Motivational speakers like to remind us that success is a marathon, not a sprint. But if Virginia legislators hope to successfully resolve a looming transportation budget crisis during the upcoming session of the state’s General Assembly, they might want to try channeling Carl Lewis or Usain Bolt.
Because 2013 is an odd-numbered year, Virginia’s constitution allows the General Assembly only 45 days to complete its business once it convenes on January 9. As with other state legislatures, transportation funding is but one of many issues competing for lawmakers’ attention.
But this year carries an added sense of urgency, as Virginia once again finds itself in need of a long-term funding source for road and bridge maintenance. Otherwise, the well will run dry in about four years unless the state adds to the $300 million it’s siphoned from construction funds over the past decade, or counts on continued low interest rates for bond-funded projects.
As a state bound so closely to history and tradition (the General Assembly is, after all, the Western Hemisphere’s oldest legislative body, first convening in 1619), it’s hardly surprising that Virginia hasn’t touched its 17.5-cent gas tax since 1986. And the tax-averse representatives who dominate the House of Delegates and share power in the State Senate show little inclination to buck this 27-year-old tradition.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t try.
Term-limited Bob McDonnell (R) will soon unveil the details of a five-year, half-billion dollar funding plan that will be generated by indexing the gas tax to inflation, and transferring funds from other state programs. The latter component has already come under fire from critics, particularly those in the perpetually congested DC suburbs who question the wisdom of investing in the $1.4 billion Route 460 Toll Road project, the primary purpose of which is to help the state’s ports capitalize on the hoped-for bounty of post-Panama Canal widening shipping traffic.
Several other ideas have been tossed out by legislators. They include offsetting a higher gas tax with lower income taxes, and replacing the gas tax entirely with a .9-cent increase in the state sales tax. Speaking of the sales tax, Hampton Roads legislators are once again considering asking voters to endorse a 1-cent sales tax increase for local transportation needs, a proposal that went down in flames at the polls in 2002. Tolling I-95 at the North Carolina border has also been floated as a means of capturing money for dedicated maintenance needs from through travelers.
As noted above, Virginia is not alone in trying find a solution to the knotty problem of transportation financing. (Maryland is bracing for a similar fight when its legislature convenes on January 16.) And though 45 days may seem short by contemporary legislative standards, a lot can happen in that span of time—or very little.
Obsessed as it is with tradition, Virginia also touts its ability to find innovative, P3-based solutions to major transportation needs (e.g., the Beltway and I-95 HOT lanes in Northern Virginia, the Midtown Tunnel in Hampton Roads), It will be interesting to see if five weeks and change are enough for leaders to divert a little of that innovative spirit toward ensuring reliable day-to-day operation of those day-to-day roads.
UPDATE 1/8/12 4:00pm. So what exactly did the governor propose? A little bit of everything.