By Alissa Smith
Virginia Statehouse News
RICHMOND – The House of Delegates advanced Gov. Bob McDonnell
’s transportation plan Thursday despite intense floor debate over paying for road projects.
The Senate also was set to consider a version of the plan Thursday but deferred debate until next week. The House voted 62-35 to advance the bill to a third and final vote.
Despite bipartisan support for the $4-billion construction plan, some delegates argued against the plan, contending it would use the state’s general fund to repay billions in debt and leave less money for schools, police and social services.
“We’re taking money out of the schools. Until you fully fund the schools, until you pay the money back that we stole out of the (Virginia Retirement System), there is no surplus,” said Delegate Ward Armstrong
, D- Martinsville.
The governor has proposed borrowing almost $3 billion to pay for construction projects. A portion of federal transportation dollars and state general fund dollars would repay those bonds.
Supporters say the state can take advantage of low interest rates and cheap construction costs while putting Virginians to work by approving the plan. It also would ease a backlog of more than 900 road, bridge and rail projects that lack funding around the state. They said some of the funding will come from a one-time use of a surplus in the state’s general fund.
Delegate Jimmie Massie
, R-Henrico, said the state can afford to borrow more money.
“When you find yourself in a strong financial position, and you find you can buy three roads with the same dollar you could have bought one two years ago, you buy those roads,” said Massie.
A portion of the surplus would be used to fund the Virginia Transportation Infrastructure Bank. The Department of Transportation could then use the money in a way that aids the Commonwealth to the greatest extent.
In all, the governor’s plan could fund hundreds of projects across the state that today lack funding, including widening Route 7 in Loudoun County and the Route 28 interchange in Manassas.
However, many delegates said the plan would add to the state’s debt as well as take funding from other key areas, like higher education and retirement funds.
Delegate Jim Scott
, D-Fairfax, argued that the bill “undermines our higher education system in a way that is undesirable.”
Taking two thirds of the surplus money for transportation would also harm the state’s underfunded retirement system, Scott said.
Further, many worry that the billion-dollar bonds that would pay for the transportation bill could, in the end, create more debt. Some delegates also said the state’s taxpayers are at risk for having to pay back those bonds if the federal government reduces or eliminates transportation dollars for state projects in the future.
A portion of the federal transportation dollars coming to Virginia would be used to repay one of the loans, called a GARVEE bond. The Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicle, or GARVEE, is a bond issued by a state under guidelines from the National Highway System Designation Act of 1995. States repay the bonds using expected future federal funds.
“The GARVEE portion of this bill is bad, and if that is bad, then the whole bill is bad,” said Delegate Joe Morrissey
Delegates Glenn Oder
, R-Newport News, and Chris Jones
, R-Suffolk, said the state’s revenue is strong enough to support the costs.