James W. Hazel: Transportation Funding Plan Is Defining Vote

James W HazelPolitical conventions and primary campaigns are in full swing across the state and that means political rhetoric is at a high at the expense of common sense. Several candidates, mostly self-styled Tea Party Republicans, are attacking GOP leaders for supporting Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation funding plan enacted this year. Don’t listen to them.

Gov. Bob McDonnell, House Speaker Bill Howell, and leaders of both parties in both houses deserve special recognition for surmounting high obstacles to enact a landmark transportation revenue package that addresses critical infrastructure needs for a generation. Politically, this was heavy lifting, at times dramatic, and in the struggle to succeed we saw true leadership, genuine cooperation, sensible compromise and responsible governance.

A single vote, a bipartisan vote to fund transportation, was a momentous decision for Virginia’s future. It cemented a governor’s legacy, showcased common sense, and presented the clearest roll call for business and economic prosperity in 25 years.

The plan as passed eliminates the 17.5 cent per gallon tax on gasoline and diesel, shifting the burden to wholesale fuels taxes and increased sales taxes. It includes additional revenue in the state’s two most congested regions, Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. It is the largest commitment to improving transportation in Virginia since 1986 and will generate an additional $409 million in 2014, increasing to $880 million by 2018 in annual revenue for roads, rail, and public transit. When fully implemented, the plan will help to create 20,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in economic activity in the Commonwealth.

It is a compromise that comes not a moment too soon. After years of failing to address a growing need, Virginia faces a crisis in transportation funding. VDOT is leveraged to the hilt with debt service at $300 million a year and growing. For a decade we have siphoned $3 billion from the highway construction program to pay for basic maintenance. The estimated economic loss due to congestion is more than $3 billion a year. We have more than 5,000 structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges with a $4 billion repair bill. We are 43rd in the nation in per capita spending on transportation infrastructure. Fuel efficiency and inflation have severely eroded the purchasing power of gas tax dollars. And we know for certain the road-building fund will be flat broke in three years or less.

The legislature struggled for years to find answers. Some 50 transportation-funding bills introduced in the past five years failed.  Other efforts succeeded but came up short. Reforms at VDOT were implemented, surplus funds were earmarked for transportation, and private financing was leveraged with public-private partnerships.

Finally, a $3 billion bonding package passed in 2011. At the time, business leaders insisted a long-term, sustainable source of transportation money still was desperately needed. And, as Virginia FREE said at the time, “it will take vision and political resolve to tackle these long-term transportation challenges.”

This year, vision and political resolve prevailed. The Governor and the Speaker led the way. They showed courage and put a lot on the line. Many other legislative leaders stepped forward. In all, 64 Delegates and 26 Senators voted for Virginia’s future, for business and for a vibrant 21st Century transportation system.

Those Delegates and Senators understand that campaign rhetoric must come to an end and the difficult business of governing must begin.

James W. Hazel is Chairman of the Board of Virginia FREE, a respected business association providing non-partisan political research and analysis to business and industry in Virginia.

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