Getting Specific About Transportation
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 .
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