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Ken Plum: Opportunity for leadership

As Spock in the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country quoted “an ancient Vulcan proverb, only Nixon could go to China,” only Gov. Bob McDonnell can save Virginia’s transportation funding program from bankruptcy.

Nixon had a strong anti-communist reputation. He was able to go to China and open diplomatic relations without fear of being politically attacked by the right-wing in this country. Two economists studied the phenomenon and developed a model of how “politics often exhibit counterintuitive results…Right-wing politicians sometime can implement policies that left-wing politicians cannot, and vice versa (Cowen and Sutter: “Why Only Nixon Could go to China,” Public Choice 97: 605-615, 1998)

The fact that the Virginia Department of Transportation does not have adequate revenues with which to do its job of either maintaining existing highway infrastructure or constructing new facilities is no longer debated. A press release from the governor’s office Dec. 29, 2010, stated that even with the governor’s proposal to sell bonds, “Still, Virginia’s aging infrastructure requires at least $1 billion a year in new, recurring revenue.” He has asserted in arguments like those used by the Obama administration to support stimulus spending that now is the time with high unemployment and low construction costs that projects should be built. His proposal to borrow nearly $4 billion as a way to move the problem into the next administration has received criticism. The Richmond Times Dispatch editorialized recently that taxing and spending is bad but borrowing and spending is worse.

The governor wrote to legislators in late summer asking for ideas on funding transportation needs. The political implications of his letter became clear when the chairman of the state Republican Party sent a similar letter to Democratic legislators. The tone of that letter was clear: tell us what you would do to fund transportation so that we can run against you next year on that issue.

The other ideas the administration has put forward thus far have been non-starters. Tripling the number of liquor stores throughout the state in order to raise enough money to build one highway interchange holds little hope. Drill, baby, drill! will not happen in our lifetime. Numerous audits of VDOT have not produced a single dime of new money.

Only Nixon could go to China; only Governor McDonnell can fix Virginia’s transportation mess. Time to step up, Mr. Governor. This is your opportunity for leadership!

Column by Ken Plum