Off-road: Gov. McDonnell’s transportation cure

Shane Wade

Columnist

Gov. Bob McDonnell really hates potholes.

At a time when Virginians are just emerging from the muck of a recession, the governor proposes a nearly $4 billion transportation bill for 900 transportation infrastructure projects across the state over the next three years. After the General Assembly passed the proposal, Gov. McDonnell stated that “we are moving closer to jump-starting needed transportation projects that will reduce congestion, create jobs and open additional parts of the commonwealth to economic development, while … (ensuring) the continuation of Virginia’s passenger rail system.” I remain thoroughly unconvinced.

An alternative to simply ensuring the continuation of our rail system would be to bolster it by constructing light rail and high-speed rail systems, as advocated by President Obama in his State of the Union speech and proposed by Virginians for High Speed Rail. In addition to creating a faster rail system for the transportation of goods and people, and potentially leading the nation in efficient forms of transportation, investment in high-speed rail would reduce roadway congestion and create new jobs in the growing “green energy” industry. This industry isn’t dependent on foreign policy, the political climate of the Middle East or environmentally disastrous off-shore drilling. While low interest rates and the current cost of construction create opportunities for investments in transportation infrastructure, it would be wise for politicians to exercise a higher level of restraint than an impatient child.

Gov. McDonnell’s plan also unevenly allocates funding throughout the state; more than one-third of funding would go toward Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Richmond would only receive 1.8 percent. While the governor and his supporters might argue otherwise, perhaps this distribution of funds lies in the fact that his election was largely a result of voters in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. The governor can be applauded for following through with campaign promises and providing for his constituents, but it would be preferable if he considered the constituents that did not vote for him.

The transportation plan would indeed put a great number of unemployed people back to work, but at what cost should Virginians accept this “borrow and spend” plan that puts us further in debt so soon after a recession? Even though the proposal authorizes less costly short-term borrowing, it’s still borrowing against the future. It also leaves Virginia susceptible to relapsing into another recession should a new crisis take place. This transportation plan is just another form of generational theft that the conservative critics of social security decry and will eventually force the next governor to raise taxes in order to make up for McDonnell’s boondoggle. Borrowing money isn’t a sin, but borrowing money for a plan that will require future funding for maintenance and does little to increase tax revenue ought to be. If roads paid for themselves, as Gov. McDonnell’s plan might suggest, why would we need to inject nearly $4 billion dollars into road repair and bridge maintenance?

McDonnell’s plan, which sounds like the conservative version of a federal jobs program, is consistent with a belief too often found in America – the belief that tough problems shouldn’t be dealt with directly and that someone else will fix them. This proposal lacks what Virginia needs: fiscal accountability, serious investment in the future’s green industries and a tangible vision for mass-transit. In short, Gov. McDonnell has a fantastic plan, but not for 2011. It’s the right plan for the wrong time, and is business-as-usual when we need new businesses. McDonnell’s plan and the General Assembly are contaminating the problem at a time where government can provide the solution.

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