Virginia: Congestion Ahead

Monday, June 23, 2008

VIRGINIA LAWMAKERS convene today in Richmond to address the state's crumbling transportation infrastructure and shortfall in transportation revenue, problems that, by dint of a generation-long attention deficit, have come to dwarf all others in the commonwealth.

According to the more optimistic scenarios, the special legislative session, called by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), is headed for what could be a weeks-long impasse followed by an unsatisfactory, inadequate compromise. Under more pessimistic forecasts, the likely outcome is a quick political train wreck. Either way, Virginians should brace themselves, at least in the near term, for finger-pointing and recriminations.

That is grim news for commuters, road trippers and anyone else who chances to use the state's roads, bridges, tunnels and trains. For Northern Virginians, who live in the most urbanized, globalized and economically dynamic part of the state, it is a justifiable source of outrage that lawmakers -- mostly but not exclusively downstate ones -- are incapable of tackling the crisis head-on.

For that they can blame Virginia's Republican leadership, arch-conservative ideologues whose insistent sloganeering -- No Statewide Taxes! -- suggests an utter failure to grasp the stakes in the transportation debate. It is not simply that the party's grandees in Richmond -- principally, House Speaker William J. Howell (Stafford) -- are touting a different solution to the problem. They barely acknowledge there's a problem at all.

Here we have a state whose funding for new road and rail projects will, at current projections, all but disappear within a decade as available money is sponged up by maintenance needs; a state where the gasoline tax, a principal source of transportation funding, is, at 17.5 cents per gallon, among the lowest in the nation; a state that last tapped a long-term, dependable, sustainable new source of funding for roads and rails when Ronald Reagan was president.

Faced with a crisis, the governor, Democratic lawmakers and even moderate Republicans in the House of Delegates have put forward plans that would yield $1 billion annually in new statewide transportation funds -- a bare minimum given the burgeoning needs. But according to lawmakers of both parties, Mr. Howell has scorned any approach that includes statewide taxes; he says that he will consider only self-taxing regional plans for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Mr. Howell has stacked the House Finance Committee with lawmakers from rural districts whose constituents do not feel the transportation pinch acutely. By that stratagem he hopes to guarantee that any reasonable funding bill sent over by the more moderate state Senate -- or indeed any produced by sensible Republicans in the House -- will be dead on arrival. If such tactics prevent the legislature from tackling the state's most basic transportation needs, Virginians stuck in traffic will know whom to blame on Election Day next year.


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