Let's get down to the politics of this road thing and Virginia's incoming governor, Timothy M. Kaine (D).
First, a little disclosure: Twenty years ago this month, I signed on with Gov.-elect Gerald L. Baliles (D), the last Virginia chief executive to opt for full immersion on transportation funding. I spent four years writing speeches on how to better get there from here. Today has some similarities with the situation back then (not enough construction money), but some serious differences, too.
One difference? In relative political terms, it was simple then; now it's not.
In 1986 Baliles's objective was to break with the incremental increases in the gas tax, which had been the legislative habit, and come to grips with the pace of economic growth, particularly in Virginia's urban corridor. Specifically, he wanted to establish two streams of money -- one for maintenance (which by law has first claim on available road funds) and a second for construction. Baliles implored the General Assembly not to compromise the state's economic potential by doing too little. So, the legislators -- most of whom were also Democrats -- proceeded to do too little. Or so it appears in retrospect.
Still, Virginia had a new road fund with dedicated revenue. The legislation also carved out, for the first time, a fixed percentage of transportation funds for public transit, airport improvements and seaport development.
In the two decades since, we've had plenty of road-funding noise -- budget rearrangements, one-time infusions, new financing schemes, etc. -- but none of it has included a new source of revenue committed to Virginia's transportation system alone. The Baliles years may have been the last time a political pitch for roads could be made without being assaulted by people holding up signs saying either "smart" or "no taxes."
What "smart" means varies with the enthusiast, but the implication is that Virginia's prior transportation mentality was stupid. Much better, according to the smarts, is to "cluster," "telecommute" or "levitate" or something. They tell you this in great earnestness, then get in their cars and drive to their 8,000-square-foot suburban enclaves located in a field with a dozen other similar homes just south of Lovettsville.
Then, there's the "no taxes" bunch, which has gained substantial, though arguably disproportionate, representation in the Virginia political mix. They hold on to their "no tax increases" stance the way a soap company holds on to a favorite slogan. It's their brand. They'd like to reduce road congestion ever so much but they don't want to get tagged with the bill.
The most prominent exponent of this approach was James S. Gilmore III (R), who six years ago as governor slammed taxes as "the old way of thinking" for road improvements. He had a better idea for clearing up the state's clogged arteries: Borrow the money and call it "innovative." Gilmore's legacy is a $2 billion road debt.
Now there's a new Gilmore. His name is William T. "Bill" Bolling (R), Virginia's lieutenant governor-elect. Bolling told a Richmond chamber of commerce group recently, "Don't let anyone tell you the only way to solve Virginia's transportation problem is by raising taxes."
Understand, since Jerry W. Kilgore (R) lost his bid for the governorship last month, a vocal contingent in the Virginia GOP has been insisting that if Kilgore had been more like Gilmore, he would have won. That means doing nothing on transportation funding in 2006 is regarded by some as a viable option.
But this contingent will have to come up with alternative strategies, at least for the sake of appearances. These probably will include a heavy reliance on general funds, without mention of the trade-offs for public education, nursing homes or anything else. Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) also has embraced "radical, great free-market ideas," such as selling off the state's bridges and highways.
But where, pray tell, does Kaine -- he of the many town meetings -- stand on all this? Does he have a political strategy for handling, to borrow a phrase, Virginia's "road rejectionists"?
Kaine, of course, scored with voters, particularly in high-growth regions, by proposing to tie road funding to land-use choices. Local governments would get new powers, and the state might have a hand in planning. Such ideas are not new, but they have always been shelved for being politically problematic. Kaine could be a brave man. Or something else.
Could the 2006 Virginia General Assembly lock up over transportation funding? You betcha. Some senior legislators predict it.
Could Kaine opt for a special session later in the year? Possibly, and that would allow him to develop his thinking on the subject, as well as make his case for action. In 1986 Baliles gave himself nine months before tackling the issue in a special session.
For nearly 20 years Virginia has expanded -- more businesses, people, cars, houses -- without the infrastructure to support it. During the next 20 years, it's predicted, Virginia's jobs will increase by 1.9 million, its population by 2 million, registered vehicles by 3 million and freight shipments by a factor of two. Kaine, in listening mode at the moment, eventually will have to open his mouth. It better be good.