Story by Chris Graham
Tim Kaine spent a good part of his day on Wednesday talking about how he wants to take steps to strengthen regional economies in Virginia.
So … what would the presumptive Democratic Party gubernatorial nominee do to improve the lifeblood of Western Virginia’s regional economy that is Interstate 81?
“I view this I-81 issue as an issue that the next governor is going to have to promptly get into, dialogue with others and make some decisions,” Kaine said on a conference call with reporters on Wednesday.
“We won’t be able to reach 100 percent consensus, but we’ve got to be able to make these decisions and move forward. I think people are tired of it just being talked about,” Kaine said.
The Virginia Department of Transportation is currently in the midst of an environmental-impact study of options for improving the 325-mile stretch of interstate highway that bisects the western part of the state.
The chatter about the multibillion-dollar improvement project that is almost certainly in the works being financed in whole or in part through the imposition on tolls on drivers has some in Western Virginia worried for the future economic health of the region.
Asked for his position on the tolling issue, Kaine said he tends to “like other ways to fund roads better than tolls.”
“If I have a preference, if there are to be tolls, it is that they be not just on trucks, because I frankly think that hurts commerce, and it ends up just driving up the cost of goods that we buy,” Kaine said.
“There are a lot of businesses in the Shenandoah Valley that sited there because of access to I-81 and are served by trucks. The Coors brewery might be the best example, but there may be others like it,” Kaine said.
“If we make it harder and relatively more expensive for truck traffic to reach those businesses, we end up hurting the economy in ways that won’t be good for job availability in the Shenandoah Valley,” Kaine said.
Kaine also talked about his focus on regional economic growth in the conference call.
“I learned when I was mayor of Richmond that the state isn’t a real economic unit, but that the real units of economic power are regions. We have to recognize the strengths and challenges that each of our regions have, and then push real hard to make the regions competitive,” said Kaine, whose plan for strengthening regional economies in the Commonwealth includes provisions for restoring the Regional Competitiveness Program, increasing support for regional planning district commissions and providing incentives in state funding formulas for local governments to work together on the delivery of public services.
“We have 134 cities and counties. Most of the incentives in state government are for them to act as free agents. I think we can gain a lot of power in making our regions stronger by incentivizing economic cooperation,” Kaine said.
“The funding that the state sends back to local governments is funding that we should give local government an incentive if they operate local services with other cities and counties in their planning district. We do that in the area of jail construction. We will fund a higher percentage of the cost of a regional jail than a local jail. That is encouraging cooperation and saving money. I’d like to do the same thing with the other local services that we fund so that folks have the incentive to cooperate,” Kaine said.