Thursday, September 24, 2009
R.CREIGH DEEDS, the Democrat running for governor in Virginia, has now unequivocally committed himself to support higher taxes to rescue the state's sclerotic road system. His stance is nothing more or less than common sense: Virginia needs tens of billions of dollars in new revenue for roads, and it will not materialize without asking taxpayers -- the same taxpayers who rightly groan about traffic -- to foot a good part of the bill. Still, by articulating that position in plain English on the opposite page Wednesday, Mr. Deeds showed political guts, which is more than one can say for the smoke-and-mirrors, wing-and-a-prayer approach to transportation endorsed by his opponent, Republican nominee Robert F. McDonnell.
The Republican response to Mr. Deeds's pronouncement was nothing short of rapturous; it's not every day you see one party rushing to distribute the published work of the other party's candidate. True to form, Virginia Republicans are betting that an easily misled electorate will be too shortsighted to notice that the state has completely run out of road-building funds. In this fiscal year, Richmond will spend scarcely $1 million to build and improve roads in all of Northern Virginia -- a laughable sum when measured against the billions needed. Two years from now, state spending on new roads in Northern Virginia is projected to be precisely zero. Mr. Deeds doesn't want to hit Virginians in the middle of a recession; he doesn't want to act without bipartisan consensus; but he wants to act.
Mr. Deeds had previously tipped his hand on his openness to raising taxes, but then, at a debate in Fairfax County last week, waffled, stammered and tried to clarify. Now, by leveling with Virginians, Mr. Deeds has defied the conventional wisdom that led the incumbent governor, Timothy M. Kaine, and his predecessor, Mark R. Warner, both Democrats, to duck and dodge the tax question as candidates, only to seek increases once in office. Bear in mind that Mr. Warner's success, in 2004, in raising significant new revenue for schools has helped Virginia contain the damage to education, public safety and human services that the recession has wreaked in many other states.
Over the next 20 years, Virginia will need to raise an extra $100 billion -- minimum -- if it is to maintain and expand a transportation network that will meet the state's growth. The commonwealth is business-friendly; it already runs a relatively tight ship, as repeated ratings and studies have shown. Further rounds of streamlining, consolidation and efficiencies will not yield major new savings, and hoping that a new economic boom will unclog the state's roads is wishful thinking.
We will return to the details of Mr. McDonnell's transportation plan another day. Suffice it to say that anyone who thinks that Virginia can get traffic moving or even slow the deterioration of its road system without fresh revenue -- and yes, a tax increase -- is living in an alternate reality. By his honesty, Mr. Deeds has now prepared the way for a mandate, should he be elected, to address the state's most critical problem.