Sunday, July 27, 2008

Jeffrey M. Frederick

Once again this year, the Virginia General Assembly convened in special session to continue the running debate on how to address Virginia‘s complicated transportation challenges — especially those in the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads regions.

Of course, the debate is largely the same as it has been in recent years: Should we keep doing the same thing over and over again and somehow expect a different result; and does Virginia have the money to dedicate to transportation if transportation is made a top spending priority? Or, do we take the easy way out by attempting to simply tax and pave our way out of our problems — by asking you to cut your family budgets (even in this time of explosive gas and food prices and overall economic uncertainty) because government refuses to prioritize its budget?

Virginia’s transportation system is currently rooted in the 1932 Byrd Road Act. This law was good policy back in the Depression, but it is completely out of date in the 21st century. Virginia is one of only three states to continue to own and maintain all of its roads, and as we can see, it just doesn’t work (it’s no wonder most states no longer do this).

Further, land-use decisions are reserved for the local governments, yet transportation decisions are made at the state level. The problem with this approach is you have local governments deciding what shopping center and residential development will go where, while the state determines what roads and other transportation infrastructure will be constructed.

The local government can make land-use decisions that don’t make sense in terms of the transportation planning, and the state can make transportation decisions that don’t make sense for the land-use decisions. This disconnect is a major reason transportation is continually a problem here.

We can solve this problem by giving road maintenance responsibility back to the localities, and in doing so, provide them with all the road dollars the state currently spends in their areas. Chances are the local guys can build and maintain these roads for a fraction of what the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is currently spending, and they can use the savings to do additional transportation-related programs.

We also need to get VDOT out of the road-building and maintenance business. As we’ve seen, VDOT is inept at reducing traffic congestion and building projects that make the most sense. The agency is better suited to be a project management agency that focuses on reducing or eliminating congestion instead of simply building roads that may or may not produce a desired result.

Yet, if we don’t change VDOT’s mission, we should audit the agency to make sure we’re getting the most for your money. Other states have done audits of their transportation departments and discovered ways to do things better, faster and cheaper to maximize each and every transportation dollar.

Also, private companies are hungry to get involved in Virginia’s transportation programs, and we should make it easier for them to bring some of the private sector innovation (which drives our economy) into our Virginia roads, rail and transit.

In addition, Virginia government is not suffering from a lack of cash. Since I first took office in 2004, we were running a $53 billion, two-year budget. This year, we passed a $78 billion budget. That’s a nearly 50 percent increase in just the last four years. Not only is that incredible budget growth (and yet, little of that growth was prioritized for transportation), but most people I talk to haven’t gotten increases in their household incomes over the last four years of nearly 50 percent. Thus, why in the world should government grow its budget faster than your family grows its budget?

Existing revenue streams are available to dedicate to transportation, some of them transportation related. For example, in the recent special session that just concluded, House Republicans passed transportation funding legislation that would have provided up to $900 million in additional dollars dedicated to Northern Virginia ($600 million) and Hampton Roads ($300 million).

Importantly, this legislation did not require a tax or fee increase but instead designated the growth in state revenues from Dulles and National airports and the Port of Virginia (both transportation-related) for regional transportation needs. Unfortunately, the Democrat-controlled state Senate declined to act on this legislation.

Finally, the Transportation Trust Fund in Virginia still has yet to be locked up. Thus, even those dollars that are put aside for transportation can be raided at any time for other, unrelated purposes.

There’s much to fix before we can credibly come to you and ask you to pay more - as it is, your current investment in transportation isn’t getting the return you deserve. But as we see, you don’t need to pay more for us to get closer to fixing the problem.

Transportation is an urgent matter in the commonwealth, one that must be addressed. General Assembly Republicans are working toward that goal.

Taxpayers in the Old Dominion are crying “uncle,” overtaxed and struggling as it is to make ends meet. For now, asking families to pay more is something the public doesn’t support, and as we’ve seen, nor does the General Assembly.

Gov. Tim Kaine and his tax-me-more cronies need to get this tax debate behind them. There are many new, innovative and creative solutions to our transportation crisis out there that we can act on. But not until Mr. Kaine stops holding them hostage to tax increases.

Jeffrey M. Frederick is serving his third term in the House of Delegates from eastern Prince William County, where he is a member of the Transportation and Finance committees. He is also chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia.

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