News and Views

The Roanoke Times : Surovell: Working together for statewide solutions on transportation

The Roanoke Times

When Mark Warner was governor in the early 2000s, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) estimated that Virginia was about $120 billion short on transportation construction. At the time, Gov. Warner cobbled together a bipartisan coalition to pass a General Fund tax increase, a step that barely began to address the needs but that was all the tax increases the legislature could swallow at the time.

In 2009, VDOT put the shortfall at between $95 and $120 billion over 20 years and in 2013, the legislature finally raised road funds, but the funding levels amounted to about $1 billion per year when the need was still more than $100 billion over 20 years. If you look at the vote, every Republican senator who represents the I-81 corridor voted “no” along with every Republican delegate except Del. Beverly Sherwood from Winchester. She voted “yes” and was defeated by a Tea Party conservative in a primary three months later who ended up serving one term.

At the time, I argued that HB2313 was not enough money and I was frustrated with the talk of “solving” our transportation crisis. The bill only had enough money to restart secondary road construction and smaller primary projects, and it was not a solution for what are often referred to as “mega-projects,” multi-billion dollar interstate widenings, larger bridges, tunnels or high speed rail. Most Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads legislators were happy to just do anything given it was the first transportation tax increase since 1985.

Without mega-project money, the only funding for large projects since then has been public-private partnerships that have large, variable tolls or state-owned toll projects. This is how we funded the I-95 HOT Lane Extension to Fredericksburg (the so-called “Fred-Ex”), the I-66 widening and rush-hour access and the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel.

Last session, I-81 corridor legislators decided it was time for their regional solution. As predicted 20 years earlier, I-81 congestion is now unbearable because of increased traffic originating elsewhere (e.g., drivers escaping the I-95 corridor). Volume-driven backups are more frequent and the Roanoke Times says the truck traffic can constitute 25 percent to 40 percent of all vehicles on the road. Given the physics of 18-wheelers, some of the accidents have been frightening and eye-popping.

Senator Emmett Hanger proposed an I-81 tax district with a special I-81 gas tax to fund construction. I voted for it along with 24 other senators before it stalled in the House of Delegates, but the policy still troubled me. Before the “no new taxes” craze of the 1990s, all Virginians shared the burden of funding transportation projects over the entire Commonwealth starting with Harry Byrd’s first gas tax in 1922. Virginians were all in it together.

While people can point to too much politics involved in a few funding decisions, the politics have now largely been removed with the new Smart Scale program which ranks projects based on objective factors coupled with the end of the governor’s ability to fire members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board at will.

While I will continue to support the I-81 region’s efforts, I cannot help but wonder if a lack of trust in government institutions was reaffirmed when legislators conditioned tax increases on specific projects in their regions instead of relying upon general taxes everyone pays and leaving it to our institutions to make funding allocations on behalf of the entire Commonwealth.

Regional solutions avoid resolution of long-standing complaints about where revenue goes, but also reinforce regionalism, balkanize Virginia, and validate unfortunate regional stereotypes. For centuries, Virginians were in it together when it came to supporting public services because our leaders could forge compromises and it is collectively cheaper while maximizing our overall opportunity as Commonwealth. What we need today is leaders to step up, have difficult conversations, renew our common bonds, and our trust in our government through statewide solutions to what are actually statewide problems like transportation funding.

Read the full article and more in The Roanoke Times.

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