Can Sean Connaughton Keep Rolling Along?

Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton is popping up everywhere. He has successfully pushed a plan to add $3 billion in road construction money that he just borrowed on the capital markets. He’s in Sunday’s Washington Post telling us how his boss, Gov. Robert McDonnell, really has passenger rail at heart even if he won’t go after federal money to boost that prospect. And, he’s pushing along with public-private plans for a new U.S. 460 linking Interstate 95 to Tidewater and for the Coalfield Expressway near Kentucky and West Virginia.

Indeed, Connaughton might be the rare bright bulb in McDonnell’s Administration that has been dogged by failures such as privatizing liquor stores and getting offshore oil drilling pumping.

The former Navy and Coast Guard officer was chairman of the board of supervisors in Prince William County and spearheaded a drive to have the county build its own roads after feeling stiffed by VDOT.

Connaughton pushed forward with getting nearly $3 billion in additional road construction money for 2012-2017 by taking advantage of the dirt cheap interest rates available in private capital markets. That will be part of a $10.6 billon construction program that should push ahead 900 projects including roads, rail and bicycles. It is a 36 pecent increase in funding over the previous funding timeframe.

Still, the plan has its critics, including Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth who laments that the spending plan duns maintenance needs and comes when other sources of revenues, such as gasoline taxes, are weakening. Schwartz also questions Connaughton’s pushing an outer beltway in the Northern Virginia suburbs as if sticking another exurban-sprawl highway will somehow alleviate NOVA’s already horrid congestion on the existing Beltway and I-95.

On rail, Connaughton tried to put a happy face on McDonnell’s refusal to seek about $2 billion available for higher speed rail after Republican Gov. Rick Scott of Florida declined funding for an Orlando to Tampa higher speed rail route.

Connaughton claims that Virginia couldn’t meet a required deadline for an environmental impact statement — a less than credible excuse — so not applying for the money was the smart thing to do. Rest assured, he tries to tell us, that McDonnell is really a choo-choo guy at heart since he has pushed along popular Amtrak routes from Lynchburg and Richmond to Washington. Too bad he got his facts wrong. The Lynchburg trains were done during the administration of Democratic Gov. Tim Kaine.

And Connaughton doesn’t reveal that one reason McDonnell dissed the Obama rail money is because he wants to join the steady GOP chorus now warning us of the perils of deficit spending, something they didn’t bother to do when George W. Bush was president. Oh well.

Like most conservatives and Democrats, too, Connaughton really pushes public-private partnership deals which would help the U.S. 460 plan and the Coalfields road. Schwartz and smart growthers say that the 460 plan is unneeded and will just spur questionable growth patterns through the peanut lands of Surry and Southampton Counties.

Ditto the Coalfields Expressway, although I personally have been out that way a lot recently and can understand why better roads are essential. Once one goes west of U.S. 19, it suddenly takes forever to get anywhere, such as a hospital emergency room. I ought to know, because I lived just west of U.S. 19 in West Virginia when I was a boy.

As far as Connaughton, one has to say he is seizing the initiative. It may not please everyone, but it’s a lot better than McDonnell claiming he’s getting a budget surplus through smoke and mirrors stunts such as delaying state pension fund payments.

Peter Galuszka

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