Put Your (Transportation) Money Where Your Mouth Is, Gov. McDonnell

On Earth Day last Friday, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell issued a “transportation challenge” to the people of his state: to “try a form of transportation other than driving alone once every two weeks.” The language he used would please any reformer:

Gov. Bob McDonnell signed his transportation plan into law last week. Photo: AP/Patrick Kane

Virginians must begin a fundamental shift in the way we travel to take greater advantage of the transportation options available to us today.

Using the vast array of transportation options available in Virginia can deliver significant benefits. Public transportation options reduce harmful gas emissions in our environment and gallons of gasoline used each year, remove cars from our congestion highways [sic], and can help families save thousands over the cost of owning and operating a car. Options such as telework can remove the need to commute completely, saving millions of vehicle miles traveled.

Two days before Earth Day, however, McDonnell had announced more than 900 projects that would be funded by his transportation plan, which he calls “the most significant investment in the Commonwealth’s transportation system in a generation.” The plan would spend $3 billion to “not only address the needs of the aging highway system upon which we all depend” but also “provide a needed injection of funding into our economy to spur recovery from the difficult recession of the past several years,” according to McDonnell.

Experts are still analyzing the numbers that came out last week, which are exceptionally confusing. For instance, the first slide of a VDOT powerpoint presentation Streetsblog obtained shows that $8.1 billion will go to highway construction with $2.3 billion for rail and public transportation – a similar split to what transit gets from the federal government. But those numbers only include construction, not operations and maintenance, and clearly they add up to much more than the $3 billion investment that’s the centerpiece of McDonnell’s transportation plan. Reformers caution that a closer look at the numbers proves that transit isn’t getting a good deal.

Indeed, in its announcement of the 900 recipient projects, the state DOT highlighted 14 flagship projects that would be funded — all road projects, most of them involving roadway widening. There are also several replacements of aging bridges. In a separate list, the press release lists several rail and transit projects, though it doesn’t give a dollar amount dedicated to transit.

“State law requires that at least 14.7 percent of the [Transportation Trust Fund] go to transit,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the capital area’s Coalition for Smarter Growth. “I would be quite surprised if the total six-year plan surpasses this share.”

Throughout the development of the transportation plan, McDonnell’s rhetoric has been almost exclusively about roads, and when the final numbers are crunched, many expect that the dollar allocation will show the same bias.

If the governor wants people to stop driving alone, this is probably not the plan he should be putting forth, said Schwartz. “Given the energy crisis that our nation faces and our oil dependency,” he said, “we could be doing much more to invest in transit, local streets, and pedestrian and bicycle and carpooling needs than his plan calls for.” Schwartz went on to say:

What are we buying with this money? The governor has never talked about the maintenance backlog in the state. This is all capital expenditures – it’s not maintenance. So how are we going to meet the backlog of $3.7 billion in structurally deficient bridges; what’s the plan? What about the billion in structurally deficient pavement – or more? That’s never been discussed.

So, if we’re using scarce transportation revenues we’d like to see us first address the maintenance needs of roads, bridges and transit. Certainly we could make up for the operating shortfalls transit is facing so desperately right now. After that, we’d like to see that we’re supporting a more energy efficient future for Virginia and investing in energy efficient transportation and land use solutions.

That would argue not just for spending on transit, but really for a transportation system that would support smart growth outcomes such as revitalization of the cities, development near transit stations, revitalization in all of our suburban communities and commercial corridors, more compact and walkable, bikable land uses with good transit.

That does not appear to be the vision Gov. McDonnell has laid out.

Kala Quintana of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, also still combing through the numbers, said the governor’s expressed support for transit has been heartening. “There seems to be an acknowledgement that, hey, there are alternatives out there, and we want to encourage people to use them,” Quintana said. “This is not news to us, but we think it’s great that it’s coming from the governor’s office, that he’s trying to encourage people to seek out alternative forms of transportation.”

But she wants to see a greater commitment from the governor to actually funding transit. Already, public transportation systems in Northern Virginia are at capacity, she said, and the only thing stopping them from adding more is that there hasn’t been enough money allocated to buy more buses and pay more drivers.

While details of the plan are still coming out, what we do know is how it’s funded. The debt the governor is planning to incur for the commonwealth of Virginia is by far the most controversial part of the plan. Of the $3 billion, $1.8 billion comes from 10-year loans approved by Governor Tim Kaine in 2007, which Gov. McDonnell is extending for 25 years – “even though it costs over 40 percent more to carry debt for 25 years than it does for 10 years,” as Democratic Virginia House Delegate Vivian Watts wrote in the Washington Post. Another $1.2 billion is borrowed from expected future income from the federal government. McDonnell also wanted to create a state infrastructure bank but the legislature dramatically scaled back those plans.

Last spring, the McDonnell administration did an audit of transportation funds and found that Gov. Tim Kaine had significant unspent balances. Rather than praising Kaine’s fiscal discipline or keeping some of that money for what it was meant for – hedging against the possibility that the federal government would continue to fail to pass a transportation reauthorization, or that it would be lower than expected – or holding onto the money for future maintenance needs, McDonnell treated the discovery as a treasure trove for plundering. The media happily went along with that version of the story.

But many transportation advocates criticize the governor for going so deep into debt for transportation investments that may prove to amount to little more than road widening. David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington wrote, “Borrowing in this way, of course, essentially means spending future decades’ transportation money. From McDonnell’s point of view, why not? He won’t be governor. The easiest way to get credit for starting a lot of projects when he has no money is to spend future governors’ money.”