Road to Richmond: Transportation

This is the first in a week-long series of reports about the issues that define the 2009 race for Virginia governor. Still to come: the economy, women’s issues, higher education and federal measures.

Perhaps no single issue has stymied Virginia lawmakers this decade more than transportation. By all accounts, the state’s roads are in terrible condition and drivers — especially those in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — spend hours sitting in traffic.

Both candidates for governor, Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell, have promised to fix the state’s transportation nightmare. They agree about what the problems are, but couldn’t be further apart on how to fix those challenges.

Here’s an in-depth look at both proposals and at what each man says about the other’s plan.

DEEDS: “A BI-PARTISAN COMMISSION”

Deeds says his transportation plan is closely-linked to his economic platform because improving the state’s transit network will help companies be more productive and will entice more businesses to set-up shop in Virginia.

He advocates for high-speed rail and expansions to the Commonwealth’s current passenger- and freight rail systems.

Deeds also calls for more telecommuting, with some type of incentive for companies that allow employees to help reduce congestion by working from home.

He also promotes more oversight of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

To pay for these improvements, Deeds says he will immediately appoint a bi-partisan commission tasked with developing a transportation funding structure.

The Democrat calls the proposal “the only approach to transportation that’s worked.” He says it is similar to a path taken by Gov. Jerry Baliles (D) in the 1980s.

One of Deeds’ favorite lines is that “nothing is off the table” when it comes to transportation except taking money out of the general fund budget — which funds education, public safety, mental health and other state programs — to pay for roads.

Throughout the campaign, this statement begged the question: Will Deeds support a  tax increase to fund transportation improvements?

That topic was the subject of a disastrous press gaggle following the candidates’ second debate in front of the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce:

Since that scrum, Deeds has expanded on the idea of new taxes.

During a debate in Richmond, Deeds said he will follow the advice of his transportation commission.

“If that commission can produce a plan that raises new funding for transportation that’s supported by the General Assembly, I’ll sign it.”

His transit proposals were embraced by The Washington Post, which endorsed Deeds for governor mainly because of this issue.

“It is fantasy to think that the transportation funding problem, a generation in the making, will be addressed without a tax increase,” the Post’s editorial board wrote.

Critics blast Deeds for even talking about the idea of a tax increase.

“In this recession, that’s exactly the wrong policy,” McDonnell said during the Richmond debate.

VIDEO: The candidates talk transportation during Richmond debate:

Republicans have launched a full-scale assault on the Deeds campaign on the issue of new taxes.

Nonetheless, the Democrats are firing back, often highlighting the Post endorsement, which ripped McDonnell for drafting transportation proposals that “crumble on contact with reality.”

Deeds has folded that critique into his broader argument against McDonnell’s transit platform, claiming the GOP candidate’s proposals are “bogus.”

Deeds claims McDonnell’s plan will take at least $5.4 billion from education and other core services. “I won’t rob Peter to pay Paul,” Deeds often says.

He also routinely suggests that McDonnell’s transportation plan includes items that either currently run counter to federal law or have previously been rejected by the General Assembly. It is this claim that feeds directly into Deeds’ belief that his transportation plan will work and that McDonnell’s will not.

McDONNELL: “I HAVE A DETAILED PLAN”

McDonnell’s counter to all this can be summed up in one quote from the pair’s Fairfax debate:

“I’ve handed out my transportation plan: 19 pages, single-spaced. Here’s my opponent’s plan,” McDonnell said, waving a blank sheet of white paper. “Not a thing on it.”

The Republican has cobbled together a laundry list of ideas to help fund his transportation agenda.

Like Deeds, McDonnell calls for infrastructure improvements in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads; for more passenger- and freight rail service; and for more oversight of VDOT.

Among his funding proposals are the following:

  • Privatizing Virginia’s liquor stores, which McDonnell estimates could generate $500 million in one-time, near-term funding
  • Dedicating a portion of the proceeds from offshore oil and natural gas drilling specifically for transportation, with an estimated gain of $177 million per year
  • Tolling cars that enter Virginia from North Carolina on I-95 and I-85, which McDonnell says will generate $50 million annually

Critics say McDonnell’s plan includes lots of specifics but very little that will actually work. Democrats frequently target the offshore drilling portion, claiming such an arrangement is years, if not decades, away.

Republicans counter that McDonnell has drafted a plan that can fix Virginia’s road woes without raising taxes one cent.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch cited that issue as “reason enough” to back McDonnell.

McDonnell also beats back the claim that his plan will steal money from education and mental health to pay for roads. He said his proposals to grow the economy will help prevent cuts to key programs to support his transportation agenda.

It’s important to point out that the next governor — whether it’s McDonnell or Deeds — will have to work closely with the General Assembly if there’s even a chance of fixing the state’s transit troubles.

If Republicans increase their lead in the House of Delegates, as they are expected to do, and if McDonnell is elected governor, watch out for some shuffling in the state Senate. If Deeds wins, it’s hard to imagine a GOP-controlled House supporting the idea of a tax increase.

There are a lot of “ifs” in all this — but the bottom line is that the legislature’s power structure will play an incredibly important role in what the next governor can accomplish when it comes to transportation.

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