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Getting Specific About Transportation

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I've not been following the Virginia governor's race terribly closely, largely because I don't live in Virginia. But I do occasionally drive in Virginia (particularly to go here), and I do Metro out to Virginia, and so I'm interested to see that the central policy argument of the campaign is over transportation infrastructure. It's an argument that The Washington Post editorial page, in its endorsement of Democrat Creigh Deeds, says Deeds should be winning, largely because Deeds is willing to address the issue beneath the issue: taxes.

But the central challenge facing Virginia and its next governor is the deficit in transportation funding projected at $100 billion over the next two decades -- and only Mr. Deeds offers hope for a solution. Following a road map used successfully in 1986, he would appoint a bipartisan commission to forge a consensus on transportation funding, with the full expectation that new taxes would be part of the mix. Mr. McDonnell, by contrast, proposes to pay for road improvements mainly by cannibalizing essential state services such as education, health and public safety -- a political non-starter. And rather than leveling with Virginians about the cost of his approach, as Mr. Deeds has done, Mr. McDonnell lacks the political spine to say what programs he would attempt to gut, or even reshape, in order to deal with transportation needs.

Mr. Deeds has run an enormous and possibly fatal political risk by saying bluntly that he would support legislation to raise new taxes dedicated to transportation. It is a risk that neither Mr. Kaine nor Mr. Warner felt they could take. But given that the state has raised no significant new cash for roads, rails and bridges in 23 years, Mr. Deeds's position is nothing more than common sense. It is fantasy to think that the transportation funding problem, a generation in the making, will be addressed without a tax increase. A recent manifesto from 17 major business groups in Northern Virginia, calling for new taxes dedicated to transportation, attests to that reality.

Yet Mr. McDonnell, champion of a revenue-starved status quo, remains in denial. He professes to feel the pain of Virginians struggling with financial hard times. In fact his transportation policy, a blueprint for stagnation and continuing deterioration, would subvert the state's prospects for economic recovery and long-term growth. And it would only deepen the misery of Northern Virginia commuters who already pay a terrible price -- economic, personal and psychological -- because of the state's long neglect of its roads.

It's no lie: Deeds actually is attempting to turn his openness to a tax hike into an argument for his seriousness about the issue. From his Web site:

Let me be clear regarding taxes. I will sign a bill that is the product of bipartisan compromise that provides a comprehensive transportation solution. As a legislator, I have voted for a number of mechanisms to fund transportation, including a gas tax. And I'll sign a bipartisan bill with a dedicated funding mechanism for transportation -- even if it includes new taxes.

One of the problems with talking about taxes is that the benefits are left maddeningly unspecific. But little is more concrete in the average voter's life than his or her commute. How much more would the average Virginian pay in taxes to shave 10 minutes off the morning drive? Five minutes? What about making it more reliable, so there were fewer days when the Metro didn't come for 13 minutes?

I'd bet good money that most voters would pay a lot more than is being asked, at least if they genuinely believed the benefits would materialize. But there's nothing on Deeds's site indicating the concrete improvements expected from his plan. It all sounds good, but it's also quite vague. That's how politicians often are when talking about taxes, and it doesn't make much sense. Best Buy doesn't tell you the price before they show you the TV.

Photo credit: Bill O'Leary -- The Washington Post Photo .

By Ezra Klein  |  October 19, 2009; 8:10 AM ET
Categories:  Urban Policy  
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Comments

If you lived in Virginia or had any memory of tax/transportation funding debates over the last 30 years, you would realize just how far off base the Post has always been with its perpetual "just raise taxes" mantra. Virginia has had relatively minor challanges raising enough revenue to fund transprotation projects matched by relatively major wastes of money once it hits the state coffers.

In the 80's Richmond neglected Northern Virginia roads in favor of projects down state. Drive out into the rural areaeas and you will be surprised at the size and quality of roads and highways in the middle of nowhere. (Just paving Tanners Ridge Road in Page county probably cost more than 10 comprable projects in NOVA). During the 90s, the state DMV wrested some funding away from ROVA to NOVA and promptly threw it at over engineered gold plated projects like the Springfield intercahange and the Woodrow Wilson bridge. These improvements were necessary but abandoning simplicity for complexity increased the cost and raised serious doubts about the fiscal responsibility of VDOT. Finally, in the last 10 years, various "transportation experts" (NOVA Transprotation Authority and NOVA Transportation Commission) have demagouged about the need to raise taxes to fund critical projects. When challanged to produce a list of such projects, they have consistenly put forward laundry lists of pork that leave locals shaking their heads and more convinced than ever that handing these "experts" any more money would do absolutley nothing to releive traffic congestion.

