December 20, 2012

FOR NEARLY A DECADE, officials in Richmond have warned that funding for the state’s transportation system is drying up, a victim of inflation, aging roads and rails, the improving fuel efficiency of vehicles and a per-gallon gasoline tax that has remained unchanged since 1986, its purchasing power shriveling to nothingness. Twice in the past decade, in 2006 and 2008, lawmakers held special sessions of the General Assembly to tackle the growing crisis, without success. Meanwhile, officials project that not one cent of state funding will be left for road construction starting in 2017.

Somehow, the official who has led Virginia’s House of Delegates since 2003 missed all of it.

In a speech the other day to the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he isn’t sure there will be time in the 45-day legislative session that starts next month to deal with transportation funding. “The whole idea of doing something has just sprung up in the last two weeks,” said Rip Van Howell, apparently just waking after a long nap.

We jest, sort of. Of course, Mr. Howell has long been aware that Virginians are not paying enough to maintain and build the roads they need. But he has consistently opposed sensible solutions to generate ongoing revenue, which necessarily include raising taxes. He even opposed a GOP-backed measure in Congress to devote state funds for Metro, despite the fact that it triggered matching funds from the federal government.

Instead, Mr. Howell has backed fanciful strategies, including selling naming rights for highways and bridges, and unworkable ones, such as shifting existing funds to transportation by raiding the rest of Virginia’s budget — for education, health care and public safety.

The trouble with shortchanging other priorities to build roads is that while Virginia is a relatively rich state, it is not a particularly generous one.

Measured by household or per capita income, it ranks easily among the top 10 states. Yet Richmond has been stingy about outlays on health care and education. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the state’s per capita spending on health care, $6,286 annually, is more than $500 below the average for the 50 states. And when Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) proposed the other day to spend almost $59 million raising teachers’ salaries next year — the first state-funded raise for teachers since 2007 — he acknowledged that their pay would remain below the national average.

And this is the budget that Mr. Howell wants to cannibalize for transportation? In fact, he has it backward. It’s not the legislature that’s at risk of running out of time. It’s Virginia.