Getting his transportation package through the General Assembly in the session that begins next week would be a major coup in the eyes of supporters and burnish McDonnell’s reputation as a can-do chief executive.
But it poses political risk as well in a state weary of high tolls and the legendary traffic in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Critics on the left and right are already taking shots.
What’s known about McDonnell’s package so far, they say, is a retread: McDonnell proposes taking about half of the promised $500 million from the general fund — an idea shot down by the Senate last year, saying it would cheat schools, health care and other core government services.
And no matter where the annual $500 million infusion comes from, naysayers contend it’s not nearly enough.
The battle over McDonnell’s transportation plan promises to be one of the most contentious of the session — one that could have huge consequences for both Virginia drivers and an outgoing governor with national aspirations as they head down the road.
McDonnell has not yet disclosed where the rest of the money for his plan would come from. He has hinted that he is open to linking the gas tax to inflation, but that would bring in more revenue only if the price of gas rose.
Even floating the idea of “indexing” the gas tax to inflation threatened to put McDonnell at odds with anti-tax activist Grover Norquist — an indication of just how hard it will be for a politician hoping to hang on to his conservative bona fides to find a way to pay for roads.
Still, much of McDonnell’s transportation record appeals to fiscal conservatives. He ordered an audit that turned up $1.4 billion in unspent transportation funds. He forced reforms at the high-flying board overseeing Metrorail’s $5.6 billion Silver Line.
Whatever the fate of McDonnell’s transportation package, his office contends he has done more for roads than any governor since Gerald L. Baliles, a Democrat who pushed an increase in the gas tax through the General Assembly in 1986. The tax hasn’t been raised since, and it hasn’t produced more revenue as the price of gas has risen because it is a flat, 17.5-cents-per-gallon levy.
“What Bob McDonnell has done on transportation swamps anything that’s been done by recent administrations,” said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin.
McDonnell accelerated bonding on projects around the state, allowing Virginia to take advantage of historically low interest rates and fire-sale pricing from contractors hungry for work amid the recession. Road projects that had long lingered in pipeline got underway: $14 billion’s worth is under construction or in the procurement process, the most in state history, according to McDonnell’s office.