Roads fix on the backburner again

Looking back on it, wouldn’t it have made sense to have started doing something about our transportation-infrastructure limitations, I don’t know, maybe a few years ago when the economy was relatively purring and the dollars were available to address the traffic jams in NoVa and Hampton Roads and the clogged arteries inhibiting commerce statewide?

This ain’t, incidentally, 20-20 hindsight from me. I’ve been saying this for years, though this I told you so isn’t necessarily sweeter as a result, considering how far behind the 8-ball we’re going to be two or three years from now.

“The tanking economy, combined with actions by the courts and the Virginia legislature, have dealt our transportation programs crippling blows, with billions of dollars in projects being eliminated,” said Lon Anderson, the director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic, bringing the point home pretty well, I think.

We started 2008 under the weight of the controversial abusive-driver fees that were the Bad Idea Executed Poorly of 2007 and its runner-up, the regional transportation authorities that were on paper a great idea in that they would allow local governments in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads get together to raise monies through regionally imposed taxes for regionally focused transportation projects, but were in reality extremely unconstitutional as a practical matter of grants of taxing authority.

I say that and still like the idea advanced in their creation, as long as we do it the right way as an amendment to the state constitution. But that doesn’t appear all that likely, now, does it, as we close 2008 and head into 2009 facing down a $2.9 billion budget shortfall that state lawmakers are going to have to tackle next month whether they want to or not, and with elections set for November of course they don’t want to.

This is where we’ve been for several years now, for those who have been keeping score at home. Me, I blame my conservative Republican friends, who have been throwing everything including the kitchen sink at the proposals from moderates in the GOP and Democrats to provide more funding for a statewide transportation fix, clamoring first for increased efficiencies in VDOT when substantial efforts have been undertaken under Mark Warner and now Tim Kaine to do just that, with strong positive results, championing next public-private partnerships in theory and then in practice decrying them when they come up as in the context of the long-debated improvements to I-81 here in Western Virginia, and finally pooh-poohing any and all talk of an increase in the gasoline tax that has not been adjusted since 1986 first because gas prices were over $2 and then $3 and briefly $4 a gallon, and now because even at $1.40 or $1.50 we’re in a recession.

We’re going to be riding out this recession for the next year or so, but its effects are going to be felt on the state budget for the next two or three years, maybe longer. If you’re wondering what I’m meaning there, consider the proposed cuts from Gov. Kaine for K-12 education, which is ordinarily the sacred cow of all sacred cows in state government. Assuming that we get out of this recession in the second half of next year, which is what the economists seem to be saying now will be the case, the 2010-2012 biennial budget is going to be a makeup budget, for K-12 education and other basic state-government operations. Money for investments in a big-ticket item like transportation-infrastructure improvements is going to be a backburner issue in 2010 and 2011, and who knows where we’re going to be come that next biennial budget in 2012.

I’m confident that my conservative Republican friends will be ready for whatever 2012 and beyond might bring in terms of our ability to finally get something going on transportation. Their lack of a political backbone need not cripple us forever and ever amen.

 

– Column by Chris Graham



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