Virginia Gov.-elect Robert McDonnell faces transportation crucible

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

HERE'S A KEY question for Virginia Gov.-elect Robert F. McDonnell (R) as he prepares to take office next month: Will he stand by as the state's transportation funding collapses, or will he take affirmative steps to generate revenue?

The evidence from Mr. McDonnell's gubernatorial campaign does not compel much optimism. His transportation plan, which ruled out new taxes, relied on made-up numbers and wishful thinking to arrive at its promise of new funding. Moreover, the McDonnell team's preference for shrinking government does not inspire much hope that it will see transportation funding and the necessary administrative apparatus to support it as priorities.

On the other hand, Mr. McDonnell is a shrewd, forward-looking politician who knows that if he leaves the state's roads and bridges in the same collapsing condition in which he finds them, his governorship will be judged a failure. Proof of that is that he has named Thomas M. Davis III, the former Northern Virginia congressman, as co-chair of his transition team's transportation study group, and Sean T. Connaughton, the respected former chairman of Prince William County's Board of Supervisors, as the state's next secretary of transportation. Mr. Davis and Mr. Connaughton are pragmatic moderates; in fact, both are disliked by many of the conservatives who form Mr. McDonnell's base. Notwithstanding the governor-elect's anti-tax pledges, both would be well advised to present the governor-elect with a menu of transportation-funding options that includes increased revenue, including new and local-option taxes, possibly rebranded as "user fees."

That menu of options will arrive against a backdrop of what has become a three-alarm transportation crisis. Last month, the Commonwealth Transportation Board made the latest cuts to the state's six-year funding program official -- an $893 million downgrade to a road construction and maintenance plan that in its new, diminished form now totals $7.6 billion. The overall reduction in revenue for all state transportation projects -- which includes rail lines, ports and airports as well as roads and bridges -- now totals $4.6 billion through 2015, an amount roughly equal to a full year's revenue. As Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer told the board this week: "So what we are being asked to do . . . is to run a six-year program on five years of revenue."

The plummeting transportation revenue reflects falling auto sales as well as a tax on gasoline, last raised in 1987, that has been decimated by increased fuel efficiency of cars and by inflation; it is now one of the lowest gasoline taxes in the nation. Republicans in the state legislature, including Mr. McDonnell and his allies, repeatedly refused to raise the gas tax. Virginians can justly blame them for the state of the commonwealth's roads.

Will Mr. McDonnell choose to be a problem-solver? His answer on transportation will provide the best clue to the character and promise of the administration he will lead.

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