$4 Gas, The Fourth And Virginia's Long Vacation
While the rest of us are out on the roads over this holiday weekend, stuffing our paychecks into our gas tanks, Virginia's legislators are easing into a two-week vacation from the hard work of defeating every possible solution to the state's transportation mess.
Oh, the lawmakers certainly had their fun last week, as they assembled in Richmond for a special session--at a cost of $20,000 a day, thank you very much--to do something about the state's awful traffic, crumbling infrastructure and endangered construction plans.
So, what did they do? Senate Democrats proposed the first increase in the gas tax in 22 years, and House Republicans made it clear they would kill that right quick. The governor proposed a slew of less dramatic tax and fee increases, and legislators met his offer with yawns and chortles. Republicans proposed to let northern Virginians tax themselves if they really want to, and northern Virginians snarled in the general direction of the state's rural regions.
Are we having fun yet? Will residents settle for the honor of paying $4 for a gallon of gas (coming soon: $5 gas!) while the state's roads clog up worse than ever and the state announces that it is scrapping plans to expand highways and improve intersections because that money must be diverted to cover the soaring cost of basic maintenance?
The failure to take care of transportation infrastructure is a nationwide ailment, and the backlog of vital maintenance tasks is counted in the tens of billions--a pittance compared to our weekly outlay in, say, Iraq, but an insurmountable burden to state governments struggling with a sharply-declining real estate market.
Other states have sought to raise the money they need for roads and transit by making deals with private industry to build for-profit toll roads (Virginia's done that too); diving into Lexus lanes, in which toll rates jump during more congested hours (Virginia's into that as well); and taking advantage of EZPass technology to add more tolls to state roads (watch for more of that here too.)
But the bottom line is that decades-old tax levels can no longer provide the funding necessary to keep up with burgeoning population in Virginia's two main urban regions, the Washington area and Hampton Roads. Not that the rest of the state especially cares: Traffic in most of Virginia is laughably light, and why should folks there want to subsidize people in regions they tend to steer clear of anyway?
The reason should be obvious: Northern Virginia is the economic engine of the state. If its economy falters, the entire state feels the pain. But that's a hard message to send in an election campaign, so you have a legislature full of parochial voices.
Where does that leave us, aside from steaming at the gas pumps? Dick Saslaw, the Senate majority leader from Fairfax, resorts to calling the GOP-controlled House, which rejects his gas tax increase proposal, "the gang of 100." Gov. Tim Kaine compares the recalcitrant House to Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham," the story in which Sam-I-am doesn't like that dish in a house, with a mouse, here or there, or, for that matter, anywhere.
The governor is reduced year after year to pleading with legislators ("Try them! Try them!"), and now Kaine says he's prepared to go this same route again in 2009. The man who had intended to be the education governor has instead found himself stuck at the starting gate of a transportation derby that never quite gets going.
What will happen? Nothing but wasted tax dollars this summer--at best, the special session will end with a deal nobody likes, one that saddles northern Virginians with the task of taxing themselves with little or no help from the state government that this region so lavishly subsidizes.
And then it's back to politics: Democrats will say, see, if you just finish the job and give us the House too, we can get past this Republican roadblock and get the construction work underway. Republicans will say, see, we're your only safeguard against those tax-loving Democrats. That appeal has worked for the GOP in the past, but times, conditions and demographics have changed and Democrats are increasingly convinced that one more election cycle is all they need to gain the power to break the transportation stalemate.
It's not quite that easy, however. The real divide in Virginia is neither ideological nor partisan, but rather geographic and cultural. It really is NoVa vs. RoVa (the rest of Virginia.)
And that battle may take some years to play out. In the meantime, there may be other solutions to the $4 gas situation: Former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who is running against former Gov. Mark Warner for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John Warner, pronounces himself so enamored of drilling for oil in our own country that he's willing to have oil companies come over and drill in his own backyard in suburban Richmond.
Now there's a classic Virginia solution: Next from Richmond, selling the drilling rights to the Beltway, I-95 and the state's other major thoroughfares. Who needs tolls when we can let the oil companies make us money from our own roads?
By Marc Fisher |
July 2, 2008; 8:19 AM ET
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