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Posted at 2:48 PM ET, 01/26/2011

Updated: Conservation groups oppose McDonnell's transportation plan

By Anita Kumar
Anita Kumar

A trio of conservation and smart-growth groups announced Wednesday their opposition to Gov. Bob McDonnell's proposal to issue $2.9 billion in bonds for transportation.

Officials at the Coalition for Smarter Growth, the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Piedmont Environmental Council say they have concerns about the amount of money and the list of proposed projects.

"It involves too much borrowing and debt reminiscent of what got our households and nation into trouble over the last decade, and it will not address the underlying origins of our traffic congestion," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

McDonnell said Virginia will save millions of dollars by issuing bonds now because interest and construction rates are so low. More than three dozen business and transportation groups have come out in support of the proposal.

But the conservative groups say the proposal gives the governor and his secretary of transportation too much power to decide how to spend the money and that they do not plan to spend enough money on transit projects.

"A more sustainable transportation plan for Virginia starts with revitalization of our cities, towns and older suburbs, it focuses on transit, freight rail and passenger rail, and it focuses on improved and better connected local road infrastructure that also supports walking and bicycling,'' said Roger Diedrich, transportation chair for the Sierra Club.

McDonnell's office did not immediately respond to a message for comment.

Updated, 3:05 p.m.: McDonnell's office responds: "None of the governor's transportation proposals will increase Virginia's total authorized tax supported debt and this plan keeps Virginia's debt capacity at a 5 percent average over time,'' McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said. "Further, as has been widely reported, VDOT already has the money necessary for debt service in the form of insurance premium tax revenue approved in 2007. All this plan does is prudently, and wisely, reorder the use of existing debt to capture economies from lower interest rates and lower construction bids....Of course this fiscal argument is just a smokescreen thrown up by these groups to conceal their chief objection to the plan. These are organizations that want to move Virginians away from their usage of motor vehicles as their chief means of transportation. Obviously it doesn't help their agenda if we build new highways and make it easier for Virginians to drive from point A to point B. We understand their position, and they are certainly free to advance it. However, it does put them at odds with the overwhelming majority of Virginians who would simply like to get to work in the morning a little easier and home in the evening a little quicker."

By Anita Kumar  | January 26, 2011; 2:48 PM ET
Categories:  Anita Kumar, General Assembly 2011, House of Delegates, Robert F. McDonnell, State Senate, Transportation  
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Comments

The Governor’s spokesperson only refers to the increase from $300 million per year to $600 million per year under the 2007 HB3202 authority. Yet, the Governor is proposing much more borrowing and debt than the additional $300 million per year that would be funded with auto insurance premiums under HB3202. He proposes borrowing $1.2 billion from future federal gas tax revenues despite the risk that those revenues could fall – borrowing that means we can’t buy other transportation projects in the future. He also proposes a new infrastructure bank controlled by the administration that would be given up to $1 billion in tax dollars and issue debt for billions more.

We are as committed as anyone to transportation solutions for Virginia and supported the integrated land use and transportation approach of HB3202. But simply building and widening roads isn’t a plan. Northern Virginians and the residents of Los Angeles have certainly found that to be the case. Better locating housing and jobs, focusing on key bottlenecks and offering people more transportation options like transit, carpools, and biking must be central parts of any transportation plan.

Posted by: csgstewart | January 26, 2011 5:52 PM | Report abuse

These are professional anti-highway groups, so their opposition to the Governor's plan is entirely predictable. They would support unlimited funding for high-cost transit projects that serve only a few (and require endless subsidies); but they oppose funding for the highways that most people rely upon (and which are supported by user fees).

Gov. McDonnell's transportation plan provides resources for much-needed transportation improvements in N.Va., without raising taxes. It deserves support from legislators in both parties.

Posted by: jrmil | January 26, 2011 10:56 PM | Report abuse

re jrmil's comment: First, both highways and transit receive public subsidies. Highway user fees do not come close to paying for the full range of road costs.

Second, the DC area's investment in transit has allow our region to grow, while providing critical commute options that prevent total meltdown and maintain our economic competitiveness. Transit carries a large proportion of peak hour commuters -- the equivalent of many lanes of highways.

Third, our groups don't support transit systems if they are not tied to efficient development that in turn generates the economic activity and tax base for our local governments. Arlington's effective use of transit and transit-oriented development has given them the lowest residential property tax rates in the region.

Fourth, there is no guarantee that most of this borrowed money will come to NOVA because of the blank check it gives the Governor and because the Governor's top priority is Route 460, which would be a huge waste of money but would be subsidized by northern Virginians.

Finally, there is no free lunch. The debt is being paid for by your tax dollars. By taking money from other government services it will put a burden on local governments to raise taxes to fill the gap and will lead to future tax increases to make up for the hole created by large debt repayments. Departing from Virginia's fiscal conservative tradition for a spree of borrowing and spending on a business-as-usual transportation plan is the wrong way to go.

