IT APPEARS that Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is throwing in the towel when it comes to finding a lasting fix for Virginia’s most urgent problem: its crippling shortfall of transportation funding. Barring passage in the General Assembly of a major funding bill in the coming weeks — a tough sell with Mr. McDonnell’s active support and a near-impossibility without it — the state’s crumbling network of roads, rails and bridges is likely to keep deteriorating as congestion mounts.
The governor’s inability, or unwillingness, to deliver major, ongoing new funding for transportation, despite the extravagant promises he made as a candidate, is a major failure, one that is likely to haunt Virginia for years.
The failure is compounded given that Mr. McDonnell, a Republican, is the first governor in more than a decade to face a General Assembly wholly controlled by his own party. Virginians may conclude that the GOP cannot resolve what the governor himself has identified as a full-blown crisis that threatens Virginia’s long-term economic health.
Until a few days ago, Northern Virginia lawmakers and officials of Mr. McDonnell’s administration hoped for a deal that would allow the state to stop digging itself deeper into a transportation funding hole. The deal might have taken the form of indexing the gas tax, last raised in 1986, to inflation, or some other means of ensuring that Virginians pay for the transportation they use.
But a deal would have been possible only with a push by Mr. McDonnell. That push never came.
After canceling a news conference on transportation Wednesday, the governor quietly issued a press release Friday announcing, or rather whispering, the final pieces of his transportation package. The latest measures, including gimmicks such as selling naming rights for highways and bridges, will yield no significant cash.
The governor has repeatedly acknowledged the scale of the state’s problem. He knows that Virginia will soon have no money to spend on new construction, since all available funding will be siphoned off just to maintain infrastructure.
Within existing restraints, Mr. McDonnell has taken some positive steps, like accelerating borrowing for projects already in the pipeline and proposing to funnel funds from surpluses or a booming economy — if they materialize — to transportation.
He has also offered legislation that would gradually shift revenue away from schools, public safety, and health programs to roads, rails, and bridges. But even if lawmakers enact that bill — a big if — it will produce just $300 million annually by 2020. In the meantime, experts put the annual funding shortfall in the range of $1 billion a year — now, not eight years from now.
Bills submitted by several Northern Virginia legislators, including Republicans, would raise more money, more quickly, by various means, including imposing a surcharge at the pump and indexing the gas tax. But Mr. McDonnell has been mum about those bills. Unfortunately, silence will not unclog Virginia’s sclerotic roads.
At the heart of the problem are the anti-tax ideologues who dominate the Republican Party. The governor could have made an honest argument that indexing the gas tax — which would simply enable the state to keep pace with costs, and stop two decades of bleeding — is not a tax increase. In the end, he opted out of the fight and punted on the state’s most pressing challenge.