Previously, Virginia was nationally recognized as the “best place to do business.” Currently, it has slipped to third place in the rankings. This should be a wake-up call for action from the legislature. It appears Gov. McDonnell has joined the ranks of believers in the seriousness of the situation. On Dec. 17 he stated, “We have a math problem and ultimately a jobs problem.” I would submit that if we thought there was a problem with transportation before, what do you think will happen when our economic engine is handicapped by gridlock?
There are some who would have you believe that this predicament is a new development. But for the better part of the last decade, from then-Gov. Mark Warner, to transportation experts and respected business leaders in every corner of this commonwealth, the alarm warning has been sounding. Virginia is fast approaching its “transportation cliff.”
During this same period, we saw creative math, massive bond leverage, and a screeching halt to the “pay as you go system” that once was the foundation for Virginia’s fiscal policy. We even entered into an era of public and private partnerships (P3) to build and sustain our infrastructure. Despite all efforts, we are no closer to addressing the increasing dilemma of moving people to their work and homes, or moving goods in a cost-efficient manner that the consumer can appreciate.
More than a quarter-century ago, then-Gov. Gerald Baliles had the political courage and foresight to increase the gas tax. Al- though the cost of gas at the pump has increased significantly during this time, the gas tax rate of 17.5 cents per gallon has remained flat. Oil companies have seen large profit margins while the commonwealth’s buying power has decreased by 54 percent since 1986. Indexing the existing gas tax should be a crucial consideration amid serious debate on the subject. However, this will barely make a dent.
Across the country there is no evidence that any governmental entity has successfully paved its way out of gridlock. In Northern Virginia, the Metro and mass transit must be seriously addressed if we are to improve the quality of life for families and the much-desired employees of companies doing business here. Finishing the Silver Line to Dulles and beyond will positively affect the Tech Corridor all the way to and from Tysons Corner.
Maintaining nearly 18,000 miles of roads on a shoe-string budget has caused us to dip into the transportation construction fund, leaving an imbalance in revenue for new projects, including local road improvements. The major projects we see today are on the books under the Public Private Transportation Act. Generally speaking when you see a PPTA, you see a toll. Witness the advent of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia and proposed tolling of the interstate in Southside.
Building a toll road that parallels U.S. 460 makes about as much sense as trying to sell the naming rights to bridges as a successful means to fund transportation. It is estimated that fewer than 6,000 cars will traverse that road daily. This pales in comparison to daily traffic in and out of the larger subdivisions in the northern part of Virginia.
Further, I remain deeply concerned about taking General Fund money for transportation. Firstly, it is a continuation of “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Secondly, we are underfunding public education—especially higher education—so significantly that we run the risk of being noncompetitive in the world economy. Business leaders stress the need to prepare the next generation with the skills necessary as a future workforce.
Senate Democrats and I head into this legislative session with great hope and open minds for long-overdue solutions to break through the gridlock. We are ready to craft the long-term roadmap that addresses our economic needs and restores the quality of life that Virginians have worked hard to achieve and have come to expect.