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.
Tolling on the interstates requires permission from the federal government, which has not been granted in recent years except when the money was going specifically to improve the road being tolled. And McDonnell's plans to dedicate future general fund money are hard to quantify and count on.
Deeds, in contrast, has offered no specifics at all, promising only to be open to all ideas, including new taxes. He has pledged to establish a bipartisan commission after Election Day, much as former governor Gerald L. Baliles (D) did in the mid-1980s when he pushed through the last major infusion of new money for transportation. Deeds has also touted his rural roots as an asset in persuading the legislature to act.
"Somebody like me, from my part of the state, can bring people together, can create consensus and do the things that are necessary to create opportunity in every part of Virginia," Deeds said in a TV spot.
Deeds has supported an increase in the gasoline tax in the past, but it is not viewed as a stable source of money because cars have become more fuel-efficient and drivers have changed their habits. Also, the 17.5-cents-per-gallon tax generates less than $900 million per year. It would have to be more than doubled to produce $1 billion in new annual money -- a political achievement that is almost unthinkable.
"That simply will not work," said Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), chairman of the House Transportation Committee. "It raises $46 million per penny. That doesn't begin to address the huge problems in Northern Virginia."
Most transportation advocates and lawmakers say the likeliest solution is a complicated package that includes some new taxes, takes revenue from existing sources and gives different parts of the state different options. It may end up much like the plan that emerged from the legislature in 2007 -- only without the regional taxing authorities that the Virginia Supreme Court ruled were unconstitutional.
"The pendulum is swinging slowly but surely. It's taken a crisis to do it," said Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Herndon). "The closing of these rest stops, closing of residencies, combining and moving of maintenance facilities -- that has hit rural Virginia much harder than the rest of us, and it's a loss of jobs. So I think those rural delegates, both Republicans and Democrats, are feeling the pinch."
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.