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Posted at 6:41 PM ET, 02/ 3/2011

Coalition criticizes Va. transportation plan

By Fredrick Kunkle

The Coalition for Smarter Growth stepped up its criticism of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation plan soon after House gave tentative approval to the $3 billion package.

As momentum built for the plan's approval, Stewart Schwartz, the coalition's executive director, warned that the initiative could soak taxpayers and worsen sprawl. Schwartz also questioned a George Mason University study that predicts major economic benefits from the governor's plan.

Schwartz called GMU's Stephen Fuller's study "very flawed" because, among other things, it fails to account for the state dollars that would flow into public-private highway projects. Schwartz said the study also overestimates the benefits of the sort of project contemplated in the plan. Nor does Fuller's study identify a single public transit project, Schwartz said.

The study, commissioned by Virginia's Secretary of Transportation and released in time for this week's floor debates, focuses on 16 proposed public-private highway projects.

Schwartz said earlier this week in an interview that the $1.5 billion in borrowed money for the public-private fund would be like the "governor's private bank," doling out very low-interest loans to private highway construction firms that would then receive 75 years of toll revenues in return.

"This transportation bill is about borrowing billions of dollars from our future and from education, health care, and public safety and channeling it to subsidize the multinational companies that build PPTA projects," Schwartz said in a press release. "While Fuller shows no state construction funds for Route 460, Cintra, a Spanish multinational firm, is asking for $782 million or 52 percent of the cost to be paid by taxpayers and for $491 million in loans (33 percent) and to put up only 15 percent of its own money, in return for 75 years or more of toll revenues."

The Republican-dominated House, following a sometimes strident debate, gave tentative approval to the measure by a vote of 62-35. The measure is scheduled for final consideration Friday. A similar measure sponsored by Wampler in the Senate will be aired in the Senate on Monday.

Supporters say the governor's initiative will jumpstart 900 shovel-ready projects without affecting the state's creditworthiness or piling on more debt. Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk) argued that the debt, which has already been authorized in a 2007 transportation bill, would simply be accelerated so that the commonwealth could take advantage of currently low interest rates and construction costs.

"This is exactly the time you want to be borrowing money to fix roads," Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said Thursday. Albo said a report by the Federal Highway Authority found that construction costs have declined by 40 percent since 2006. Given current interest rates, Albo said, Virginia could save as much as $17 million by acting now to repair Rolling Road for $30 million, a Fairfax County artery that would otherwise cost $46.6 million if the state waits.

But critics said the governor's plan was nothing but borrowing and spending. They warned also that the plan will siphon money from schools, higher education, corrections, law enforcement, health care and other programs supported by the general fund.

The governor's office did not address directly criticism from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, instead suggesting that the plan has already gained an unstoppable head of steam.

"We are pleased by the growing and broad bipartisan support in both chambers for this plan that will get 900 road, bridge and transit projects underway and represent the biggest investment in transportation in Virginia in decades," McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said.

--Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this posting.

By Fredrick Kunkle  | February 3, 2011; 6:41 PM ET
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Of course, the Coalition of Smarter Growth is going to criticize the governor's plan or any other plan put forward that includes roads. They are a self interest no different than any other group they are advocating for what they believe is the way that we should live - everyone in an apartment or condo clustered around a Metro station. However, there are some folks that wish to live in a single family home on a quarter acre lot or larger. That's not going to change, and that's why we need to work on multi-modal transportation plans that serve the needs of the inner suburbs and outer suburbs. The sniping between the Coalition of Smarter Growth and the NVTA is one of the reasons that we struggle to solve our transportation problems. Of course, the main reason is that everyone wants the infrastructure to get from their home to employment location as quickly as possible, but no one wants to pay for the infrastructure. So we sit in taffic due to inaction.

Posted by: Batavia | February 4, 2011 10:04 AM | Report abuse

Is there a second half to the report? Did the Coalition actually come up with their own $3 billion plan to help us out? If not, they are merely irresponsible. If they are irresponsible, their response should not even be published. If they did recommend something, what is it?

McDonnel is the first governor of the past several that came up with any idea or approach to help us out of being the worst transportation system in the nation (except Warner, who took away all our funding, gave it to southern VA, and told us to tax ourselves if we want any improvements. That approach failed miserably and put us where we are today). It really feels good having a governor who is actually trying to cope with problems instead of just pushing the problem on someone else or merely funding feel good projects that make them look good but solve virtually no problems.

One big problem with the Coalition criticism: it assumes that any funds allocated for anything is sacrosanct, so their apparent only approach is to raise taxes. Thats really just sticking their head in the sand. Has no one taught them that budgeting is managing funds, not just reappropriating them? On a personal level they are likely paying thousands of dollars for their land lines at home while most people have been paying about $100 for the past 5 years.

As for me, getting $3 billion is a good step forward, but its only a step. If the President had put the stimulus money into infrastructure as he said he was going to, we'd have a lot more money available. The Coalition's criticism adds to the failure by criticisizing the proposal and apparently having no real solutions. They apparently would rather have nothing done unless its their feel good projects. They are obviously not a Coalition to help us, but to see to it that only their agenda moves ahead, whatever it is.

I am not a politico that deals with these groups, but I do use our roads and I know all of our kids will move out of here as soon as they can to get off of these roads. To the Coalition, thats probably smart growth - to make the quality of life so poor on our roads everyone is forced out of the area. Thats the Warner approach, and he did us no favors. I do know the difference between honest proposals to help and honest proposals to push a personal agenda. Thank you Governor. We finally elected someone who is trying to help instead of merely helping narrow public interest groups take our taxes to fund their narrow personal interests.

Thomas Jefferson said that the most important thing he ever did was to clear the James River to open up a transportation route into the heart of Virginia. The first public works project ever approved by Congress was the building of the Cape Henry lighthouse to help access that route (George Washington hired the first lighthouse keeper himself). May we keep electing governor's that have that sense of importance to our transportation infrastructure!

Posted by: rvanneman | February 4, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

The so-called "Coalition" is a well-known anti-highway lobbying organization. They predictably oppose highway improvement projects throughout the region (with no regard for motorists stuck in traffic). And they lobby to rasie taxes and divert motorist user fees to their own pet projects.

To no one's surprise, they have cranked out yet another cliche-laden press release, announcing that they still oppose highway improvements.

Why is this "news"?

Posted by: jrmil | February 4, 2011 11:48 AM | Report abuse

I completely disagree with the above comments. One has to question the vision for transportation in Virginia. The mantra continues to be "build more roads" and "widen existing roads". At some point, we need to learn that building and widening roads simply leads to more cars and more traffic.

Sure, many people want single family homes on a quarter acre lot, but then they should pay the full cost in road construction and maintenance, in automobile pollution and environmental degradation.

The Coalition is simply following the message of other organizations that have emerged over the years: compact development leads to both housing and transportation choices - something sorely lacking in northern Virginia today and apparently for the foreseable future.

Posted by: LukasWP | February 4, 2011 11:09 PM | Report abuse

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