Two weeks ahead of the Virginia gubernatorial election, Republican Ken Cuccinelli II on Monday presented an ambitious proposal to transfer authority for much of the commonwealth’s transportation system to county and local governments.
Campaign aides said the white paper released midday Monday coalesced an approach to transportation that Cuccinelli has espoused during the campaign.
Cuccinelli’s outline for dramatic change in the way the commonwealth makes transportation decisions and pays for them figures to cast the limelight on the issue in the final days of his race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe.
It creates a stark difference between the two men. McAuliffe’s approach envisions enhancement of Richmond’s central role in transportation planning and continued state responsibility for secondary roads unless a county opts otherwise.
He sees the Virginia Department of Transportation playing a stronger hand in repairing aging highways and bridges, building partnerships with private investment groups and working with local officials on strategic planning.
Cuccinelli would diminish that VDOT dominance, demanding that local governments play a greater role in establishing project priorities to deal with congestion and road capacity. The state would set up a block grant program for counties equal to funding levels currently spent in their jurisdictions, and they would assume responsibility for secondary roads now maintained by VDOT.
Aides to Cuccinelli, who is the state’s current attorney general, said the plan would take years to achieve, given the differences in population and the resources available to local officials. The proposal, known as devolution, also has gained traction with Republicans in the U.S. House, who want to reduce the federal role in transportation and to put funds and decision-making in state hands.
“Devolution for secondary roads may have some merit,” said Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “If there’s not a lot of secondary-road money available, there’s not a lot of incentive for local buy-in. Devolving secondary-road decision-making doesn’t guarantee money will be well spent. All politics are local. The fact that some local residents are pleased with some projects that help them does not mean money is well spent.”
Key questions, Chase said, are whether it’s more cost effective for local governments to pay for some services and whether they will have to raise local taxes to do so.
For at least a decade, transportation was a marquee issue in Virginia elections.
The big problem was where to find the money to save old roads, build new ones and pay for transit. Now that question has been addressed, and new revenue is flowing in. The issue for the next governor will be how best to spend it.
Chase points to past gubernatorial races as evidence that transportation campaign promises often don’t carry a lot of weight after the election, and this time around, they are less significant than they’ve been in years.
“At this point, we don’t know much about either candidate,” Chase said last week. “We know that both candidates are ‘for better transportation.’ Both candidates believe ‘better transportation is important for economic growth, prosperity and jobs.’ ”
Spending money is a lot simpler than finding new revenue, but even that happy circumstance comes with its own political freight. Given Virginia’s mix of urban, suburban and rural residents, proposing to plunk down big money on a specific project or choosing between spending on highways and transit is bound to alienate a bunch of voters.
McAuliffe’s platform includes elements that appeal to advocates of livable, walkable communities. The businessman, who is a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, says planners and developers should create neighborhoods that require less driving and offer more mass transit, cycling and walking options. He talks of giving priority to repairing bad roads and bridges and of encouraging more private investment in expansion projects, like the public-private funding arrangement that built the HOT lanes in Northern Virginia.
Cuccinelli recently came out against the Bi-County Parkway, a proposed road that would connect Interstate 66 in Prince William County to Route 50 in Loudoun County. Opposition to the 10-mile connector puts him at odds with many in the business community and in the camp of smart-growth advocates and preservationists, who say the road would disturb a Civil War battlefield and increase traffic jams.
Traffic has been a source of complaint for decades in the three places where most of the commonwealth’s people live — Northern Virginia, Richmond and around Norfolk. Appealing to those voters with specific projects to ease their congestion sounds simple enough, but even in those urban hubs, those closest to the core tend to favor transit and such amenities as bike lanes, while roads are the preferred choice in the deeper suburbs.
The condition of Virginia’s roads and bridges has been far from the worst in the nation, but with about a quarter of the bridges deemed obsolete or deficient, and the number of secondary roads in dubious shape creeping close to 40 percent, according to state officials, there was reason for concern.
Much as with any state, the big issue was how to pay for repairs and expansion.
Four years ago, with a projected $100 billion shortfall for transportation needs over the next 20 years, Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, called for new taxes. His Republican opponent, Robert F. McDonnell, said transportation money could come from cuts elsewhere.
After he was elected governor, McDonnell thought otherwise. Working with the legislature, he robbed the current candidates of a potent issue that would have accentuated the difference between them. The $6 billion plan he signed into law this year reformed an increasingly anemic transportation funding scheme into a muscular model that will bankroll the future and probably become a template for legislators elsewhere.
That has left McAuliffe and Cuccinelli to debate their respective roles in a bold plan by the man they hope to succeed, rather than proposing bold plans of their own.
McAuliffe says he pushed some Democrats in the legislature to support McDonnell’s heavily negotiated proposal. Cuccinelli says McAuliffe had little influence in the matter, and as the debate roiled Richmond this past winter, Cuccinelli backed the more modest plan of Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg), which didn’t include new taxation proposed by the governor.
But now both men say they can live with the McDonnell plan, just as they both say that they are at peace with the plan to extend Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles. McAuliffe supported that proposal early on, while Cuccinelli considered it wasteful spending on a line destined to be under-used. More recently, he has called the extension “the will of the people.”
Both candidates also support the expansion and improvement of Virginia’s rail system, a nod to the fact that Norfolk’s deep-
water port facilities will be in greater demand once new mega-ships begin going through a widened Panama Canal.
Chase, whose group has favored highway expansion as the best way to relieve congestion and supported the new taxes McDonnell signed into law, says pinning the candidates down on their commitment to specific projects hasn’t been particularly fruitful in the past.
“Gerry Baliles said relatively little about transportation in his campaign but went on to earn the title-for-life of the transportation governor,” Chase recalled. “Bob McDonnell made it incredibly clear that he would never, never raise transportation taxes. To his credit, he signed a heavy tax-increase-based state and regional funding bill.”