While federal action stalls, a battle rages in Virginia

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As transportation enthusiasts wait for official Washington to hash out a brand new $500 billion transportation bill, a duel just over the Potomac may provide a glimpse of the debate to come.

Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates — Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell — are going down the stretch of their campaign arguing transportation blueprints, gas taxes, and other issues of keen interest to a transportation lobby long dependent on lawmakers both in state capitals and in Washington D.C.

The Center’s recent report on the Transportation Lobby reveals that at least 74 Virginia-based public and private interests lobbied the U.S. Congress in the first half 2009 in hopes of influencing future policy. The number includes 46 national associations based in northern Virginia that work on behalf of the transportation and construction industries as well as an array of other Beltway interests like manufacturers and lobbying firms. In addition to those players, 28 locally-minded groups and Virginia companies — including the City of Norfolk, real estate firm Silver Companies, and the Greater Richmond Transit Company — also paid federal lobbyists on transportation this year.

At least 20 groups in the Center’s Virginia data, such as freight railroad Norfolk Southern and the Southern Environmental Law Center, are also lobbying at the Virginia state capital on a variety of concerns. Transportation policy typically requires having a foot in both the federal and local camps.

“American taxpayers are pretty savvy investors and they get that something’s not right with the transportation program,” said Brian Turmail of the Associated General Contractors of America, which lobbies transportation on the federal level. The Contractors’ Virginia chapter also lobbies the state on local concerns.

Indeed, lawmakers in Washington are gridlocked at the moment on a new federal transportation bill. Congress was forced to extend the old one last month and will likely do so again next week. Ironing out a new multi-year bill may take months.

That makes the transportation debate between McDonnell and Deeds that much more important at the moment. Consider the case of Virginia Beach. The Center’s Transportation Lobby map shows that the City of Virginia Beach paid Washington firm Alcalde & Fay to seek a transportation earmark for studying a Lesner Bridge replacement that would add more lanes and a bike path between the bay area and the Virginia Beach shore. The project relies on funds from Richmond, where the city is also registered to lobby. But funding from the state to Virginia Beach has withered from tens of millions per year to virtually nothing, says real estate developer and former Virginia Beach deputy city manager Michael Barrett. Barrett also predicts the city will have to hold out a while before looking for new ways to fund the projects itself.

“I’m in business,” Barrett said. “I can’t survive unless I have a good public school system and a good transportation system. I know I have to pay for those. But there seems to be this huge disconnect among a number of voters that you can’t trust anybody.”

So with its state and local budget issues to contend with, Virginia Beach is counting on its Washington lobbyists for help.

Within the business community, both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its local Virginia chapters have made transportation policy a top priority. From Washington, the U.S. Chamber backed up its endorsement of McDonnell by asking for Creigh Deeds to present a comprehensive transportation plan akin to McDonnell’s 12-point proposal. Deeds’ critics are also hammering the Democratic state senator for his willingness to consider an increase in the gas tax should a bipartisan commission recommend such a measure. Deeds’ defenders counter by calling McDonnell’s plans to pay for new roads and bridges without new tax revenue unrealistic.

At the federal level, the U.S. Chamber and other transport interests like the American Trucking Associations actually support the gas tax increase that Deeds is leaving on the table. Local interests, however, appear to remain split between the two candidates.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, McDonnell raised $316,894 from the transportation sector this year compared to $263,470 for Deeds. The two differed more significantly in a couple of other transport-reliant sectors. McDonnell, for instance, has received nearly twice as much campaign cash from the real estate and construction sectors, a total of $1,621,822.

Home builders gave $211,875 to McDonnell and just $11,680 to Deeds. More than three-quarters of McDonnell’s home builder money came from just four individuals, including $75,000 from Houston-based homebuilder Bob Perry. The realty, commercial real estate, and general contracting sectors also gave roughly three times as much to McDonnell as to Deeds in 2009. However, Deeds more than kept pace among developers, raising $411,869 to McDonnell’s $307,853. That gap came in large part due to a $100,000 donation from Crozet, Virginia, developer Barbara J. Fried.

Also of potential note to those who spend transport dollars: Deeds has taken in a whopping $900,517 from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees this year as part of the $2 million the Democrat raked in from labor.

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