A Conservative Transportation Manifesto

A coalition of activist Virginia conservatives has distributed an analysis of Virginia transportation policy, “A Conservative Transportation Alternative,” in the hope of informing the General Assembly during its upcoming special session on transportation. No single author is listed, but I suspect that the guiding light behind the document is Patrick McSweeney, the Richmond-area attorney whose legal work persuaded the state Supreme Court to strike down the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

The ideas in the “Conservative Alternative” will sound very familiar to readers of Bacon’s Rebellion. They are based on the propositions that (a) the existing transportation is broken and cannot be fixed with more tax money and (b) Virginia needs to devolve responsibility for transportation policy to municipal governments, where transportation and land use planning can be aligned. The document also supports the idea of a “user pays” financing system.

The “Conservative Transportation Alternative” is significant because it represents an important advance in the conservative movement beyond the “Just Say No” rhetoric of the past. Instead of fighting an obstructionist battle against bone-headed ideas — raising taxes, creating unconstitutional regional authorities and perpetuating Business As Usual — these conservative activists have shifted to the ideological offensive, so to speak, articulating a positive set of principles to guide transportation policy going forward.

The manifesto is significant in another way. In the past, free-market and fiscal conservatives opposed Business As Usual policies mainly on the grounds of opposition to new taxes. That left them little in common with the Smart Growth movement, comprised mainly of liberal-leaning environmentalists who emphasized land use reform and environmental issues. By embracing land use reform, at least in principle, the “Conservative Alternative” builds a conceptual bridge between the two groups, opening up the possibility that Virginia’s free marketeers and Smart Growthers may find sufficient common ground to collaborate in the future. Mark my words, “A Conservative Transportation Alternative” is a very important document.

I will delve into the document’s detailed arguments in subsequent posts, but for now, let me leave you with the principles it espouses to guide Virginia transportation policy:

1. Fund transportation:

(a) without tax increases,

(b) without more tax-supported debt,

(c) without allowing diversions of funds earmarked for transportation to non- transportation programs, and

(d) by imposing the costs of new projects, to the extent possible, on those who will directly benefit from new transportation spending.

2. Refocus state transportation policy to encourage greater investment, innovation and risk-taking by the private sector.

3. Transfer responsibility for secondary roads to cities and counties that are not already exercising that authority, and accompany such transfer of responsibility with the authority over the revenues currently used at the state level to build and maintain secondary roads.

4. Adopt true performance-based criteria for spending government funds on transportation, with relief of traffic congestion having the highest priority.

5. Develop a methodology for allocating the cost of new, upgraded and expanded transportation facilities and other infrastructure that appropriately accounts for distance-related factors and any hidden cost of sprawl so that subsidies borne by taxpayers at large can be reduced or eliminated.

These are all sound principles, and they represent a huge conceptual leap forward for Virginia conservatives. The document does leave some work undone: It does not offer specific policy prescriptions for raising the funds that the transportation system clearly does need. (For my thinking on how these principles might translate into a “user pays” system for paying for transportation improvements, I refer readers again to my essay, “User Pays.”) But that is a minor quibble. This is a very important document indeed.

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  1. Brian Kirwin Avatar
    Brian Kirwin

    Leaving out how to pay for roads is only a “minor quibble?”

  2. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    I am not sure I would call this “conservative.”

    How about “common sense?”


  3. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Brian Kirwin:

    Let us call it paying for Mobiity and Access, then it is the heart of the issue.


  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Kudos for putting a fiscally responsible, common-sense approach on the table!

    and I guess I’m waiting for someone to disagree with the facts presented or the problems described.

    Henrico and Alexandria have proven that disaster is not the result of a locality integrating their land-use decisions with the transportation consequences.

    So the question asked is “who will pay for transportation” or .. some prefer “when will the state pay”?

    And the answer is – how do the citizens of Henrico and Alexandria (and all cities) currently “pay” for transportation? Do those two c

    Henrico/Alexandria pay EXACTLY the same gas tax at the pump that all localities do but the difference is Alexandria and Henrico get the gas tax money and the rest of the localities get a promise from Richmond deliver “in kind” transportation improvements.

    And here’s the scandalous part – the other localities actually like it that way.

    The other localities use this arrangement as a way for them to make land-use decisions and then to evade accountability for the consequences of same by blaming VDOT and the State for not delivering the necessary infrastructure.

