Moving on transportation

Column by David Cox

First a $20 billion problem. Then the travesty of a bill that doesn’t solve the problem, but does include fees which judges, one by one, are voiding as unconstitutional. Now a bridge collapses in Minnesota, drawing all eyes to how well – or not – our bridges are maintained.

In other words, transportation is all the news.

What the legislature passed this spring, and the governor signed, falls short on many fronts. It doesn’t cover the costs – $3 billion’s a long way from $20 billion. It gives authority to regional groupings in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise taxes in those areas, but are those regional bodies, not being elected, have that constitutional right? Some $65 million depends upon abusive driver fees which (a) courts are declaring unconstitutional because they apply only to Virginians, and (b) don’t provide a reliable income stream necessary to meet the job ahead. If Virginians become safe drivers – let us hope – then the income goes down and the state doesn’t get the money it needs.

Talk about a conflict of interests!

What to do? I think we need to start all over. While I don’t have all the answers by any means, here are some suggestions:

1. Suspend the abusive-driver fees. Two judges have nixed them already. Quit before we have to spend more big bucks on lawyers, and drop them until one or two appeals can be decided or the legislature repeals them, whichever comes first. Which leads to:

2. Repeal the fees. The Assembly meets in January. Let its first main business be to correct its mistake. Meanwhile:

3. Scrutinize all bridges and other danger-points, as a matter of public safety and as a means of figuring what we need to do. Evidently the government has already begun this review of the 9 percent of “structurally deficient” bridges. Good. It’s a matter of life and death.

4. Gov. Kaine should consider calling a conference to review the entire transportation program. Let a commission of legislators, engineers, police, prosecutors, consumers and others of broad vision as well as expertise meet ASAP after the election to determine next steps so the Assembly can act on their recommendations in January.

5. Raise the gas tax. No fan of tax hikes, I still think this is the fairest “user fee” of all. It applies to anyone who buys gas in Virginia, and, thus, anyone who uses our roads. It doesn’t single out one group, nor exclude out-of-staters.

Plus, we’ve all been getting a break since 1986 when it was first passed. Then, the tax was worth the 17 cents we paid. Now, that 17 cents/gallon has the buying power of only 9 cents. If it had been adjusted for inflation, we’d pay 32 cents, which at $50 million for every penny, would have added $750 million to our transportation coffers this year (along with the $850 million resulting from those 17 cents) – not including the matching funds sent by the federal government. All that would have helped keep Virginia moving on our transport.

I don’t suggest a 15-cent hike. I do suggest a couple of cents, BUT with an inflation factor (say, inflation + 1 percent, which is the figure proposed by those who, in the recent GOP primary, wanted to limit tax increases). Applied each year for a set period (then requiring reauthorization), we slowly regain what we had lost. BUT:

6. Safeguard the transportation fund. By law or constitutional amendment, ensure that what’s designated for transport goes for transport. This is just a beginning. We may face more taxes. We may have to use general funds, and certainly economize wherever possible – topics for future columns.

But Minnesota makes clear: We as a nation have a crisis in infrastructure. The waterpipes of Goshen make clear that it’s not a matter of bridges alone. The gridlock of NoVA makes clear that it’s not a matter solely of maintenance, either. But falling bridges show that this truly is an issue of public safety that we must address.

Now. I, for one, don’t want to have to figure out which one out of every 11 bridges might collapse under me, or my children, or you and yours.

David Cox is the Democratic Party nominee in the 24th Senate District.

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