Since I last wrote about the budget several days ago, we have reached agreement with the House on the general fund part of the budget.
As a Senate negotiator, I am proud of the many improvements we made to the introduced budget. After years of cutbacks, we will have more funding for Northern Virginia's public schools and Virginia's colleges and universities.
Mental health services for adolescents also are being increased, and Medicaid services our elderly, sick and disabled neighbors will be improved.
For the first time in five years, state employees will have a pay raise.
So why am I voting against the budget I worked so hard to improve? Because no funding is included for Phase 2 of the Metrorail extension to Dulles International Airport.
State Sen. Mark Herring and I were able to get $300 million in bond authorization for the project included in the adopted Senate budget. The $300 million was to be in addition to the $150 million the state committed last fall. Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton suggested that approach, and we agreed. We worked in good faith to provide relief for commuters on the Dulles Toll Road.
After discussing $200 million and $175 million in additional funding for Phase 2 with key stakeholders and implying support for those numbers, the governor’s administration totally reneged. Now it claims it is unable to provide a single dime in assistance for the project. And it is claiming dire — and untrue — consequences if we do not immediately pass a budget.
When I ran for re-election in the fall, I promised to do everything possible to keep toll increases on the Dulles Toll Road to a minimum by increasing state support. Currently, the tolls are $2.25 each way. Without additional contributions, they will climb to $4.50 each way in less than two years; $6.75 in about six years.
The Commonwealth's contribution to the $5.7 billion project has been paltry, even though everyone knows the state will reap a bonanza from development and business growth along the Dulles Corridor. The state gave only $275 million to the first phase, and has committed a mere $150 million (with many strings attached) to the second phase. Payments by toll-payers, local governments, the federal government and local businesses all dwarf the state contribution.The fact that Rail to Dulles is a project of local, regional, state and national importance makes the state's position untenable. In fact, this month's Governing magazine listed it as No. 1 in importance in the nation.
Meanwhile, in other parts of the state, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s administration is being most generous to questionable projects. Almost $400 million is being funneled to a Charlottesville bypass that is opposed by local officials. In addition, almost $500 million has been pledged to Route 460 improvements. That project is a low priority in the Tidewater region and seems to have no support, except for the governor's.
If the administration now refuses to increase the debt authorization, which was its suggestion in the first place, it can transfer funds from one or both of those low priority projects.
As I fight for fairness in tolls here at home, in Hampton Roads a similar struggle is raging. Residents there are being asked to pay escalating tolls for bridge and tunnel improvements. Existing facilities are being tolled to pay for other, as yet unbuilt, facilities. A private consortium is being promised a reported 13.5 percent return on investment for the projects. In that region, people are calling McDonnell by the nickname "Governor McTollBooth."
To sign a petition asking the governor to reject sky-high tolls, please visit http://bit.ly/virginia-tolls-petition.
Senate Democrats are standing by the people of Northern Virginia and Tidewater. At this time, we have the votes to reject the conference report until the needs of these two regions are met.
The vote will be on Tuesday and will be very close. I am holding my breath, crossing my fingers, and voting "no" on the budget until commuters get needed toll relief from the state.
Sen. Janet Howell (D-Dist. 32) of Reston