"TRANSPORTATION will be the biggest issue that the next governor and the legislature will have to face," says Virginia Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who hopes to be elected in the state's 2005 election. It ought to be -- but lawmakers must not go on standby until then. At this point, neither Mr. Kaine nor state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore (R), the presumptive Republican candidate for governor, has set forth much in the way of proposals. At least Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) plans some transportation proposals for the coming legislative session, and state Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) has proposed a range of "user fees" and developer charges to raise revenues.
On the transit front, regional leaders have appointed 13 experts to come up in a hurry with sources of revenue for Metro -- which is on course for a financial calamity unless something is done quickly. The panel is scheduled to issue a report in mid-December. Members were selected for their experience in economics, political science, public finance and regional transit. Chaired by Rudolph G. Penner, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, the panel should be capable of producing concrete proposals; the test will be how seriously regional officials accept its work and commit to a funding plan.
Transportation has been given short shrift in Virginia, Maryland and the District for a long time. In Virginia, the problems were exacerbated when former governor James S. Gilmore III (R) raided the transportation trust fund and borrowed against future federal funding to plug holes left by the beginnings of car tax repeal. When voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads rejected regional referendums to raise their revenue in 2002, politicians all over the state ran for cover, talking about almost anything but transportation.
Reforming Virginia's wasteful Department of Transportation remained a popular campaign issue, and Mr. Warner has made much progress on that front. But no meaty proposals to improve Virginia's transportation network saw the light of day at this year's legislative session.
Mr. Kilgore and Mr. Kaine say they support a state constitutional amendment to prevent the government from dipping into the transportation trust fund for other purposes. That may be what it takes to keep governors' and lawmakers' hands out of the kitty, but it would not add money to the pot. The most logical user fee/tax/levy is the gas tax, which was last raised 18 years ago, but both men oppose any increase. Mr. Kilgore is talking about private-public partnerships and high-occupancy toll lanes -- helpful ideas if not necessarily big-ticket revenue-raisers. Mr. Kaine says his transportation proposals would encourage better land use, which makes sense -- with details to come, apparently.
It might be too much to expect gubernatorial candidates to run on tax-increase platforms less than a year after the General Assembly modestly raised sales and other taxes to increase funding for schools, public safety and health care. Mr. Chichester proposed an assortment of fees at this year's session to increase transportation funding; the plan was dropped during budget and tax negotiations, but he says he is ready to try again.
Voters deserve to know before next year's elections how committed their delegates are to improving transportation. The financial hole continues to deepen.