TO FIND THE tens of billions of dollars Virginia needs to maintain and build a 21st-century transportation network, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is adopting the Blanche DuBois approach — he’s relying on the kindness of strangers. The governor says he is enthusiastic about a new program to sell naming rights for the state’s highways, bridges and tunnels. “I think people will be surprised . . . how much that might be able to generate,” he said enthusiastically.
It’s certainly possible that a few people and corporations would be willing to pay to affix their names on tunnels and highway overpasses. But that feeble approach, which is about all that’s left of the transportation program proposed by the governor this year after state lawmakers got through with it, is severely, almost comically, inadequate. Then again, so was the governor’s initial proposal.
The naming rights program might yield $5 million to $20 million annually. That amount of cash will buy a few rail cars or patch up one modest strip of crumbling highway. It won’t make a dent in the state’s overall transportation funding crisis.
Mr. McDonnell knows the scale and scope of the transportation shortfall as well as anyone. In the past, he has flirted with the idea of indexing the gasoline tax to inflation so that the revenue it generates keeps abreast of prices. If Virginia had hitched its gas tax to inflation in 1986, the last time lawmakers had the spine to raise the rate, the state would have collected well more than $10 billion more in revenue for transportation.
But Mr. McDonnell, widely regarded as a vice presidential prospect if Mitt Romney is the GOP nominee for president, has refused to challenge Republican lawmakers in Richmond to address transportation funding in a serious way. Taking a doctrinaire stance against any new taxes, he rejected raising the gas tax, which is among the nation’s lowest, or indexing it for inflation.
Instead of finding new revenue for transportation, he proposed diverting existing funds from education, public safety and health programs. Predictably, Democrats in the state Senate said no. Quite a few Republicans didn’t think it wise either.
While the governor has accelerated a few billion dollars’ worth of borrowing for highway construction, that funding will run out at about the same time as he leaves office, in 2014. After that, Virginia’s transportation system will once again be all but broke, using what funds are available for upkeep while new building projects are deferred and shelved. Traffic will only get worse.
Mr. McDonnell, as he has done in the past, acknowledged that the problem is not fixed. “This is certainly not the end. It’s ongoing,” he told reporters. But rather than fixing the problem — and it won’t get fixed without new tax revenue — he seems content to keep kicking it down the road.