One of the nice things about statewide elections every four years is, suddenly, all the elected officials from Richmond and southern Virginia regularly are attending events in Northern Virginia.
To a man, they all arrive late for events with the excuse, “We’ve got to do something about this traffic.”
And that’s what both Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his opponent, Creigh Deeds (D), promised in 2009. There were high ideals, commiseration and promises but, in 2012, progress has been negligible.
Although McDonnell was able to provide one-time increases in funding for transportation through bonds, there has been no “big fix.” The recent transportation plan from the governor’s office hinged in raiding the general fund to pay for transportation — a solution not palatable to the General Assembly, which removed the majority of the impact.
There is entrenched resistance to creating a dedicated funding source for transportation projects in Virginia, although both an increase in the gas tax and a fee added to the transfer of personal property have been floated. No one likes new fees or increased taxes, but a dedicated source of funding is required. Otherwise, all commuters do is sit in traffic and idle away some of that lower tax rate.
One of the more frustrating options on the table is a concept called “devolution.”
Part of the budget now under consideration in Richmond is money for a study about shifting transportation responsibility to local governments with Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Chesterfield counties being singled out for special examination.
Fairfax chairman Sharon Bulova and her counterparts in neighboring counties have shared their fears publicly, saying it will lead to a tax increase.
Virginia is among a handful of states whose roads are managed by the state — and they are in disrepair. With 34 percent of secondary roads classified as being in substandard condition, few localities would jump at the chance to maintain roads that have been neglected and new pay for new construction.
Before local jurisdictions begin to consider devolution, the state must fix the problems it has ignored.
Although McDonnell seems sincere when he says the transfer of responsibility would not come without funding, it appears unlikely this would include money in the amount necessary to fix regional transportation.
And that gap would be filled directly from taxpayers’ pockets, citizens who already are carrying a heavy burden for the statewide budget. This option would allow the representatives in Richmond to proudly say they’ve resisted raising taxes, while local representatives would remain stuck with the bill — and an additional requirement of getting everything approved by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Of course, the perfect solution would be a return to a robust economy. Increased business and personal property values would refill state coffers, but economic recovery appears to be of the slow and steady variety.
One solution, which at least locally would remove a small number of cars from the road and increase Northern Virginia’s attractiveness to new business, is Dulles Rail. Unfortunately, McDonnell recently decided to withdraw support of an additional $300 million investment into the project, leaving Dulles Toll Road users at the mercy of an uncertain fee structure for the future.
Doubly frustrating — as Sen. Janet Howell (D-Reston) points out in a column on this page — is McDonnell had no trouble dumping money into two dubious transportation projects south of here. In addition to $400 million for a Charlottesville bypass, the state has pledged nearly $500 million to improving Route 460, an east-west highway that runs across the southern part of the state.
There is a growing consensus that congestion and transportation funding are entering crisis mode — one that impacts the quality of life and future economic health of Northern Virginia.
It is questionable as to whether the state even is interested in fixing the problem considering a transportation plan from Richmond is not forthcoming, there has been limited investment into Dulles Rail, and lawmakers are investigating options to drop the problem in the lap of their local counterparts.
Without some sort of action plan to solve the transportation problems in Northern Virginia — while more money is sent to Richmond than is sent back — it’s only a matter of time before tongue-in-cheek remarks suggest that Northern Virginia become a separate state.
But all kidding aside, Northern Virginia appears to be on its own.