Bob Lewis has a story today about the state’s slide into a fiscal morass of transportation funding that provides a peek at the stories to come in the years ahead. This is the sort of article that we’ll all look back at in five to ten years and wonder how we didn’t see it coming. You know the drill: We fund road construction and maintenance with car and gas sales, but revenue is down, while the ultimate cost of infrastructure maintenance is infinite—the more roads we build, the bigger our annual maintenance budget. A third of secondary roads are rated “deficient,” we’ve shut down half of our rest stops, VDOT is laying off essential employees, and every year it gets worse. We’ve got less than a decade to go until every penny of the transportation budget goes to maintenance, and none is left for construction; immediately thereafter, there will cease to be enough for even to cover that core maintenance. In plain English: Things are about to get really bad.
The solution is a tax hike. Now we can collect those however we can want. We can call them “fees” and collect tolls, we can privatize roads and charge people by the mile, we can allow localities to decide to tax themselves by referendum to fund local transit authorities, we can increase income taxes, we can reach gas taxes, and we can do any of a dozen different things. Call it whatever you want, but with a shortfall of this size, no amount of “cutting the fat” or fiscal sleight-of-hand will allow us to avert the necessity to have more of our money going to fund roads.
In his campaign for governor, Bob McDonnell talked a lot about about how he planned to fund transportation, but his transportation plan was a fiscal mirage. 2+2 != 1000, no matter how many times you run the numbers. It was a disingenuous, dishonest transportation plan on an issue in which he was over his head. But nobody reads position papers, and McDonnell knew that. So he could put together his “plan,” campaign on his plan, and get elected on that plan.
Opponent Creigh Deeds’ position, on the other hand, was incredibly ballsy one. Deeds said that the solution is higher taxes, that there’s no getting around it, and that he’d start with that as a premise for fixing the problem. When he said that, there was a sharp, collective inhalation from Democrats across the state. Did he just say that? Like Sen. Jim Webb supporting prison reform—only Webb is years away from reelection—Deeds was perfectly correct, but he was relying on the public acting like grown-ups, to remember how badly Gilmore fucked things up by offering everybody a free lunch (the memory of which got Warner and Kaine elected), and on McDonnell not to use that against him.
Obviously, that didn’t work out. Calling for a tax increase—even one years in the future, even ones passed only in localities, only by referendum—was a Hail Mary that failed, as they often do.
The good news for McDonnell is that his faux transportation plan got him elected. The bad news is that he’s got to deal with the transportation problem. Or not. He can do nothing about it, and while things will get bad, they won’t get truly Mad Max until the next governor takes office.
If Bill Bolling has any sense, he’s already gotten to work.