As Va. Governor Hopefuls Woo Tax, Traffic Foes, Road Plans' Details Elusive

Metro trains move to and from the Vienna Metro station alongside Interstate 66 in Fairfax County, one of the areas struggling with traffic congestion.
Metro trains move to and from the Vienna Metro station alongside Interstate 66 in Fairfax County, one of the areas struggling with traffic congestion. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)
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By Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The transportation crisis in Virginia has gotten so bad that highway officials have eliminated 1,400 projects, closed 18 rest stops and cut $2 billion in construction funds. There is so little money that this is how much Fairfax County will get next year to ease its incessant traffic problems: $0. Alexandria will get the same. Ditto for Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William counties.

In response, R. Creigh Deeds, the Democratic candidate for governor, has pledged to come up with a solution in his first year in office but has offered no funding plan. He vows not to, saying that any proposal would be divisive and limit his ability to bring lawmakers together to agree on a solution once he's elected.

Republican Robert F. McDonnell has said he won't raise taxes for roads but has proposed putting hundreds of millions toward the problem largely by diverting money from schools and other priorities. His approach has been criticized as unrealistic -- much of it has been tried and easily rejected before, and his plan to toll some interstates counters federal law.

Their strategies are based on appealing to two powerful constituencies: the huge number of voters in Northern Virginia and elsewhere desperate for relief from clogged roads and those unwilling to consider a tax increase during a recession.

The worsening situation has put pressure on each man to convince voters that his approach would provide the breakthrough that has eluded leaders of both parties for more than a decade. But their stances leave the commuters, carpoolers and business owners who want a solution with little material to judge which candidate is more likely to provide it.

"Both of these candidates have a challenge politically," said Gordon C. Morse, a Democratic speechwriter who backs Deeds. "But they have an obligation to the people of Virginia to talk about this in serious, adult terms. For God's sake, let's have a grown-up discussion about this thing."

Morse, who worked in the 1980s for Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, the last governor to win major transportation changes, called McDonnell's plan "not remotely serious" because it suggests that roads can be built without raising new money. But he said Deeds is "winking and nodding" on whether his proposals would require raising taxes.

Former Republican congressman Tom Davis, who supports McDonnell's plan, shared a desire for a campaign that leads to solutions. "Ever since Governor Baliles 20 years ago, all we've had is a lot of talk and a lot of promises and a lot of nothing," Davis said. "All the improvements you're seeing being done now are being done by tolls or by federal money. We're out of money at the state level."

Virginia isn't quite out of money, but its balances are heading that way. The state spends less than $1 billion a year on road construction, down from nearly $1.5 billion two years ago. More than half of that money will go to maintaining roads this year.

State transportation officials say $1 billion to $2 billion in additional funds is needed each year; $1 billion is in "immediate need" for the paving of interstate and primary roads; and $3.7 billion is needed to replace "deficient" bridges.

Moreover, the largest source of state and federal funding for roads -- gasoline taxes -- is declining because of the economic downturn and because motorists are driving more fuel-efficient cars.

As if to underscore the crisis as the governor's race heats up, the Virginia Department of Transportation said Monday that it had issued pink slips to 600 employees. The plan is for the department to employ no more than 7,500 a year -- down from 8,500 last July and 10,500 seven years ago.

The issue took center stage last weekend, when the two candidates met for their first debate, at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs. There, McDonnell reiterated his belief that now is not the time to raise taxes in Virginia, where unemployment reached 7.2 percent last month, its highest level since 1983, and which has a business-friendly climate in large part because of its low taxes.

The centerpiece of McDonnell's proposal is to privatize the 300 state-run liquor stores -- a move that he said would generate about $500 million in one-time money that could be put toward transportation.

But in selling the stores, critics said, Virginia would forfeit about $100 million in annual revenue now directed into the state's general fund, which pays for public schools, human services, prisons and other core services. McDonnell also proposed redirecting a portion of future growth in revenue from state port operations -- another raid, some said, of the general fund.

"It's a disaster," said Republican Martin E. Williams, a former state senator from Newport News and former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, who decided to endorse Deeds last week after seeing McDonnell's plan.

"I hadn't made up my mind yet for Creigh, but then I saw that plan," Williams said. "You're not going to go in there and rob $5 billion out of the general fund over 10 years and think people are going to let that happen. What's the use of putting down a plan that isn't ever going to happen?"

Although Deeds has not said how he would pay for roads, he has laid out a few conditions for a workable solution, the most notable being that the plan must include a long-term source of funding. Absent a radical solution, such as a major new tolling system or wholesale privatization of state highways, the only likely source of "long-term revenue" is new taxes.

Deeds's lack of specificity has increasingly come under attack, as has the presumption that he plans to propose a tax increase but won't say so.

"Do we really want a governor who gets elected by deceiving the public?" asked House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford). "It's very disingenuous for Democrats to criticize Bob's plan when at least he's got a plan."

Deeds says his approach is the only way to push meaningful change through a divided legislature. "I think right now a specific funding source would be a lightning rod," he said after the debate Saturday. "And I'm not prepared to throw up any lightning rods. A lot of things will be on the table."

Deeds likens his approach to that of Baliles, who did not outline specific funding proposals for roads during his 1985 campaign. Instead, he established a bipartisan commission to study the issue shortly after taking office and then spent months pressing the commission's recommendations, which included an increase in gas and sales taxes. By September, Baliles had successfully built public pressure behind the commission's report.

But the circumstances are different for Deeds. Baliles was working with a legislature controlled by his party. Transportation was not the defining issue of his election. And he was not facing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

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