GOV. GILMORE added his ideas on transportation yesterday to the mix previously advanced by Virginia state lawmakers from both parties. That in itself is good news for all Virginians. Like earlier proposals by legislators, the governor's package relies on money old and new and some borrowed too; his total is roughly the same as in the other plans. With the governor's ideas now on the table, the transportation debate can proceed.
In what he described as "the most dramatic departure from the old ways" of paying for roads, Gov. Gilmore proposes to use some money from the state's general fund; over the years the state has relied on its smaller and more restricted transportation trust. While the approach has merit, the amounts the governor proposes are backloaded to put the largest payments into the years after he has left office. The funds would go into a new "Priority Transportation Fund" as a way to bypass "environmental and regulatory red tape" -- which will need more explaining.
The governor describes his plan as providing $2.5 billion in "new" money over six years, but most of it is money moved from existing sources to transportation. For example, Gov. Gilmore proposes to advance the spending of federal highway funds; to save money through improved collection of the fuels tax; and to put back money taken from transportation funds for general fund use by Gov. Wilder. The real "new" money would be an upfront payment as part of Virginia's share of the tobacco settlement.
Advancing funds to speed transportation projects (so far unchosen) is an acceptable practice, though it can mean sticking successor governors, legislators and taxpayers with a huge tab. Still begging for better responses from Richmond is the long-range, mammoth commitment to transit and roads that Virginia will have to make in the out years. It may be too much to expect in an election year, but business leaders and local officials in Northern Virginia and other traffic-choked areas of the state are concerned enough to be talking about taxes, bonds and commitments to meet future obligations. That kind of serious talk ought to be part of the debate when the elections are over and the General Assembly convenes.