And thru it all, the Washington Post has had one simple answer "Just raise taxes". They were misguided in the 80s, even more misguided in the 90s and today their arguments just seem like a broken record.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | October 19, 2009 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Someone at WaPo might want to close that italic tag at the end of the photo credit. Just sayin'.

Posted by: rt42 | October 19, 2009 9:20 AM | Report abuse

McDonnell's most hilarious proposal is to cover revenue shortfalls by selling off the money-making state liquor stores. Everyone but New Hampshirites hates state liquor stores, but selling off income-generating assets *during a recession* to cover operating costs is like a business that decides to sell its desk chairs in order to meet payroll-- you get an influx of money, but not only did you get a bad price for it, but once it's gone you're worse off than when you started.

Posted by: constans | October 19, 2009 10:32 AM | Report abuse

Well said WoodbridgeVa1. Unfortunately, it doesn't fit with Ezra's (and the WaPo's) vision of higher taxes. Ezra, you are showing your absolute ignorance with this topic (as you do with just about everything else you post here). Just look at the magnitude of 'investment' needed to correct the traffic in NoVA and compare it to what the tax incidence the average Virginia citizen will incur to pay for these costs. Come back when you have an answer.

Posted by: novalfter | October 19, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

sadly, very sadly, most of virginia is still in denial about roads and the need for the state to share and share alike.

i live in the hampton roads area. the advertisements mcdonnell is running basically say that deeds is willing to take hampton roads tax dollars and use them to benefit northern virginia. he is pitting one part of the state against the rest. and it works. many parts of virginia don't consider northern virginia to be part of the state. really. truly.

outside of northern virginia, it's mcdonnell territory. and to top it off, the roads in hampton roads are a mess too! this area has grown enormously since i moved down here from dc (the city, where i didn't even own a car) 13 years ago. traffic can be as snarled as it is in the greater dc metro area. some major highways are falling apart.

yet, deeds' realistic stand on taxes to fix roads automatically induces gag reflex without thought by many, many virginians. it's so terribly easy to demagogue on taxes without thinking through the consequences.

i do think a critical mistake on deeds' part is the type of ad campaign he's running down here. he is not highlighting any of his ideas to fix transportation. the tv advertisements are ALL about mcdonell's nutty dissertation and his conservative christian views. the problem is, many people down here won't find these ideas out of line.

deeds, for instance, could remind people that mcdonnell voted against spending stimulus money to extend unemployment benefits. he was running an ad very early on that played on this. but it's long gone.

i am really having a hard time watching this state about to elect someone like mcdonnell. we're gonna go back to the gilmore era of a "free tax ride" for everyone. after 2 very successful democratic governors, and with 2 democratic senators (albeit "moderates") i think virginia is about to go backwards in state governorship. so be prepared to watch the transportation problems just get worse and worse. after all, all you "northern" virginians aren't really part of the state after all!!! just a bunch of "liberals" (so goes the belief) who deserve bad roads.

sigh . . .

Posted by: shellinelson1 | October 19, 2009 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Deed's p_ss-poor campaign is a bigger factor in his likely loss than his support for responsible fiscal policies. He needed to pump up support in Northern Virginia and give the rational voters in the rest of the state a reason to reject the always-popular anti-tax Republican rants, but instead he fixated on the the trivia of McDonnell's old thesis. If he was going to go negative, it would have been better to contrast the ruin under Gilmore with the stability/progress of the last eight years under Democratic governors. Deeds looked like a reasonably good bet to leverage downstate connections with appeal on issues to Northern Virginia, but he never stepped up to the plate on the latter. He probably deserves to lose, but unfortunately, we do not deserve to have McDonnell as a wrecking ball governor for the next four years.

Posted by: exgovgirl | October 19, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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