Column by Ken Plum
Ask any of the residents of Northern Virginia to name the top two or three major challenges facing the region and virtually all will include traffic congestion. Yet with this well defined need and the election of a new governor who ran with a “transportation plan,” the legislature adjourned with only raising the speed limit to 75 mph on rural interstates and the governor reopening rest stops that had been closed to save money.
As minority caucus chairman I did not put forth a specific transportation plan that would have been rejected on partisan grounds, but I did pledge to vote for any plan that stood any chance for passage. No one could find a way to improve traffic congestion without costing money, so no bills made it out of committee.
Former Virginia Secretary of Transportation and now distinguished member of the House of Delegates, Vivian Watts, dispensed with “common excuses for not voting’ on transportation needs in a speech on the floor of the House of Delegates. As Del. Watts told the House, the notion that the private sector can do the work better hardly applies to the Virginia Department of Transportation that contracts out 80 percent of its work to the private sector already.
At the same time, she points out that it is essential to have appropriate oversight of the billions of public dollars that are spent on private snowplow operators to billion-dollar construction projects. Taxpayers have an expectation that projects be finished on-time and on-budget, and VDOT has one of the best records in the country at doing just that. VDOT has been audited eight times in the last decade without findings of mentionable waste, fraud, or abuse. In fact, VDOT staff has been cut 30 percent in the last decade and 12 percent in the previous decade.
Del. Watts pointed out to the House that a meaningful investment in transportation infrastructure would help to stimulate the economy. With 80 percent of VDOT’s budget going to private sector contracts, the construction industry would be given a major boost. Furthermore, an investment in transportation infrastructure would save time and money for commuters in Northern Virginia who must travel through the second worst traffic congestion in the country. Sitting in traffic is hardly a money-saver for people try to get to work or return home.
Promises of profits from offshore drilling that Gov. McDonnell says he will use to fund transportation are years in the future, if ever. Tolling of new roads has limited practical application. Alternatives to automotive travel that are dependable and affordable must be provided in congested regions.
Gov. McDonnell has intimated that there may be a special legislative session on transportation. But a special session will be productive only to the degree that the governor shows leadership with substantive recommendations. It is time to show the people some movement on transportation. And as The Washington Post said last week in an editorial, it is time to move past “sprites, fairies, and pixie dust.”