Read the Bills Act Coalition

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The AG on Transportation

Catching up on some reading since getting back state side, AG McDonnel nails the transportation debate on the head with this Op/Ed piece....

Apply brakes to the rush for new transportation taxes

Virginia must have an efficient, first-class transportation system to promote economic vitality and sustain our quality of life. Last year's transportation legislation, initiated by Republican leaders, and passed with the bipartisan support of nearly 85% of the members of the General Assembly, was the largest infusion of new statewide funding for transportation in 21 years. It generated approximately $1.2 billion annually in new funding, with no statewide tax increase, including $600 million in revenue options for the economic engines of Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.

It required significant new land use reforms and VDOT accountability. A Virginian-Pilot editorial called it "the largest proposed overhaul of transportation funding and planning in more than a half-century." Thus, the recent editorial in The Pilot now discounting this bill's achievement and tacitly supporting the governor's proposed massive statewide tax increase as the only solution is most surprising.

Part of last year's bill was undermined by the governor's amendments transferring funding authority away from locally elected officials to the unelected regional authorities themselves, leading the Virginia Supreme Court to invalidate the regional plan, eliminating $600 million in new funding for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia. However, the significant new statewide funding has remained. You wouldn't know it from reading this editorial page, or listening to many Democrats.

Here are the facts: The Governor's own analysis pegged the funding from the statewide portion of the bill at roughly $480 million a year, including $3 billion in bonds at $300 million a year. The bill requires two-thirds of all future budget surpluses go to transportation, averaging $80 million more a year based on the past ten years, for total new investment of about $560 million a year. We have realized surpluses in most of the last 15 fiscal years. A recent Pilot editorial (GOP road math doesn't add up, May 27) takes issue with these official state projections. The editorial wrongly states that revenues from spending cuts, bonds, and budget surpluses do not count as new road money, only tax increases count. This demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of budgeting and economic principles.

The General Assembly will return to Richmond on June 23rd to consider the Governor's proposal for the second major statewide tax increase in the last four years. Raising taxes statewide at a time when Virginia businesses and families are facing economic uncertainty with soaring food and gas prices is unwise. With an average of $560 million annually in additional funding going to transportation statewide, the question is what is the legitimate additional need to continue Virginia as one of the most prosperous free-enterprise states in America?

The regional options for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia can be easily fixed legally restoring the total new funding of last year's bill to $1.2 billion annually.

The governor legitimately raises the additional issue of funding maintenance. Once the legislature obtains complete information on any shortage, prudent steps will be required.

The first is a comprehensive audit of annual transportation spending, as was just done in Washington State with dramatic results. Legitimate funding gaps can be closed in several ways, but part of the solution must be to prioritize and cut other spending from the $78 billion biennial budget.

State spending has doubled in the past 10 years, growing 38 percent higher than the rate of growth in population and inflation. Last summer Governor Kaine and I directed 5 percent cuts in our budgets, and there has been no outcry over diminished state services. There must be a robust expansion in public-private projects, as is being used to upgrade Highway 460, with contracts requiring work on time and on budget. New transportation spending must go to projects that will demonstrably reduce congestion.

The plan must expand the use of tolls, smart traffic technology, market-based congestion pricing projects, and ride-sharing incentives. Regulations hampering faster infrastructure development must be changed.

Advocating only large statewide tax increases each time there is an economic downturn is poor policy, and contrary to the long-standing Virginia bipartisan formula. Citizens and business leaders know that tough economic times require tough choices. So too must government. A 21st century transportation system will only be achievable through smart, long-term planning, priority budgeting, and strong leadership.

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