By almost any measure, Virginia is in trouble on transportation. The 1990s could go down as the commonwealth's "Decade of Delusion," as politicians peddle the belief that Virginia can prosper while ignoring capital investments required for its future.
It was this thinking that led to cuts in personnel in the state Department of Transportation. In 1995 Virginia paid nearly $40 million in cash and early retirement packages to entice 1,200 employees to leave. And they did. In 1997 the agency's work force was at a 30-year low.
Unfortunately, this exercise saved no money because by the following year the state had hired back many of its ex-workers as private consultants. On the other hand, the cut seriously impaired Virginia's ability to build safe and efficient roads.
Last fall, for example, the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission reported that nearly 88 percent of local road projects -- 138 out of 157 -- were behind schedule by an average of 14 months, and that is with new federal money.
Clearly, Northern Virginia is the engine driving much of Virginia's economy, and it provides a significant portion of the revenues for state government services. But Northern Virginia is choking on congestion. And the costs associated with that congestion translate into major losses in the lost gross regional economic product. Businesses face problems with retaining a qualified work force, employee stress, reductions in productivity, higher operating costs and reduced competitiveness. Sitting in traffic costs the average household $1,000 a year.
Northern Virginia is already first in the nation in car-pooling and second in mass transit. It is a national leader in transportation technology, but still it has the second-worst congestion in the United States.
The conservative price tag for the area's needs has been estimated to exceed $10 billion, and that does not count the $2 billion required to replace the Wilson Bridge, of which Virginia will have a sizable portion of the cost. Route 501 and Route 460 would benefit from sorely needed upgrades, and in turn that would help the economies of Southside Virginia. To get it done, we're talking several billion dollars for rural Virginia.
Given construction timetables, it could be eight or nine years before newly funded roads are ready. Given an increasingly desperate situation, the logical response would be to act with urgency and purpose. But we're not doing that. Instead, we are talking and talking and talking.
Virginia's access to more federal highway funds is unlikely. It already gets far more back from the federal government than it sends -- more money than any other state. Last year the commonwealth got $16 billion more back than it contributed. It's a little much to expect more. The amount in the transportation funds, even with the present increase, pales beside the need.
We must resist the siren song -- the Lorelei of Virginia politics -- that we can just get along with an incremental fix here or a commission there or that somehow these things will take care of themselves on someone else's watch. It's time for the Decade of Delusion to end so we can get on with the urgent needs of tomorrow.
-- Gerald Baliles
is a former Virginia governor;
the above is excerpted from a speech
he made to the Intelligent
Transportation Society of Virginia.