issues. Also, we have had significant progress on U.S. 1.

Earlier this session, Senator Puller and I culminated four years of work to build support for a U.S. 1 study when the McDonnell Administration confirmed that it is holding $2 million to fund the next U.S. 1 improvement study. Last week, I met with over a dozen state, local and regional stakeholders here in Richmond to discuss the next steps on planning U.S. 1 improvements.
The study will have several elements. It will likely focus on the stretch of U.S. 1 from the Occoquan River to Alexandria’s southern boundary. Second, there is a consensus that we must consider all modes of transit – Metrorail, light rail and bus rapid transit. Third, it will be based on the regional population, employment and household forecasts maintained by the Washington Metropolitan Council of Governments (COG). Some of these estimates may be larger than those in the Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan. In addition, the study may include the impact that increased density has on transit ridership, if funding permits. We should know more specifics and timeframes in the next two weeks. We will issue a joint announcement and set up an informational website.
Planning for a new U.S. 1 will be an academic exercise without money. The numerous potholes in our roads confirm that the state has none. Legislators are negotiating transportation legislation as I write this column and I have serious concerns. One proposal would divert funds now devoted to education, public safety and healthcare to transportation. Virginia has budgeted to spend less per student on secondary education today than we spent in the 2007-2008 biennium. We can’t pave roads with textbooks.

Another concern is how well Northern Virginia’s interests are represented. The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) decides which projects get funded. NOVA, Hampton Roads and Richmond have 65% of Virginia’s population and 33% of the votes on the CTB. My legislation to rebalance the CTB’s votes based on actual population was killed by the House by two votes after rural legislators erupted. Northern Virginia needs to be more fairly represented on the CTB so that we get our fair share of transportation money.

I am also concerned about establishing a local transportation tax unless language is included which prohibits the CTB from reducing our state funding because we devote local funds to transportation. Without protections in law, we will not get our fair share.

Lastly, the numbers being considered are entirely too meager. The state needs $4-5 billion per year in new funding. The most optimistic high-end projections of any plan are $1.4 billion per year or about 20% of our long-term need. At that rate, U.S. 1 road and transit improvements will be funded by about 2050. I want a long-term fix, not more short-term measures designed for election protection.

When this is printed, a compromise plan will probably have been announced. I am still undecided. Please email me your views.

Secondary education reform is also on the calendar. I was one of three House Democrats to vote for Governor McDonnell’s proposal to give schools letter grades (A-F) modeled on a Jeb Bush proposal. Our current school rating labels are indecipherable techno-speak that take a graduate school education to understand. Simplifying this system will provide everyone clearer information on the quality of our schools and foster improvement.

Governor McDonnell has proposed creating a new Richmond control board to take over non-performing schools modeled on a Louisiana program. I strongly oppose this concept. Once a school is removed from local control, local taxpayers would still have to bear the costs, but have no say in school operations or policies. Parents would have no school board member to call. While some school boards in Virginia are dysfunctional, a central-government takeover is not the way to fix local school problems.

We have several critical votes coming up this week. Please stay posted and let me know if you have feedback. It is an honor to serve you in Richmond.

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