Posted by: csgstewart | January 27, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

re jrmil's comment: First, both highways and transit receive public subsidies. Highway user fees do not come close to paying for the full range of road costs.

Second, the DC area's investment in transit has allow our region to grow, while providing critical commute options that prevent total meltdown and maintain our economic competitiveness. Transit carries a large proportion of peak hour commuters -- the equivalent of many lanes of highways.

Third, our groups don't support transit systems if they are not tied to efficient development that in turn generates the economic activity and tax base for our local governments. Arlington's effective use of transit and transit-oriented development has given them the lowest residential property tax rates in the region.

Fourth, there is no guarantee that most of this borrowed money will come to NOVA because of the blank check it gives the Governor and because the Governor's top priority is Route 460, which would be a huge waste of money but would be subsidized by northern Virginians.

Finally, there is no free lunch. The debt is being paid for by your tax dollars. By taking money from other government services it will put a burden on local governments to raise taxes to fill the gap and will lead to future tax increases to make up for the hole created by large debt repayments. Departing from Virginia's fiscal conservative tradition for a spree of borrowing and spending on a business-as-usual transportation plan is the wrong way to go.

Posted by: CSGLaura | January 27, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

re jrmil's comment: First, both highways and transit receive public subsidies. Highway user fees do not come close to paying for the full range of road costs.

Second, the DC area's investment in transit has allow our region to grow, while providing critical commute options that prevent total meltdown and maintain our economic competitiveness. Transit carries a large proportion of peak hour commuters -- the equivalent of many lanes of highways.

Third, our groups don't support transit systems if they are not tied to efficient development that in turn generates the economic activity and tax base for our local governments. Arlington's effective use of transit and transit-oriented development has given them the lowest residential property tax rates in the region.

Fourth, there is no guarantee that most of this borrowed money will come to NOVA because of the blank check it gives the Governor and because the Governor's top priority is Route 460, which would be a huge waste of money but would be subsidized by northern Virginians.

Finally, there is no free lunch. The debt is being paid for by your tax dollars. By taking money from other government services it will put a burden on local governments to raise taxes to fill the gap and will lead to future tax increases to make up for the hole created by large debt repayments. Departing from Virginia's fiscal conservative tradition for a spree of borrowing and spending on a business-as-usual transportation plan is the wrong way to go.

Posted by: CSGLaura | January 27, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

re jrmil's comment: First, both highways and transit receive public subsidies. Highway user fees do not come close to paying for the full range of road costs.

Second, the DC area's investment in transit has allow our region to grow, while providing critical commute options that prevent total meltdown and maintain our economic competitiveness. Transit carries a large proportion of peak hour commuters -- the equivalent of many lanes of highways.

Third, our groups don't support transit systems if they are not tied to efficient development that in turn generates the economic activity and tax base for our local governments. Arlington's effective use of transit and transit-oriented development has given them the lowest residential property tax rates in the region.

Fourth, there is no guarantee that most of this borrowed money will come to NOVA because of the blank check it gives the Governor and because the Governor's top priority is Route 460, which would be a huge waste of money but would be subsidized by northern Virginians.

Finally, there is no free lunch. The debt is being paid for by your tax dollars. By taking money from other government services it will put a burden on local governments to raise taxes to fill the gap and will lead to future tax increases to make up for the hole created by large debt repayments. Departing from Virginia's fiscal conservative tradition for a spree of borrowing and spending on a business-as-usual transportation plan is the wrong way to go.

Posted by: CSGLaura | January 27, 2011 11:49 AM | Report abuse

The bonds to be paid back via the insurance premium tax makes some fiscal sense. I can accept that part going through.

But the GARVEE bonds should be a non-starter for numerous reasons...amongst them being the recent and continuing unpredictability in Federal highway funding, the Federal Highway Trust Fund being broke, and paying off the bonds ties up a lot of what future Federal highway funding we'd get. Contrary to what the Governor's plan supporters say, this one is NOT a good idea. And if Minnesota's experience from 8 years ago is any indication, it'll tie up A LOT MORE in future Federal highway dollars than the plan is expecting to.

Posted by: ajfroggie | January 27, 2011 12:19 PM | Report abuse

Also, to jrmil, the Governor's plan isn't a case of "providing resources", because the fundamental nature of bonds means you have to pay those bonds back. A more appropriate description of the Governor's plan is that it's "providing resources today by taking away future resources".

Nevermind the fact that, even if the Governor's full plan is implemented, it is only a very small percentage of the transportation funding need statewide. Anyone who thinks the Governor's plan will solve the transportation funding problem in Virginia is either delusional or very misinformed on the true monetary need.

Posted by: ajfroggie | January 27, 2011 12:25 PM | Report abuse

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