Project to unclog I-95 unveiled; Tim Kaine for Veep; McAuliffe has contingency plan on felon rights fight
by Amanda Iacone, WTOP.com
WASHINGTON — Virginia is about to learn whether it will be able to unleash a $1.4 billion transportation project that could ease congestion along the Interstate 95 corridor from Richmond to D.C.
The state has applied for a $200 million federal grant that would support plans to improve Amtrak rail service statewide, extend the 95 Express Lanes to Fredericksburg, rebuild the Rappahannock Bridge on Interstate 95, add buses and commuter lots and increase VRE service. It even sets up the possibility of future high speed train service, Gov. Terry McAuliffe announced Wednesday morning on WTOP.
McAuliffe called it a game-changer for the state.
State officials have been working on the massive transportation plan for two years and should learn in the next week or so whether the federal funds will be available, McAuliffe said.
"This will be the most comprehensive transportation package in Virginia history," McAuliffe said after the show. "If the secretary of transportation (Anthony Foxx) is watching, this is the single biggest thing he can invest in ... this is more congested than Atlanta or even Miami and he has the opportunity to unlock this region."
The plan, which McAuliffe called the Atlantic Gateway project, would also improve the flow of freight rail, which currently competes with passenger trains for limited track access, on its way to and from the Port of Virginia and across the state.
Work could begin quickly once the state learns whether it will officially receive the grant, McAuliffe said.
"We'll immediately start moving ahead," he said. "I want shovels in the ground. I want action."
McAuliffe said the project will give commuters more options and ultimately take cars off the congested I-95 corridor, which regularly carries commuter traffic from as far south as the state capital in Richmond.
The state is about to begin construction to extend the tolled 95 Express Lanes further south into Stafford County in an ongoing effort to keep traffic moving on the interstate. McAuliffe said the new plan would extend the lanes another 10 miles from Garrisonville to Fredericksburg, which is also home to D.C. area commuters.
Part of the project would add train tracks to a two-track railroad bridge that crosses the Potomac River to ease freight and passenger train congestion between D.C. and Virginia. The plan would also provide dedicated track time for Amtrak trains, ensuring more reliable trips for riders between Norfolk, Richmond, Roanoke and the nation's capital.
Virginia would also take ownership of a CSX line between Richmond and North Carolina that is critical in to order to ever provide high speed rail service through the state, McAuliffe said.
Earlier this week, the Federal Highway Administration approved another major transportation project in Virginia that will add tolled express lanes along Interstate 66 west of the Capital Beltway. The McAuliffe administration also plans to toll single-occupant vehicles inside the Beltway during the rush hour.
A presidential ticket
When it comes to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's choice of a running mate, McAuliffe said that Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine is the best candidate.
"I'm advocating very hard on this," he said, adding that he had a long phone call about the ticket Wednesday morning. "My voice is very well known on the topic."
McAuliffe, who chaired Clinton's 2008 campaign, said that Clinton will choose someone she believes could step in and lead the country and with whom she will have a good working relationship. Appeasing Bernie Sanders' supporters or other political calculations will take a back seat to those objectives.
Kaine has the skills and experience to be her vice presidential pick and could help Clinton win Virginia — a key swing state on the road to the White House, he said.
Kaine, a first-term senator, previously served as the mayor of Richmond and governor of Virginia.
The Supreme Court, Bob McDonnell and ethics
McAuliffe said that based on the Supreme Court's ruling this week it seemed unlikely there would be a new trial for former Gov. Bob McDonnell.
"It's time to move on. This man has paid the price," McAuliffe said. "I'm hoping this is the beginning of the end."
McDonnell and his wife Maureen were convicted of accepting $175,000 worth of gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for offering the prestige of the governor's office to help support a vitamin product Williams' company was marketing.
Since the couple's 2014 indictment, McAuliffe and lawmakers issued a cap on gifts and created an ethics commission that serves in an advisory role but has no enforcement powers.
McAuliffe said he would veto any legislation that would roll back those tighter ethics laws and he said there was room to improve on those changes.
"We shouldn't go back," he said.
Under Virginia's previously lax laws, lawmakers could accept unlimited gifts as long as they reported them. The state still has no caps on campaign contributions.
Felon rights restoration
A defiant McAuliffe said that he would write individual orders for the felons whose civil rights he restored in April if the state's Supreme Court should rule that he didn't have the authority to grant a blanket declaration.
"The next day I will sit at my desk ... and I will sign 206,000 orders. They will have their rights back that day," he said.
Republican lawmakers have challenged McAuliffe's order in court arguing that state law gives the governor authority to grant clemency on a case-by-case basis, not en masse.
The order gives felons who have completed their entire sentence, including probation and parole, the ability to register to vote, to serve on a jury and to be a notary public. It does not give them the right to own a gun, which involves a separate process and must be approved by a judge.
More than 2,000 of those individuals registered to vote in the weeks after McAuliffe issued his order. But mistakes have also been found with the list including the names of 132 individuals who are confined at a secure facility for violent sexual offenders in Nottoway County. McAuliffe's staff has previously said that such errors would be corrected. And lawmakers have questioned the inattention to detail that went into putting the list together. But McAuliffe stood by the list and the order.
"Nobody has had their rights restored mistakenly," he said.
"There were 17 million bits of information. When you do big changes in life, you're going to have complications. But the morally right thing to do was to join these 40 other states and give these people their rights back."