Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell offered no specifics in his “comprehensive transportation funding and reform” plan to raise an additional $500 million per year to prevent the state from running out of money to build roads by 2017.
Speaking in Fairfax County at his annual transportation conference, Governor McDonnell called on lawmakers to stay in session next year until they find a solution to Virginia’s long-term funding woes, which are exacerbated by the transfer of money from the state’s construction fund to required highway maintenance projects.
“I don’t think we can wait any longer,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think I can continue to recruit businesses to Virginia and see the unemployment rate go down unless we are able to get a handle on and provide some long-term solutions this session to that problem.”
The Republican governor, who is one year from leaving office, did not specify what he will ask lawmakers for when they convene in Richmond in January.
“I’ll tell you when we’re ready… before the session,” the governor said in brief remarks to reporters following his speech. “These are plans that take a lot of work to put together.”
He refused to take a position on whether the state’s gas tax should be increased, although he indicated that doing so alone would not generate adequate revenue. The tax of seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon, which currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, was last increased in 1986. It has lost 55% of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation.
Improved automobile fuel efficiency and the rising costs of highway construction materials have reduced the gas tax’s buying power, McDonnell said.
“A key ingredient of asphalt has increased by approximately 350% over that same time,” he said.
Critics contend the McDonnell administration cannot be trusted to direct new revenues wisely. One of the most vocal critics points to a record of highway construction instead of transit projects as evidence, especially from the $4 billion dollar package approved for the administration by the legislature.
“He squandered most of that,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s gone to rural highway projects that have very low traffic demand and are not high priorities given the traffic congestion within northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”
Schwartz listed State Rt. 460 in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway, bypasses in Charlottesville, and plans for an “outer beltway” in northern Virginia as examples of poor spending priorities by the administration, while transit projects like the Silver Line Metro rail and existing roads like I-66 need help.
“They are not targeting the areas of greatest need. You are not getting the best bang for your buck. You are spending a few billion dollars on the wrong things,” said Schwartz.
New revenues would likely be directed to construction projects under the state’s transportation trust fund, which currently loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually to required maintenance. The trust fund’s formula directs fifteen percent of its monies to transit projects. The remainder is for road building.
Governor McDonnell denied his administration is neglecting transit and other modes of transportation. “It’s going to be a multi-modal approach. Road, rail, and mass transit, all of those will be beneficiaries of a funding plan,” he said.