November 23, 2012

ANEW POLL SHOWS that Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is one of the most popular governors in the country, with a 2-to-1 approval rating. In Virginia he is seen favorably by men and women; whites and blacks; young and old; Republicans and — well, even a respectable third of Virginia Democrats give him a thumbs up. The survey, by the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, suggests that Mr. McDonnell has a reserve of political capital going into his last full year as chief executive.

Shouldn’t he use it to deal with the state’s most critical problem — securing adequate, ongoing revenue for the commonwealth’s badly underfunded transportation system?

Mr. McDonnell has repeatedly acknowledged that Virginians do not pay enough to build and maintain the highways, roads and rails they need for the 21st century. He has never pretended that the steps he has taken, which include borrowing several billion dollars for roads in the short term, are sufficient.

After cutting the ribbon on the new Beltway toll lanes the other day, the governor again made the point and promised action: “I’m going to ask you to do some things this [legislative] session,” he told lawmakers, “without fail and without delay.

That sounds resolute. And the 2013 session is the final one over which he will preside. But what “things” does Mr. McDonnell have in mind? Do they include, at long last, asking Virginians to pay for the roads they use? And yes, that means higher taxes.

More to the point, does the governor have the spine to twist the arms of his fellow Republicans?

Until now, he has not. Last year, not for the first time, he toyed with the idea of indexing the gasoline tax, the biggest source of transportation funding, to inflation. That would be at least a modest step, given that Virginia’s gas tax, one of the nation’s lowest, hasn’t been raised in a quarter-century. But Mr. McDonnell backed down in the face of grumbles from GOP lawmakers.

Virginia is not as conservative, nor as anti-tax, as the Republican lawmakers it elects in gerrymandered districts. And Virginians are united on the critical need for better transportation. According to the Quinnipiac poll, 92 percent of all Virginians (and 89 percent of Republicans) say that improving roads and highways is very or somewhat important. True, by a 5-to-3 margin, they prefer tolls to higher gas taxes to pay for it. But even that is changing; a year ago the margin was 2-to-1.

The bottom line is that Virginia cannot toll its way to a modern transportation system. Building highways requires ongoing funding, not episodic borrowing nor tolling every stretch of asphalt.

Mr. McDonnell has the smarts, the strategic sense and the political savvy to be an effective governor. What he lacks is a legacy. Providing a long-term fix for Virginia’s drivers would be a major achievement.