Virginia Gov. Gerald Baliles may be headed for a big fall. Because of excessive partisanship, his goal of being a "transportation governor" may die aborning.
Unmet highway construction needs are in the billions of dollars. Roads are clogged, and traffic jams are the order of the day. Economic development plainly will be stymied unless immediate steps are taken. Four years of inattention by the Robb administration brought us to the present difficulty. A progressive transportation policy was nonexistent. Changes in the highway funding formula emanated not from the executive but from the legislature. New roads were just not built.
It was with this in mind that Baliles tied the success of his administration to doing something about roads. One of his first acts in office last January was to announce the convening of a special session of the General Assembly this fall to address the transportation issue. The governor appointed a special commission to make recommendations to the legislature.
Baliles made it abundantly clear on his recent visit to Northern Virginia that road bonds would have to be part of the solution. However, he has already made a critical mistake: he appointed a "blue ribbon commission" that really isn't that at all. It is dominated by the Democratic leadership of the General Assembly and includes no Republican legislators. It is peopled by the same legislators who pulled the rug out from under Republican John Dalton, the last governor to attempt to build new roads in this decade. In 1980, then-Gov. Dalton got commitments from the speaker of the House and other key legislators to support an increased gasoline tax for highway construction. But shortly thereafter they did to him what they may be getting ready to do to one of their own, Baliles -- and we got no new roads.
The really serious demands for big money to build better roads are now, as in 1980, in Northern Virginia, Tidewater and Chesterfield County, a suburb of Richmond. Yet, a majority of the legislative members of the commission do not represent these regions and have no real interest in seeing new roads built there. They are coming up with one reason after another to neglect highway construction.
For example, these opponents are now saying that road pavers in Virginia couldn't accommodate themselves to the big task of building all the new roads indicated. Have commission members forgotten the law of supply and demand? The allegation that there isn't capacity to do the job is a canard.
As presently constituted, the commission is not likely to recommend any bonds, thus embarrassing the governor and perhaps stymying him for the next four years unless something else is done.
It's not too late to expand or reform the present commission -- to make it truly bipartisan.
The current "special" funding of our highways through gasolline, title and license taxes will be sufficient to maintain existing roads and improve our arterial and interstate system. However, while this funding can somewhat expand the present state system it simply does not yield enough for new roads. Two means of highway funding should be examined.
edbox A newly formed commission and the General Assembly should consider setting aside 20 percent to 30 percent of future growth in our general fund revenue, which comes from sales, income and other general taxes -- and is in excess of that attributed to inflation and population expansion -- to relieve the serious road problems and to invest in new projects. The money could be used directly for building or as a sinking fund to pay off bonds.
edbox The General Assembly should adopt a policy to encourage local planning and projects. One way would be to establish financial incentives for localities to work together to build new roads, paid for partly by local funds and partly by state funds, but built by the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation.
It would be most refreshing -- and nearly unprecedented -- for Baliles to admit he made a mistake. His mark in the history of Virginia can be indelible if he is willing to reform his commission for a second opinion.
The writer was a Republican candidate for governor against Charles Robb in 1981 and sought the Gop nomination for lieutenant governor in 1985.