Asked last week how bad the transportation situation had become in Virginia, a senior state official paused for a moment and said, "We're in increasingly deep doo-doo." Only he didn't say "doo-doo."
The state's new six-year transportation plan went into effect Friday, and it has a billion dollars fewer in it than the last plan. A problem for getting around? Only if you intend to use a car.
You may be enthralled by mass transit and enamored of "smart growth," but if you need to go to the store, you're going to reach for the thing with the doors and a steering wheel. In Virginia, however, it's going to take longer and longer to get where you want to go.
The progression will be downward and steady. For a time, road projects -- the Springfield interchange, Woodrow Wilson Bridge and Route 28 improvements -- will go forward. But, beyond those projects, failing a change in direction, Virginia will be out of the road construction business by 2010. That means transportation projects discussed for a decade or more -- the "Western Corridor," connecting fast-growing Loudon and Prince William counties, for instance -- won't even appear on the radar screen, says Virginia Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet.
In Virginia, maintenance gets first dibs on available transportation money, and maintenance costs have nearly tripled during the past three decades, which dramatically reduces funds available to build things.
A similar predicament arose in the mid-1980s, the last time Virginia seriously and successfully addressed state transportation funding. Then, Gov. Jerry Baliles (I worked for him) convinced the General Assembly that a couple of more cents on the gas tax -- the traditional Virginia approach -- would not suffice. Virginia was growing too fast for that, and it needed a dedicated stream of funds to support not only road construction but airports, mass transit and seaports too.
Baliles didn't get all he wanted, but he got a lot -- partly because he worked with a General Assembly that was open to addressing the issue. That does not happen to be the case today. Having just passed a new tax package this year -- the principal feature of which is a breath-stealing half-cent increase in the sales tax -- some legislators are in a fixed state of apoplexy and vowing never to revisit taxes again.
This is the deadbeat lobby, and it operates most gloriously out of the House of Delegates, where about 30 guys won office in recent years by promising the moon at a discount.
World-class schools? No problem.
Efficient roads? No sweat.
And how about a tax cut?
It is a tale told by idiots, and they are sticking to their story. Their position is exemplified by Jim Gilmore, the former governor, who in January 1999 told Post reporter R.H. Melton, "I showed that you can increase money, dramatically, for transportation, without raising taxes."
Road funding by miraculous conception? How'd he do that?
The answer is by borrowing against future federal highway revenue, in part, a choice that put a $300 million line in the state's current budget just for debt service. The percentage of Virginia road construction funds for debt service was 1 percent in 1989; by 2009, it will be 20 percent.
It gets worse. The new state transportation plan includes only $22 million for the next six years for what is called preliminary engineering. That produces the documents necessary to put a project out for bid. The $22 million, in turn, could lead to about $350 million in road construction.
And what does that get Virginia, again, in the next six years? About 60 or 70 miles of road improvements.
How does Gov. Mark R. Warner figure into all this?
Warner hit a wall trying to get the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads transportation referendums passed in 2002. He then proposed a transportation funding plan earlier this year. It was ignored.
So if Warner now figures that a new funding proposal for 2005 -- an election year in Virginia -- would amount to teeing up the ball for the "no-no-no" bunch, that's understandable.
That brings us to that one reliable source of enlightenment -- Virginia's all-utility glutton for political punishment, state Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford). The Fredericksburg Republican and leader of the Senate Finance Committee popped up in Charlottesville recently to say that Virginia soon will be stuck with a maintenance-only road program. It has to have a long-range transportation solution, he said, as in more money.
Chichester would lean more heavily on user fees rather than on general tax dollars. "Transportation is perhaps the best example of a service that should be paid for by those who use it," he said, echoing a tune played by the referendum opponents.
Of course, Chichester is a pragmatist at heart, taking a see-a-problem, find-a-fix approach, which was Virginia's historic method of dealing with transportation issues.
But that is not the prevailing view in the House these days, where the anti-everything theorists hold sway. Until those self-satisfied impediments get removed, the "doo-doo" prognosis for Virginia's roads will remain operative.