New Virginia Governor Will Have to Put 'Roads and Rail' First

Thursday, June 4, 2009

IN TV ADS and stump speeches, Terry R. McAuliffe, one of the Democratic candidates for governor in Virginia, has drilled home the point that Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's successor needs to be a "jobs" governor. But an alarming presentation yesterday by state Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer shows that what Virginia needs first and foremost is a "roads and rail" governor. Virginia's highway construction fund is teetering on the edge of insolvency, and businesses will be reluctant to relocate to Virginia if roads remain clogged. The candidate most likely to step up to the transportation challenge, as we've argued before, is state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds.

The numbers are both stark and startling: The state's six-year construction budget for highways, rail and public transit has lost an eye-popping $4.1 billion -- or more than one-third of its value -- in just two years, in large part because gas tax revenue has dropped precipitously. The Virginia Department of Transportation has shed hundreds of employees and been reduced to maintaining roads instead of building them. The ramifications are enormous: Virginia will lose out on untold millions in federal dollars for lack of matching funds, the quality of roads and bridges will further deteriorate, and congestion will worsen. Even attracting public-private partnerships will be a challenge without adequate seed money.

Mr. McAuliffe boasts that he'll be able to pay for his expansive promises, such as his pledge to pay off teachers' mortgages and loans, by luring businesses to the commonwealth. Leave aside for a moment that Virginia is already a business-friendly, right-to-work state, and that Mr. Kaine (D) and his predecessor, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), are well-liked by business leaders. To be credible, any promise to create jobs must be predicated on a statewide transportation plan.

All three Democratic candidates say they support transportation improvements. The question for voters is who is most likely to deliver. Former delegate Brian Moran has been generally supportive of raising revenue for roads, but he helped kill in committee a proposed gasoline tax increase that Mr. Deeds supported. Mr. McAuliffe, who has no record in state government, says he would support an honest conversation about revenue for roads. But such a conversation has taken place -- over and over again -- since the state's last transportation package was approved in 1986; what's needed now is action.

Mr. Deeds, from Bath County in west-central Virginia, has consistently taken the political risk of supporting transportation packages that would help Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. As a moderate, rural lawmaker, he is best positioned to attract broad, statewide support for a transportation package. He's also the only candidate to make clear that passing a statewide transportation package would be his top priority. Long-suffering commuters should keep that in mind when they cast ballots in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

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