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Gilmore plan draws mixed reaction

In response to residents' frustration over traffic congestion and recent concerns about transportation funding voiced by state legislators, Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) announced his plan for reducing the commutes on Virginia's roads yesterday.

But some critics charge that by taking the money from the state's General Fund, which is used for spending priorities, Gilmore could take away from other spending, such as higher education.

In his plan, announced over the radio yesterday morning, Gilmore detailed proposed funding sources for a $2.5 billion allocation for road and rail projects throughout the state, particularly in Northern Virginia.

Del. Barnie K. Day (D-10) said the proposal shows promise, but added that he has concerns.

"I think it's a start," Day said. "I'm glad the governor is on board."

But he said the use of general funds could take away from other spending, such as higher education.

"The General Fund is typically used for education, higher education, law enforcement - and whatever comes out of that is going to diminish what's available for everything else," he added.

Larry J. Sabato, government and foreign affairs professor, also said he was concerned about the source of transportation funding.

"Some of this money is going to be siphoned from education," Sabato said.

"Neither party is talking about education as much as they were, and that's bad for us," he said.

As traffic conditions incite voter demands for relief, especially in Northern Virginia and Tidewater, Democrats have challenged Republicans to come up with a solution, with November's General Assembly elections in mind.

"Until Gilmore's announcement [yesterday] morning, Republicans had been caught flat-footed on the transportation issue," Sabato said.

Democrats hope to use the issue to win General Assembly seats next fall, but Gilmore's proposal may defend the position of Republican legislators in localities sensitive to traffic concerns, said Scott Keeter, chairman of the department of public and international affairs at George Mason University.

"Is it enough to get Gilmore off the hook politically? Time will tell," Keeter said. "The political damage it might do to Gilmore and Republicans is localized, but it could be damaging to Gilmore if it looks like he's doing too much for Northern Virginia."

Gilmore said yesterday in the address that his administration would facilitate needed projects such as improving I-88.

He said he is having the Virginia Department of Transportation study a possible extension of the D.C Metro system to Centreville and a widening of I-66.

In his speech, Gilmore included an advance of federal funds, money from the tobacco settlement and the state's General Fund as his main sources of funding for the project. He rejected other proposed sources, such as borrowing against expected real estate transaction taxes, and previously rejected raising taxes.

Del. Vincent F. Callahan, Jr. (R-34) said Gilmore's plan gives his party strong positioning on the issue.

"It puts [Democrats] on the defensive - they're going to have to go along with the plan to have any credibility at all," Callahan said.

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