THE DECK is stacked in Richmond this week as negotiators from Virginia's House of Delegates and Senate try to find the first new money for transportation in a generation. Specifically, it is stacked in favor of a flawed plan that would use unstable, unreliable funding sources to produce an anemic cash flow.
Witness the negotiators on the House-Senate conference committee, whose mission is to fashion a compromise between competing transportation funding formulas. Just two of the 12 negotiators are Northern Virginians, despite the fact that the region accounts for one-third of the state's population, 40 percent of its economy and at least half its traffic headaches. Ten of the 12 negotiators are Republicans. And, thanks to some artful parliamentary maneuvering, 11 of the 12 negotiators named to the conference committee voted for the House-backed funding package, which is less responsible than the Senate's approach.
The chances of this group of lawmakers forging a genuine compromise are not promising. Rather, they appear to be planning a package similar to the House's original one, which they hope to present to the Senate with the clock ticking -- the legislature is scheduled to adjourn Saturday -- and dare the senators to reject it, as they have once already on a preliminary vote. It's an all-or-nothing gambit that plays chicken with the commonwealth's best interests.
The problem with the House funding package is twofold. First, it would produce barely more than half of the $700 million a year in new transportation funding that Northern Virginia desperately needs. Second, it would pay for improvements to the state's roads and rails in part by diverting $250 million annually in state funding for public schools, higher education, health care, human services and public safety. It would, in other words, throw transportation into the same competitive pool as other spending priorities, meaning that whatever amount is promised for road-building now could be chipped away or redirected in its entirety at the first sign of inclement budgetary weather. And then what -- highway projects abandoned halfway through construction? Federally matched Metro funding suspended?
Transportation has long been treated as a special case in Virginia (as in other states) and funded from separate, dedicated, dependable revenue sources in the knowledge that road-building projects are long-term undertakings. That Republicans in the House are allergic to new taxes, and that all 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the ballot this year, does not change that basic reality.
Rather than shove the House plan or something close to it down the Senate's throat and see whether it gags, the conferees would be wiser to offer a real compromise. That would entail limiting transportation's dependency on unreliable general fund revenue while drawing on some new, more sustainable revenue source -- perhaps along the lines of a fee for all newly registered vehicles, such as the one that Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland) has proposed and that the Senate has endorsed. By incorporating elements of both plans, negotiators may produce a package that neither the House nor the Senate adores but that makes sense for a state too long starved of money for essential infrastructure projects.