ONE DAY, POSSIBLY, Virginia may have a governor with the guts to tell voters that they have become transportation freeloaders, using roads, bridges, tunnels and rails whose cost are not covered by the taxes they pay. One day, maybe, the governor will acknowledge that roads are no different than utilities — that without periodic rate (read: tax) increases, it is impossible to keep up with expanding usage, inflation and wear and tear. One day Virginia may have a chief executive who ignores ideology and fights to solve the biggest problems.
Sadly, there is growing evidence that Robert F. McDonnell (R), the incumbent in Richmond, is not that governor.
In fairness, Mr. McDonnell has not yet unveiled his full proposal to address what he acknowledges is the state’s most urgent problem: a transportation funding system rapidly running out of money. The details of that package are expected to be announced in the coming weeks. But the early signs are not encouraging.
The governor has said he is preparing an initiative that would generate at least $500 million annually in new transportation funds by 2018. That’s inadequate; the state needs more like $1 billion more a year immediately, not five years from now. Even if muted, though, at least it counted as a call to action.
But last week Mr. McDonnell tipped his hand, revealing timidity and stale ideas rather than the bold action needed to rescue the state’s crumbling transportation system. He suggested that perhaps half the funds he is seeking would not really be new revenue at all; rather, they would be siphoned off from existing general-fund spending for public safety, education and health care — including mental health.
By gradually increasing the share of the state’s sales tax income earmarked for transportation, the governor said, Virginia could shift some $275 million of revenue to roads annually by 2018. That could account for about half of Mr. McDonnell’s transportation package.
There’s no golden rule against raiding other parts of the budget for transportation dollars. But the idea was defeated barely 10 months ago by lawmakers in Richmond, and for good reason. The state has already made cuts in recent years to other priorities, especially public schools, health and higher education. Democrats are united against further reductions, and even some Republicans are opposed.
It might be worth refighting that battle if Mr. McDonnell were also planning to challenge his fellow Republicans — and sweeten the deal for Democrats — by simultaneously proposing a substantial new revenue source devoted to transportation. After all, Virginia hasn’t added a dime in sustainable new funding for roads since 1986; the state’s gas tax, the main source of transportation funding, is half that of neighboring North Carolina.
But the only “challenge” Mr. McDonnell has hinted at involves indexing the gas tax for inflation — something that should have been done 25 years ago but was not. That wouldn’t get Virginia out of its hole; it would only keep the hole from getting deeper. It would save the state from running out of transportation construction funds completely five years from now, but it would still leave major needs unmet.
Having pledged not to kick the can down the road for future governors, Mr. McDonnell’s hints suggest that he would do just the opposite. What’s sad is that he is perfectly positioned to do something more and better. As a policy wonk, he understands the dimensions of the problem better than most. As a Republican, he could persuade the moderates in his party, which controls both houses of the state legislature. As a governor with high approval ratings, he could sell the idea to citizens.
We continue to hope the governor has some bold surprise in mind. But the signs are not encouraging.