- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2010

An audit released Thursday suggests former Gov. Timothy M. Kaine left the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) in a state of financial disarray. Current Gov. Robert F. McDonnell had long sought a review of the agency’s finances, but even he and Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton were stunned to find that the department that once claimed it was out of money actually has enough cash on hand to fund $1.4 billion in new projects by 2011.

“We had reserves well in excess of anything anyone in the world would ever carry for the type of operations that we do,” Mr. Connaughton told The Washington Times in an interview. “We were as shocked as anyone else by what we found.” Were it not for the past winter’s record snowstorms, the total would have been $200 million higher.

Auditors found that VDOT’s unspent funds began piling up in 2006, when Mr. Kaine took office. By 2007, the reserve reached 24 percent of the budget. Mr. Kaine issued a statement crediting his “tight-fisted project management” for saving state money “during the toughest economic downturn in a generation.” This is a rather curious position for the chairman of the Democratic National Committee to take when the message from the White House has been that spending during a downturn is the best way to stimulate the economy.

It’s also curious considering that the money accumulated while the agency declared a “transportation funding crisis.” In Fairfax County, for example, the grass in medians grew so tall that drivers trying to make turns often had difficulty seeing oncoming traffic. County supervisors fielded calls from angry constituents who didn’t realize the agency that refused to do its job was, at the time, sitting on $311 million in maintenance funds. Spending restraint was not an issue when Mr. Kaine used $9.8 million in taxpayer money - most in “transportation enhancement funds” - to build a state park at Biscuit Run in Albemarle County.

Liberals love to take the money extracted from drivers in the form of taxes on car fuel and automotive registration fees and spread it around on parks and transit projects that have nothing to do with driving. By starving the road system of essential maintenance, Mr. Kaine could point at the problems he created and claim the transportation funding system was “broken” and demand new taxes and tolls to deal with mounting driver frustration. There was never any intention of giving Virginia more of the road capacity it desperately needs to address congestion.

Unfortunately, Mr. McDonnell and Mr. Connaughton share the previous administration’s fascination with toll booths. Asked if he thought there would be any untolled roads built in the commonwealth in the future, Mr. Connaughton said, “No.” That’s good news for the foreign companies that are looking to nickel-and-dime drivers on every highway in the Old Dominion by erecting toll booths in the name of “congestion management.” It’s bad news for overtaxed motorists who are seeing their hard-earned money burned in the raging bonfire known as Dulles Metro, the price tag for which just jumped to $6.6 billion.

Mr. McDonnell has taken an important first step in bringing VDOT’s fiscal house in order. Now he should put a stop to the existing transportation-funding shell game. If Virginia stopped the diversion of billions in user fees from drivers, there would be no need for tolls.