Is any increase in transportation spending a good thing?

February 21, 2013

To commuters, a transportation plan fixes scenes like this Tysons traffic jam, but that’s not necessarily the result. (Bill O’Leary — The Washington Post)

Commuters have been frustrated for so long over problems with the D.C. region’s transportation system that I wouldn’t blame any of them for looking with great favor on the spending-plan compromise now before the Virginia General Assembly.

In the nation’s hostile political climate, even seeing the word “compromise” attached to legislation is a cause for joy. And after so many years of gridlock on legislation that would raise money for transportation projects, how could any deal look bad?

The Post’s Errin Haines reports that two of the likely candidates for Virginia governor, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, are urging support for the deal reached by the House and Senate conferees, which still must be approved by the full General Assembly.

But there are some questions that both commuters and transportation advocates could be asking:

  • After so many years of financing state transportation projects through a user fee, called the gas tax, do you want to muddle that up with other revenue sources? The money looks good now, but is this new combination of revenue sources something that both taxpayers and travelers can live with in the long run?
  • If the deal is approved, will travelers in the state’s most congested areas see relief? Is there actually a congestion relief plan behind the financing plan, or is it more like a list of construction projects?

It would be a shame to see the deal fall apart because of an ideological fight, or a turf fight between regions. A third likely candidate, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, came the closest to an ideological pitch: “I cannot support legislation that would ask the taxpayers to shoulder an even heavier burden than they are already carrying,” he said in a statement.

The other two took a problem-solving approach. “This proposal is not perfect but …Virginia simply cannot afford to miss this opportunity to make substantial progress on transportation,” Democrat Terry McAuliffe said in a statement.

He was reflecting Democrats’ long-standing concern about adding general fund revenue to the transportation mix, because that pits transportation spending against other needs, including education and health care.

Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R), who may run as an independent, said in his statement: “This is an important issue that affects the economic viability and quality of life of our state and its citizens, and it must be solved. We cannot let this historic opportunity escape us.”

And he’s right. The past decade is filled with failed proposals to finance transportation improvements in Virginia. It’s tough to let this moment pass, even with very important issues unresolved.

But let’s at least talk about what those issues are. The bill, HB2313, is a transportation financing plan, not a congestion relief plan. That doesn’t mean it will fail to finance congestion relief. It’s just that there’s no guarantee that the perceived needs of a commuter in the D.C. suburbs will be addressed.

Virginia does have transportation plans, and like all transportation plans, they include programs to fix deteriorating transportation assets, like roads and bridges, improve people’s mobility and safety, and build new transportation assets.

Those things overlap, but they’re not the same. An infrastructure plan can relieve congestion, and it can create congestion. Some transportation projects focus on improving people’s mobility, some focus on economic growth. With luck, they accomplish both those things, but not necessarily.

Virginia, like many other jurisdictions, has reached the point where it desperately needs an infusion of money just to maintain the roads, bridges, tunnels and other transportation assets it already has. But the state’s needs go well beyond that. Providing congestion relief and building new assets are much more complicated, and even if this compromise becomes law, people still must pay attention to the plans.

 

 

 

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Mark Berman | February 21, 2013