Virginia's Transportation Mess

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

IMAGINE A BUSINESS whose revenue depends largely on taxes imposed on sales of cars and gasoline -- sales that are drying up because of the recession, more efficient vehicles and alternative fuel sources. That business would be bankrupt -- which goes a long way toward explaining why Virginia's system of paying for and maintaining roads and transit has collapsed.

Two years ago, the state spread around roughly $300 million for building secondary and urban roads, the ones most Virginians use for their daily commutes, errands and shopping; $46 million of that was for Northern Virginia. In the coming year, that funding will have shrunk by 80 percent statewide, to about $62 million, and Northern Virginia's share will be just $1 million -- enough to build maybe half of an intersection. The following year, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation, the state will spend just $10 million annually for new secondary roads, and Northern Virginia will get nothing. (See the accompanying chart.)

Given that crisis in funding, and the centrality of transportation infrastructure to Virginia's economy, you'd think the candidates for governor would advance serious, plausible proposals -- and that they would include fresh revenue from new taxes or fees. Unfortunately, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican, is pushing a plan that mostly rules out such revenue and that would deliver significant new funds for road-building only at the probable expense of the state's colleges, public schools, police departments, prisons and health programs. And state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the Democrat, has not even bothered to formulate much of a plan at all. As a result, the candidates' first face-to-face debate last weekend was deeply unedifying on what each rightly identified as the central issue.

Mr. McDonnell's transportation plan -- all 19 pages of it -- deserves credit for the extent and specificity of its proposals. He acknowledges that current funding sources are inadequate and proposes some new ones. Unfortunately, the new revenue he identifies is one-time-only, many years distant or paltry. And he does not explain how, in the absence of credible, reliable new funding, he would wring out more cash for roads without harming other crucial state functions and services. For instance, Mr. McDonnell proposes borrowing $1 billion for projects in urban areas but does not say how he would find the tens of millions of dollars annually that he acknowledges would be required to pay off that debt. Mr. McDonnell says he would dedicate a portion of revenue growth and budget surpluses to transportation. Very nice, except Virginia is grappling with deep deficits. And if and when revenue growth returns, the state -- which needs 5 percent annual revenue growth just to keep even with inflation and population growth -- will need to replenish existing programs in education, health and public safety.

Mr. McDonnell says he would take a chunk of Northern Virginia's sales tax revenue and divert it for roads. But again, he does not identify which programs he would slash to make that possible. After all, that money's not free -- it now goes to support other state functions. He says he would sell the state's liquor stores. That's a fine idea in principle, and one that might produce a one-time windfall of $500 million for roads, but it would also deprive the state of millions of dollars in annual income for substance abuse clinics and other programs.

Mr. McDonnell's other revenue ideas include tolling Interstates 95 and 85 at the North Carolina border and tapping future income from offshore drilling. But these would require federal approvals or major private investments that might not materialize. By Mr. McDonnell's estimate, the proposed tolls would generate only $50 million a year.

As for Mr. Deeds, his approach to transportation funding is to sidestep the subject, a stance even more irresponsible than Mr. McDonnell's. Mr. Deeds's 19-page "Plan to Jump-Start Virginia's Economy" doesn't discuss transportation until Page 10, where it rates only a cameo appearance, with nary a word about funding. Mr. Deeds, although not ruling out new taxes, would clearly prefer not to discuss them -- a position as politically expedient as it is irresponsible. As incumbent Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) discovered in failing repeatedly to win significant new sources of revenue for transportation, a candidate who refuses to talk about taxes in the campaign has no mandate to push them once in office.

Virginia's next governor will confront nothing as difficult, or as important, as fixing the transportation mess. A state commission has projected the gap between Virginia's transportation needs and resources over the next 20 years at $100 billion -- and that estimate was made five years ago, in much sunnier economic times.

If Mr. McDonnell wants to shortchange education, public safety and health to pay for roads, let him say so clearly and honestly. If Mr. Deeds wants to raise taxes for the same purpose, let him level with Virginians. Otherwise, the two are condemned to a fall campaign every bit as sterile as their first debate.

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