VIRGINIA’S UNBUILT ROAD TO PROGRESS By Tim Kaine
When I ran for governor, I told Virginians that I wanted to find transportation solutions — more road, rail and public transit options and better linkages between land use and transportation planning. In my last months in office, I am doing what I hoped to be doing — attending ribbon cuttings and unveiling contracts for transit systems, bridge replacements and expanded Amtrak service. Yet these announcements are quite different from how I envisioned them. The difference between the plan and the reality tells an interesting story about transportation today and points out sizable continuing challenges for the commonwealth.
To put it bluntly, Virginia — because of the Republican-led House of Delegates — has decided that we should not invest more state dollars in transportation. My efforts to get more money for statewide or regional needs have been rebuffed by Republican legislators — and investment in roads has actually been shrinking. We have made massive cuts to our road program, especially for urban and rural roads that do not qualify for federal funding.
With citizens across our state asking for better transportation to attract jobs and fight congestion, the legislature’s response has essentially been: “We don’t care.”
Thank goodness our federal government recognizes the value of infrastructure investments again. Because of a president and Congress committed to this spending, projects such as the Fairfax County Parkway and replacing the Robertson Bridge in Danville are underway. Rail to Dulles and light rail in Norfolk are moving forward. We are pursuing higher-speed rail in the Interstate 95 corridor. But as far as a state commitment goes, Virginia has been AWOL.
While the willingness to find new state funding has been lacking for many years, there have still been some positive developments in how we approach transportation:
First, Virginia knows how to do public-private partnerships. Big projects such as rail to Dulles and high-occupancy toll lanes on the Beltway show that innovative partnerships can be forged. These mechanisms have limits — they don’t work so well in less-traveled areas or for basic maintenance. However, by investing some state dollars, we can attract financing to help us expand in groundbreaking ways.
Second, we are rebalancing our system by putting more money into rail and public transit. Dedicated funding for Metro, VRE and expanded Amtrak service has increased in recent years, sometimes by diverting money that would have been spent on roads in the past. We are investing in freight rail to reduce road congestion. And the new federal commitment to high-speed rail corridors offers Virginia exciting opportunities. These investments ensure that Virginia receives both the economic and environmental benefits of moving away from an overreliance on cars and trucks.
Third, we see that a big part of our transportation challenge is making better land-use decisions. Better land use was the core of my transportation platform when I ran for governor in 2005 — and we have moved far down the field with better road design standards, traffic impact statements that must be prepared before major land-use decisions are made, authority for local governments to assess impact fees for transportation and forthcoming stormwater regulations that will reduce overpaving. Such measures have stopped our congestion from getting worse — as was the case when a state traffic impact statement helped persuade Loudoun to turn down a development proposal to allow more than 20,000 new homes that would have overwhelmed regional roads.
These changes have been important and generally bipartisan in nature. But they do not eliminate the need to find more revenue. Our system has been primarily funded by a very low gasoline tax — 17.5 cents per gallon — that has stayed constant since 1986 even while fuel efficiency standards and construction costs have risen. This funding source will continue to erode with the newly announced agreement to increase vehicle mileage standards nationwide. The unwillingness of the legislature to find new broad-based revenue sources to address our increased need is weakening our ability to build the smart 21st-century network that will keep Virginia competitive for years to come.
Personally, it is gratifying to see a president for whom I worked so hard embrace a priority that Virginia’s House of Delegates majority does not embrace. No nation can grow out of the economic doldrums with a declining infrastructure. But stimulus dollars and other federal spending can vary and disappear. The question remains in 2009: What will Virginia do to fund transportation?
As I enter my last seven months as governor, I am pleased to see important projects moving in some parts of the commonwealth thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other federal programs. While I never thought I would say this, we could really make some progress if our state legislature had a commitment to Virginia’s infrastructure that came close to matching the federal government’s.
The writer is governor of Virginia.