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As Richmond debates transportation, Covington pushes VRE

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As Richmond debates transportation, Covington pushes VRE

As the current term of the Virginia General Assembly is set to run its course this Saturday, both chambers of the legislature are set to work on some sort of compromise between the two vastly different transportation plans pushed through the two chambers of the legislature.
State Senate and House of Delegates leaders did not pick anyone from Prince William County to participate on the Republican-dominated conference committee charged with hashing out the differences between the competing bills.
One question locally is what will happen with mass transit, particularly regarding the Virginia Railway Express (VRE), as it is the only commuter rail line extending from the county.
Brentsville District Supervisor Wally Covington (R) said prior to the committee's formation that the extension of the VRE from the Broad Run station at Manassas Regional Airport to Gainesville is a big local priority for transportation.
"Right now, I've been pushing the VRE element," said Covington.
However, "the state seems to be moving along in several fronts there," added the three-term supervisor. "They have not gotten out on VRE as much as I would like to see them there."
According to state Sen. George Barker (D-39th), the funding for VRE is "a priority for us" in the Senate.
"There would be a substantial amount for VRE, Omni Link buses and Metro," added the second-term senator.
One catch though is that the transportation plan that passed the state Senate would rely on increasing the gas tax by five cents and the sales tax on wholesale gas in order to fund its projects.
While all 20 Democratic state senators voted for the bill, only six of 20 Republicans did the same.
That was enough to pass the bill but also an indicator that such an offer would be a non-starter in the House, which is dominated by a 2-to-1 margin of Republicans over Democrats.
House Republicans also tend to be more fiscally conservative than their Senate counterparts, meaning that they are generally averse to net tax increases.
Likewise, there are only a pair of Democrats on the conference committee: one from Roanoke and one from Fairfax.
The rest are Republicans, mostly from downstate.
According to Barker, while Democrats would have preferred more balance on the committee, any deal that passes is going to need major Republican support in the House.
One idea supported by House members would be the U.S. Congress passing a law allowing states to collect sales taxes on items sold over the Internet.
"That's highly, highly unlikely to pass the House of Representatives," said Barker.
Another is increasing the amount of General Fund money dedicated to transportation funding, something that displeases Democrats as it would mean the core services provided by the state government would be competing with transportation for funding.
Barker explained that it's not his party's preference, "but to get a deal," there may have to be a further compromise.
"We already moved on that particular issue," he said.
Whatever outcome state lawmakers decide will likely determine the level of funding coming in for local mass transit infrastructure.
Covington mentioned that a westward extension of VRE would "enhance the core structure of VRE" as the Gainesville corridor could "put more riders on than any other place" in the local area.
Another option for legislators would be to set aside money to help the VRE begin a reverse commuter route so potential commuters could travel from Washington, D.C. to Woodbridge in the morning and return in the evening.
On the western end of the county, federal workers are forced to drive in order to reach their jobs at areas like the FBI's Northern Virginia Resident Agency located along the Prince William County Parkway in the county's Innovation corridor.
Covington noted that Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) proposed millions in additional funding for inner city trains in his initial transportation package.
However, any transportation funding is subject to change depending on the outcome of the legislature's conference committee.
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