What the Virginia Campaign Can Teach Us About Transportation Policy

However the Virginia off-year gubernatorial race ends up -- and at the moment it looks as though Republican Bob McDonnell will reclaim the governor's mansion for the GOP after years of Democratic dominance -- the media will frame the story as a referendum on the policies of national Democrats.

726_debate.jpgVirginian rivals Creigh Deeds (D, at right) and Bob McDonnell (R, at left) (Photo: News Advance)

And to an extent, this may be right; Democratic voters are worn out from last year's presidential campaign and anxious to see real legislative progress, while Republican voters are increasingly fired up.

But there are real policy issues at stake in the race, of which transportation is among the most important. The state of Virginia has been among the country's fastest growing in recent years, and growth has concentrated in its metropolitan areas, particularly the northern suburbs outside Washington D.C. and the Hampton Roads area around Norfolk.

The state has grown by upwards of 10 percent since the 2000 Census -- by more than 800,000 people -- and most of that growth has taken place in the D.C. suburbs, the Norfolk area, and Richmond.

Meanwhile, infrastructure has not remotely kept pace. Virginia's gas tax rate is lower than most of its neighbors', and few of the state's roads are tolled. Consequently, funding has remained in short supply for most of the last decade, and the state's politics have focused on how to raise additional revenue without increasing taxes -- an unacceptable strategy in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.

What this has meant is a series of ludicrous, roundabout means for bringing in money. Virginia tried imposing "abusive driver fees" of up to $3,000 per infraction, but the legislature ultimately repealed the measure in response to public outcry. The legislature later tried delegating the authority to tax to regional bodies, like the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, but this was ultimately deemed unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, congestion in the Washington area has grown [PDF] by more than in any other metropolitan area in the country.

And so the 2009 gubernatorial election between McDonnell and Democrat Creigh Deeds has focused in no small part on how the candidates intend to address this ongoing crisis. The Washington Post's endorsement of Deeds paid special attention to the issue:

Mr. Deeds has run an enormous and possibly fatal political risk by saying bluntly that he would support legislation to raise new taxes dedicated to transportation. It is a risk that neither Mr. Kaine nor Mr. Warner felt they could take. But given that the state has raised no significant new cash for roads, rails and bridges in 23 years, Mr. Deeds's position is nothing more than common sense. It is fantasy to think that the transportation funding problem, a generation in the making, will be addressed without a tax increase. A recent manifesto from 17 major business groups in Northern Virginia, calling for new taxes dedicated to transportation, attests to that reality.

Ezra Klein notes that Deeds has tried to turn his willingness to accept new taxes into a mark of seriousness, credibility, and leadership. But, as Klein says, this may not pay off:

One of the problems with talking about taxes is that the benefits are left maddeningly unspecific. But little is more concrete in the average voter's life than his or her commute. How much more would the average Virginian pay in taxes to shave 10 minutes off the morning drive? Five minutes? What about making it more reliable, so there were fewer days when the Metro didn't come for 13 minutes?

I'd bet good money that most voters would pay a lot more than is being asked, at least if they genuinely believed the benefits would materialize. But there's nothing on Deeds's site indicating the concrete improvements expected from his plan. It all sounds good, but it's also quite vague. That's how politicians often are when talking about taxes, and it doesn't make much sense. Best Buy doesn't tell you the price before they show you the TV.

There are two good reasons why a politician might feel that it's necessary to limit promises on the subject of transportation improvements. One is that it is basically impossible to deliver on promises to reduce congestion unless one is willing to introduce congestion pricing on a wide scale.

Virginia has been working to introduce high-occupancy tolling lanes on freeways in the D.C. suburbs, but those plans have recently been scaled back. While lane construction on the Capital Beltway will continue, planned work to bring HOT lanes to I-95 has been postponed, based on some local community concerns and funding issues.

A major part of the problem is that leaders are unwilling to simply toll existing lanes. Rather, they feel that political acceptance of tolling will only come if new lanes are built, such that free lanes can exist alongside tolled lanes.

