Deeds, McDonnell Tout Transportation Plans, Face Roadblocks

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009

In new TV ads, the two candidates for governor all but assure Virginia drivers that traffic relief is on the way, but there's little in their plans to suggest that Democrat R. Creigh Deeds or Republican Robert F. McDonnell can succeed where a generation of governors have failed.

Both have proposed tackling the state's growing list of road and transit needs in ways that have largely been tried before and would again be difficult, if not impossible, to push through the General Assembly: a potential tax increase in Deeds's case; for McDonnell, a plan to sell state-run liquor stores, start offshore drilling and redirect money that would go to public schools and other core services.

That leaves voters not only to judge the merits of each proposal but also to gamble on who has the ability to get something done. The best argument for action might be the severity of the funding crisis, which, amid rest stop closures and depleted construction accounts, is igniting a new urgency across the state. Nonetheless, whoever wins still must face a deeply divided legislature that has shown little willingness in recent years to find common ground.

"No matter who wins, they're going to have to contend with this issue, and it's a lot more complex than what we've been talking about," said Del. Samuel A. Nixon Jr. of Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond, who is chairman of the House Republican Caucus. "Given the political realities, there's a limit to what a rural legislator, or even someone like myself, is willing to support."

Nixon's point of view mirrors that of many Republicans, who control the House of Delegates and are reluctant to support -- or, in many cases, adamantly oppose -- tax increases. The intensity of feeling is equally strong among many Democrats who control the state Senate, who say privatizing the state's liquor stores and redirecting money from core services are non-starters.

"The business community as well as a large percentage of the public realizes that you can't fix transportation without raising additional revenues," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "When McDonnell says, 'I'm not going to do that except from the general fund,' that means public schools and higher education and social services. And that's not going to happen, and he knows it as well as I do."

McDonnell said Tuesday after a candidates forum in Loudoun County that he would not raise taxes to pay for transportation projects. He also said it was irrelevant that much of his plan has been rejected before. "That's a bogus argument," he said. "Everything that anyone's proposed has probably been rejected once or twice."

The road-funding crisis has worsened considerably this year, with the economy, reduced vehicle miles and more fuel-efficient cars taking a heavy toll on state gasoline tax collections, the primary source of transportation funding in Virginia. A nosedive in car sales has depleted the other big source: revenue from titling taxes. Lawmakers and transportation experts estimate that the state would need to come up with at least $1 billion a year to widen highways, pave rural roads, fix bridges, expand public transit and make other fixes.

The state has been spending about $5 billion on road construction, operations and maintenance each year, but over the past year, highway officials have had to trim nearly that much from the six-year spending plan. Rest stops and regional offices have been closed and hundreds of positions eliminated at the Virginia Department of Transportation. Another $1 billion must be trimmed this fall. Next year, most Northern Virginia localities will get no money for secondary road improvements.

McDonnell has issued a 20-page menu of new funding sources he plans to dedicate to building roads, including the sale of liquor stores, heavy borrowing, new tax revenue from growth at Virginia's ports, money from offshore drilling and tolls on interstates 95 and 85.

McDonnell is running a television ad in Northern Virginia this week in which he reminds voters that he grew up in the area and understands how bad traffic is. In the ad, McDonnell promises to find "new money for transportation while protecting education funds and not raising taxes."

Critics say few of McDonnell's ideas are politically possible, nor would they generate the money he claims. The General Assembly has handily rejected privatization for many reasons, including that the one-time estimate of $500 million in proceeds from the sale of liquor stores would be quickly offset by the permanent loss of $100 million in annual revenue that goes to other state services.

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