Monday, September 19, 2005
Governor candidates' views are miles apart on road plans
While the candidates debate the merits of their respective transportation proposals, lawmakers are crafting plans of their own. Listen to interviews with all three candidates
Old and inadequate highways hamper efforts to revitalize distressed areas of Southwest and Southside Virginia. And the volume of heavy truck traffic makes Interstate 81 in Western Virginia one of the state's most dangerous thoroughfares.
Virginia's transportation infrastructure no longer meets the needs of its citizens and businesses, and the state's next governor will face tremendous pressure to develop a plan to avert a long-term crisis.
A recent study prepared by state transportation officials concluded that capital and maintenance needs for all modes of transportation will exceed $203 billion over the next 20 years. But projected revenue will fall $108 billion short of that target, according to the report titled "VTrans 2025."
The report's authors concluded that Virginia's highway system alone will require additional spending of $925 million annually to fully match federal funding and sustain the state's road construction fund. Without new revenue, maintenance costs will consume all of the state's highway construction funds by 2018, according to the report.
Against that sobering backdrop, Virginia gubernatorial candidates are pushing vastly different plans to address a complicated problem.
Republican Jerry Kilgore wants to allow regional authorities to direct transportation planning and financing and to hold referendums for related tax increases. He also wants to generate revenue by increasing fines for serious traffic offenses and use more dollars from the state's general operating fund for transportation.
Democrat Tim Kaine said he would hold a series of regional summit meetings on transportation after the election and make the issue his top priority in the 2006 legislative session. But Kaine said he would not consider any tax increases until lawmakers permanently prohibit the diversion of money from the state's transportation trust fund, which contains revenue from transportation-related taxes. Kaine's demand could require an amendment to the state constitution, which could take effect no earlier than 2009.
Independent Russ Potts has made transportation the centerpiece of his long-shot campaign, insisting that Kilgore and Kaine have no stomach for the kind of medicine the state needs. Potts last week called for an additional $2 billion in annual spending for roads, rail and other transportation modes.
While the candidates debate the merits of their respective proposals, state lawmakers are crafting plans of their own. A special task force created by state Senate leaders will develop a legislative package for the upcoming session, and a House of Delegates subcommittee will have its own initiatives.
The Senate in 2004 passed increases in gasoline and vehicle sales taxes to raise transportation revenue, but the House swiftly killed those proposals. All three gubernatorial candidates now say that skyrocketing fuel prices make a gas tax increase impractical. That leaves candidates, lawmakers and Virginia's business community searching for creative solutions.
"The irony to me is that people want it, but they don't want to pay for it," said Roanoke Vice Mayor Bev Fitzpatrick, a co-chairman of Virginians for Better Transportation, a coalition of citizens, businesses and trade organizations.
"It's a mind-set problem, and I don't think we've adequately explained to them [the public] that it's going to cost them more in the long run if we don't address it," Fitzpatrick said.
Potts, a state senator from Winchester, is the only candidate promising tax increases. He has identified a number of funding options such as increasing taxes on retail and vehicle sales, cigarettes and individuals with incomes greater than $100,000. Potts said he also would consider putting tolls on existing interstates, a proposal recently advanced by former Gov. Gerald Baliles, a Democrat.
In an August letter to Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester, R-Stafford County, Baliles proposed a statewide network of interstate tolls that could generate $1 billion annually. He wrote that transportation "must be able to depend upon dedicated revenue sources - sources that the public can be confident will be spent purely on transportation."
Baliles, who served as governor from 1986 to 1990, conceded that the cost of updating Virginia's transportation system is "enormous." But, he wrote, "So are the consequences of delay and denial."
Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, sounded a similar note in an August presentation to the Virginia Association of Counties.
"There's no one thing that's going to fix it, and there's going to be pain involved," said Hawkins, who heads the Senate's special transportation task force.
Potts said he partly blames "denial, delusion and deceit" by state politicians for Virginia's transportation funding woes. He accuses Kilgore of trying to pass the problem to others, and criticizes Kaine for keeping new revenue off the table until lawmakers put "an Al Gore lockbox" on the transportation trust fund.
Kilgore said he wants to empower regions and localities to make more transportation decisions, because a decentralized approach could increase efficiency and encourage innovation. And he insists that voters should decide whether taxes are increased to pay for new projects.
"I trust the people driving on the roads, not the bureaucrat staring at a map in Richmond," Kilgore said when he announced his plan earlier this year.
But Kilgore would encounter opposition to one element of his plan - making transportation eligible for more dollars from the state's general operating fund. Key Senate Republicans have publicly rejected the idea, saying it would put transportation in competition with education, public safety and other basic services supported by the general fund.
Kaine and Potts have raised similar objections. They also argue that Kilgore's push for regional authorities and tax referendums are designed to absolve the governor of responsibility for the state's transportation problems.
Kaine said he wants to build on management reforms that Gov. Mark Warner initiated in the Virginia Department of Transportation. Kaine credits his fellow Democrat with straightening out VDOT's finances, reducing cost overruns, and getting more projects completed on schedule.
Kaine said he wants to enable greater coordination between land use and transportation planning. He also has called for regional plans to reduce congestion and pollution and more state subsidies for mass transit and public transportation projects. But Kaine offers no guarantee of new revenue for roads, leading Kilgore to say that the Democrat's plan should be titled: "Stuck in Traffic? Get Used to It."
It's too soon to tell whether lawmakers and the next governor can forge consensus on a long-range transportation funding plan. But Fitzpatrick said politics won't produce the solution.
"It's going to take leadership," Fitzpatrick said. "Not political leadership, but statesman-like leadership."