The Jefferson Journal

Michael W. Thompson

Unanswered Questions


GOP factions are grappling over how much more money to spend on transportation. But they're not addressing critical questions regarding spending priorities and the role of the private sector.


Once again, 60 days has proven to be insufficient time for Virginia's legislature and governor to iron out their budget differences. They are engaged in another game of “chicken” to see who blinks first.


Transportation is the central issue and increased taxes and fees are, once more, the stumbling block. There is widespread agreement that something must be done to address transportation congestion in heavily populated Northern Virginia and Virginia Beach as as well as corridors like Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley.


The problem is simply this: Does the legislature raise taxes and fees and dedicate $1 billion a year for transportation, or does it allocate $500 million a year for transportation and finance it out of the current and expected surpluses and new charges on “dangerous” drivers.


It’s too bad that the heat of the times, in many ways reflecting the scars of previous budget battles under Governors Gilmore and Warner, did not allow the House and Senate to come up with a joint transportation plan. But there are two Republican armies in Richmond right now, and they are battling each other.


One Republican army, headed by Speaker William J. Howell, R-Fredericksburg, in the House, believes that transportation funding should be approached cautiously. The House does not want to see taxes and fees raised so shortly after the debilitating debate of two years ago. With the economy in healthy shape and surpluses expected over the next few years, the House advocates spending $1 billion in this budget cycle financed by re-directing General Fund sources to transportation, using a portion of surplus dollars and adding new funds gathered from those who drive unsafely.


The other Republican army, headed by Senators Walter Stosch, R-Henrico, and John Chichester, R-Northumberland, believes that new sources of funds must be found to dedicate for the long-term handling of the transportation needs in our state. This Republican army wants to see higher fees and taxes dedicated to spending at least $1 billion a year, year in and year out, on transportation.


The Governor’s proposal takes from both of these approaches while spending almost as much as the Senate is suggesting. 


Each plan takes a bite out of the transportation problem faced here in Virginia. But a few questions should be on the table as our elected leaders work toward a budget.


First, can the state responsibly spend an additional $1 billion a year for transportation right now or is it more reasonable to build up to this number over a couple of years? Spending an extra $1 billion takes capacity and management and a focus on where to spend it.


What priorities will this money be spent on in each of the three transportation plans? Are these priorities focused on relieving congestion, improving the flow of goods, reducing pollution and encouraging economic development in those areas where the problems are the worst? Or will these monies merely become “political pork,” not focused on what is truly needed?


Will “new” monies be put into the Transportation Trust Fund and not “stolen” for other purposes?


Are the reforms in VDOT talked about by some of our leaders really going to take place over the next few years?


And then there are issues that should be thought through as the General Assembly figures out what will be accepted in a final transportation budget.


For instance, will VDOT approve public-private partnerships and outsource maintenance contracts in a more timely manner? 


Which transportation corridors might be contracted out to the private sector for an influx of funds, and how soon can that occur?


How quickly can road maintenance be contracted out and how much can be saved over the next fours years?


Will those savings be calculated into the monies available for transportation improvements?


Will the state speed up pending projects where the private sector has offered, in partnership with the state, to build and own transportation corridors?


Will our state officials ask Virginia's congressional delegation to focus its federal transportation dollars on only the truly major projects so that the high cost of federal regulations and the subsequent delay involved in those regulations impact the fewest possible projects?


Our state needs to see vast investments in its transportation system. These investments should come from the public and the private sectors working together to fulfill an agreed-to transportation vision. Private sector investments, and savings from better management, should be part of the funding formula. The voters expect our leaders to do this in the most efficient and economical manner possible.


-- March 20, 2006












Michael Thompson is chairman and president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a non-partisan foundation seeking better alternatives to current government programs and policies. These are his opinions and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Institute or its Board of Directors.  Mr. Thompson can be reached here.