To a certain extent, this tolling method may be an unavoidable part of the move to congestion tolling. And having free-flowing tolled lanes alongside jammed free lanes may make the connection between tolling and free-flowing traffic clear.

But in the short run, this toll-new-lanes strategy makes the adoption of tolling a challenge, as governments have to spend quite a bit of money to get the projects up and running. The tolling of existing lanes is a matter of millions of dollars. New, tolled lanes are a matter of billions of dollars. And Virginia doesn't have billions to spare.

And so Deeds can't promise freedom from congestion, because he can't deliver it. The battle to win people over to congestion pricing is still being fought.

Deeds may also be reluctant to promise anything because at the moment he has no idea what the federal transportation law will be for most of his term. Any bold measure will require federal assistance (and often, the assent of both the federal and local governments). I don't doubt that Deeds would love to promise better Metro service -- or even better, additional transit expansion in the Washington area and around Hampton Roads. He'd probably love to promise faster and more frequent rail service.

But these are promises he just can't honestly make without knowing how much money will be available from Washington and what rules will apply to that money.

There are two things that I hope Washington, and particularly the Obama administration, will learn from this. The first is that to sell the increased revenue measures that must be a part of any transportation bill, you have to connect them to tangible improvements. Like Virginians, Americans don't mind paying higher taxes and want to see a better transportation system. But if you want to get the former, you have to help people see how it will produce the latter.

If you can't help voters visualize this connection, then it will be difficult to raise the necessary revenue.

How to make that connection? I obviously think that national leaders can begin shifting the frame on congestion pricing fast enough. It is economically, environmentally, and politically imperative that drivers begin to understand that user fees are a necessary part of building and maintaining transportation infrastructure.

I also think it will be important for the next federal transportation bill to enable construction of some grand projects. High-speed rail is a nice start. But as important as resurfacing roads and shoring up bridges is, we all want to be able to say that increasing these taxes or those fees will mean that millions more people will have access to reliable transit service the next time gas prices cross $4 per gallon.

And the second message I want Washington to hear is that transportation funding is a way to maintain local political energy for broad progressive goals, and in doing so to protect progressive politicians.

Creigh Deeds' campaign is a mess. Bob McDonnell has attacked pending climate legislation in Washington and accused Deeds of aiming to kill jobs with his tax-loving ways. Feeling cornered, perhaps, Deeds has back-pedaled on the issue and more or less taken the McDonnell line -- he, too, will oppose any new "energy taxes" coming from Washington. And meanwhile, the president is offering scant support for Deeds; he may well be unwilling to lend his name to what he sees as a doomed run.

One can imagine an alternative scenario, in which the president, having articulated a clear strategy on transportation and having embraced clean transportation measures in the climate bill, stumped hard for Deeds, spelling out just what money Virginia could expect from the legislation, which projects would benefit from that money, and how local economies would be buoyed by the immediate infrastructure spending and the better overall operation of the transportation system.

That would be an aggressive and proactive campaign -- one that connected issues of local importance to broader economic and environmental priorities, boosting local candidates and offering local activists a way to become invested in federal legislation.

The timing of this election was such that the above strategy may simply not have worked. Obama, and the Congress, are focused on health care.

But 2010 will be a different story. Obama won't be on the ballot, but his standing will loom large in many races. If Democratic voters are still feeling unexcited or ambivalent next year, then the Democratic majority will shrink and it will be more difficult than ever to pursue greener policies.

To motivate voters, it's important to connect tangible local issues with the broader progressive goals that excited much of the country in 2008. Energy, planning, and transportation issues offer a means to do that.

Deeds is fighting alone, unable to articulate a clear message, and unwilling to support important environmental priorities. And he will probably lose, because too few Virginians can understand why they ought to be energized by this campaign. And that will mean a dedicated road builder as the governor in Richmond.

If there isn't a better story being told next year, and if Washington isn't helping local officials tell a better story, the best chance America has had in decades to place the economy on a firm and sustainable foundation will be lost.