Over the years, this newspaper has dedicated hundreds — perhaps thousands — of column inches on this page taking state lawmakers to task for failing to improve Virginia’s long-neglected transportation network.
From our vantage point, anyone who has occupied a desk in Richmond during the past 25 years — Democrats and Republicans, delegates and Senators, governors and lieutenant governors — owns a piece of Virginia now being better known for producing traffic jams than U.S. presidents.
Fortunately, a critical corner may have been turned last Saturday when the Virginia General Assembly approved a transportation funding package that will deliver nearly $3.5 billion over the next five years for roads, bridges and rail lines across the state.
Is the new package perfect? Definitely not. Even its most ardent supporters can’t talk their way around the fact that House Bill 2313 represents the largest collective tax hike on Virginia residents in more than a decade, raising money through a series of tax increases on wholesale gas and diesel fuel and hikes in the state sales tax, motor vehicle titling tax and hybrid vehicle registration fees.
That said, the bill’s greatest detractors fall silent when asked how to resuscitate our crumbling roads and bridges. Generating money for transportation can no longer be held hostage by age-old “no-tax” pledges and blank stares. We elect our leaders to solve problems, not create roadblocks or fall on political swords. Identifying sustainable revenues for a core function of government — transportation among them — is in the job description.
Yes, tax hikes are onerous, but we’re out of options. Our traffic is now fodder for Leno, Letterman and other late night talk show hosts. Earlier this month, a study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute said the D.C. region had the worst traffic in America. Much of that ranking is tied to Northern Virginia, where commuters often spend more than an hour getting to work each morning.
Most other funding options for roads have been explored… and exhausted.
Tolls? Been there, done that. Ask the folks at MWAA how well toll hikes have been received along the Dulles Corridor.
Bonds? We maxed out our capacity on that front about $600 million ago.
Public-private partnerships? Our punch-drunk private sector is wary of carrying any more water for future “private-public” partnerships.
General fund? Richmond’s decade-long habit of raiding the general fund to repair every bridge, pothole and off-ramp has placed Virginia’s once-proud higher education system in serious jeopardy.
For those keeping score, Virginia hasn’t raised sufficient revenues for transportation funding since the late 1980’s. That fact has put us at a competitive disadvantage economically. Contrary to popular belief, the livelihood of many Virginia businesses depends on their ability to move goods and services in an efficient, timely manner. No less important is a firefighter’s ability to get to a burning house, a salesman getting to a key appointment or a parent making it to their child’s state championship baseball game before the fifth inning.
To Gov. McDonnell’s credit, he understood that doing nothing was no longer an option. Same goes for legislators who stepped out of their respective comfort zones last week to get a deal done.
The price tag to fix our roads will be high, but the cost of inaction would have been a whole lot higher.