What will McDonnell do to fund transportation (if anything)?

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.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

8 replies on “What will McDonnell do to fund transportation (if anything)?”

  1. McDonnell wants to borrow the money to run Virginia from bond traders. Sound familiar? Jim Gilmore thought it was a brilliant idea when he did it. I’m sure it will work out better this time. Where is Jim?

  2. This is rich. McDonnell has failed before he even takes office. I keep hearing from (the constantly dwindling number of) Obama supporters that “We have to give him more time! It hasn’t even been a whole year yet!”

    How about we at least let Bob take the oath before condemning him. Deal?

  3. What gets me is we the motoring public pay all this money which goes right into the general fund and has for years now been spent on other BS. On top of this we keep getting people who want to subsidize light rails and buses along with other things and of course this all comes from the “ROAD TAXES” Then they come back to us saying hey your not paying enough. Now they want to put a GPS tracker box to make us pay by the mile tax. Did I mention it will track you 24hrs aday. And no I have nothing to hide except my privacy and its nobodys business where im at. Im not against raiseing the gas tax no more then .10 cents and putting a lock box on transportation funds. Another thing they want to do is give our roads we already own to a private group for up to 99yrs. and put tolls on these roads to which the money goes to the private company. This is a simple solution. Raise gas tax a few cents stop subsidizing bus and rail services or atleast wait till we have left over money or fund that our of the general fund and put a lock box on the funds.

  4. It would behoove Virginia Republicans to contemplate the reality that Bob’s best hope is that Barack Obama will successfully stimulate the nation’s economic engine. Virginia is but a boat on America’s tide.

  5. It may seem overly fussy but I’d just like to point out that the person who posted the comment as “James” above is not me, i.e. the person who comments regularly on this blog using that name.

    Just to clarify: I support a reasonable tax hike, I think we need to stop building roads and start taking care of the ones we have, as well as encouraging denser “urban” development and better infrastructure instead of encouraging commuting and sprawl.

    Also, I find the other James’ comments about tax proposals paranoid and incindiary (plus I’d like to hope my punctuation and syntax are at least a little better than that).

    Bracing myself for what surely looks like it will be a disastrously Gilmore-esque McDonnell Governorship,

    – James

  6. “Raise gas tax a few cents stop subsidizing bus and rail services”

    Wait, what? How does this make any sense? Why in the world should the state drop support for measures which are more likely to reduce congestion and actually address our long-term problems? How does it make sense that public busses and trains are universally undeserving, but public roads are good? It doesn’t make sense from a utilitarian perspective, so what’s the compelling philosophical reason?

  7. I agree that we’re in a big pickle here on transportation, but I wouldn’t say that the cost of roads is “infinite.” One wouldn’t pay too much money for the opportunity to receive one penny every day for the rest of eternity, even if you knew that you’d be alive for eternity. While a penny is not too much, even a larger amount probably wouldn’t be worth “infinity.” The same discounting should apply to costs, even for transportation.

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