NORFOLK—Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is going to roll out his own roads fix in the next few weeks and nail down a date of a special transportation session in Richmond.
Kaine told Hampton Roads civic leaders Thursday that he is still ironing out the proposal, but he expects to call lawmakers back to Richmond during the last weeks of June to focus on the state's transportation woes. That should give legislators and the public about a month to digest and debate the merits of his roads funding plan.
Kaine's visit came after a foggy morning when the fragility of the Hampton Roads transportation network was blatantly on display. During the morning rush hour, there was a fatal head-on collision near the south end of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and multi-car pileups at the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.
The morning wrecks and backups almost completely shut down the links between the Peninsula and South Hampton Roads for two hours, snarling traffic in every direction as emergency workers rushed to treat victims.
Thursday's problems on the roads raised concerns about how the region would respond to an evacuation triggered by an approaching hurricane or other catastrophic event.
Transportation is back at the top of the state's priority list after years of political tussling in Richmond over roads. The looming special session is designed to replace road funding undermined by a Virginia Supreme Court ruling and public outcry that removed major chunks of last year's transportation plan.
Lawmakers are focusing on relieving congestion in the state's largest and most prosperous regions: Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Kaine and Democratic leaders also want to pump new money into maintenance because interstate upkeep is growing so expensive that it's drawing huge amounts of cash away from new construction projects.
But there is no clear consensus on how to pay for new roads, although lawmakers have discussed raising gasoline, sales and car titling taxes to bring in more money. Kaine's Thursday speech centered on how Virginia's tax rates on those three fronts are lower compared with other states.
Kaine has been working behind the scenes, huddling with Democratic and Republican leaders from the House of Delegates and the Senate since the General Assembly session ended in early March.
Once the governor outlines his plan, he will schedule a series of town hall meetings across the state to gather input from the public.
"When I roll out a proposal I'm going to be going, basically, door-to-door to lawmakers and the people," he said.
Del. John Cosgrove, R- Chesapeake, credited Kaine with working hard behind the scenes, calling lawmakers and identifying priorities.
Cosgrove also revealed that plans are in the works to set up a joint meeting of the Hampton Roads caucus and lawmakers from Northern Virginia. The meeting, which Cosgrove expects to happen in early May, would be hugely symbolic because the two urban areas could bond to form an overwhelming voting bloc in Richmond.
"If you find a common cause, nothing can stop that," Cosgrove said.
Del. G. Glenn Oder, R- Newport News, outlined the difficult political realities facing legislators, noting that a sales tax increase for roads was put to a referendum in 2002 and failed miserably.
"Forget about polling, we had an Election Day and it lost 65-35" percent, Oder said.
Oder said he has been encouraged that recent discussions have focused on the importance of the improving the HRBT — even if it means building a bridge soaring over the bridge-tunnel.
Last year's transportation plan pinpointed six major projects in Hampton Roads, including widening Interstate 64 on the Peninsula and building the oft-discussed third crossing. But that plan included no direct relief at the HRBT.
"Now, for the first time, I'm seeing some traction on the Peninsula," Oder said.
Sen. Yvonne Miller, D- Norfolk, who chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, told the audience Thursday that the debate is remarkably simple. "No money — no fix," Miller said.
"The time for the big lie is over. You can't have transportation if you're not going to pay for it."