Beast of Burden-Shifting

Sunday, March 11, 2007

ONE OF THESE days the plan endorsed by Virginia's legislature to modernize the state's obsolete transportation system might be rearranged, repaired and otherwise rewritten so that it's more worthy of becoming law. At the moment it's something of a mess, though not beyond redemption.

An example is the muddle-headed provision that would take responsibility for planning and building new local roads in Northern Virginia, a job the state has done since the Great Depression, and dump it in the region's lap. In fact, parts of the region are already in the road-building business, but in a modest way; for instance, Fairfax County is managing eight to 10 secondary road projects right now. It's another matter for the state to shift its entire workload of dozens of local roads in Northern Virginia onto localities in one fell swoop, with no upfront discussion of costs, accountability and division of labor. It's unfair and ill-considered, even if the price tag would not be as astronomical as some county politicians warn.

Other problems with the legislation are more significant but similar. Consider, for instance, the Republican-controlled General Assembly passing the job of raising $400 million in new taxes and fees to mostly Democratic local officials in Northern Virginia. That represents a remarkable act of burden-shifting and abdication of responsibility by the state, which is better-suited to finance major roadwork and benefits hugely from the region's go-go economy. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has pledged to offer amendments that address some of those problems and spread the onus of transportation construction costs more broadly over the state. Tactically, he is correct to stress the bill's deficiencies so that the legislature takes seriously his amendments and his threat of a veto if the amendments are not accepted.

Most Northern Virginians are probably willing to pay more through higher taxes and fees if it means widening the jam-packed roads and improving dysfunctional intersections that they use regularly. Mr. Kaine, mindful of that, seems prepared to sign some version of this transportation bill at the end of the day. But he is right to push hard for a bill that is fair, balanced and up to the task of addressing a huge problem.

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