    Those counties.. perpetuate the MYTH that somehow the state is going deliver more infrastructure than what their own locality citizens actually paid for with their gas taxes.

    If the citizens ever figure out this lie – then their BOS becomes unelected so convincing citizens to believe the myth is vital.

    so you’ll hear the elected BOS continue to claim that such infrastructure is a “State Responsibility”.

    The only way they can continue to make land-use decisions and evade responsibility for them is to be able to blame the State/VDOT.

    otherwise the citizens figure out who is really to blame for stupid planning decisions.

    EMR – how would you change what these folks have said to make it better?

    I would have thought that tying land-use decisions with the transportation consequences would be a step in the right direction.


  5. Spank That Donkey Avatar
    Spank That Donkey

    The General Assembly dedicated $200M from the 2% tax on auto insurance premiums, and other Property and Casualty products sold in VA. This funding is paying the debt service on the $3B bonds that were recently approved.

    News Flash! This hidden tax raises $600M annually. Now where can we find a dedicated source for transportation funding?

    There will be a quiz.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Sounds like more of the same.

    Fund transportation without tax increases by calling them something else.

    Avoid tax supported debt by using private debt guaranteed by the government, thereby moving the debt off the books.

    Encourage greater risk taking and innovation in the private sector by giving away the crown jewels of government.

    Adopt true performance-based criteria for spending government funds on transportation, with relief of traffic congestion as first, using that as an excuse to charge the new “beneficiaries” for bad land use decisions and wealth transfers in the past.

    Lock up the transportation funds to prevent them from being used for other projects, now that there ar no funds left, or available.

    And generally continue to do nothing while re-packaging the same old dogmeat as good governance and good policy.


  7. This is really old school liberal thinking. What about tolls inspires spending restraint? Nothing — spend away on those stupid buses and $5 billion trains to Dulles, we’ll just raise more cash. Tolls *are* taxes –when government takes money out of your pocket, it’s a tax. In sum: tax & spend.

    Tolls are massively inefficient. It costs way more to build/operate a toll road with the astronomical overhead costs compared to gas tax funding. Worst of all, they require a big brother surveillance infrastructure to track your every move. Sorry, I mean “bill” you.

    So, yeah, if you want bigger and more intrusive government — this is your plan.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Thank you, Bob.

    My feelings exactly.

    Some will say that the users have a choice – to NOT pay the tolls, and that is where the restraint in spending lies. We can see the obvious fallacy in that train of thought.


  9. RH,

    You get into the other problem with toll roads. There is no choice because toll roads *always* come with non-compete clauses, either explicit (privately run) or implied (government run). Any time there’s a free road parallel to the toll road, there’s the incentive for the DOT to make driving on the free road slower and nastier. Cf. the 91 Express Lanes in Cali, SH130 in Texas, etc. etc.

    The other problem with private toll roads is Kelo. The government takes YOUR house to build a private toll road. So your land is grabbed under eminent domain not for the benefit of the public, but so a private (most likely foreign) corporation can earn profit off of it. Oh, and you don’t share any of that profit. Yeah, Kelo is what conservatism is all about (sarcasm).

    We absolutely need more roads, but the best way to get them is to stop wasting money on trolleys and $5 billion trains to the airport. $5 billion buys a LOT of concrete.

  10. Anonymous Avatar


    You are right. $5 billion buys a lot of concrete, even at todays energy prices. Even if you believe auto drivers are subsidised, they are subsidised far less than transit users. Therefore, in addition to the $5 billion, you can add the future costs of all the subsidies.

    You are right about the non-compete situation. In Californis they are now suing to get one of those contract clauses overturned. Somewhere, I have a photo of on of the California HOT lanes. The HOT lane is relatively crowded and the other lanes are gridlocked.

    You are right about KELO. I have said before that good environmentalism is reall all about good property rights.

    I’m not sure we need more roads. I’m not ure it is possible to get them where they seem to be needed.

    We have miles of roads that are underutilized, but some of them need major uprades.

    Most of all, I’m gratified to see your response, along with some others. When I first started posting here I was pretty uniformly slammed. The saying was that I was alone in my thinking.

    I have tried to promote a way of thinking that does not depend on dogma. Naturally, I have my own opinions, but I try to keep them out of the discussion, and rely on third parties for facts. Some have detected the bias I may have, and asume I have a) paid sponsors, b) personal profit motives, or c) I’m badly misinformed.

    But, my key point is that a policy is probably not as good as it seems, if it is bad for someone. Even if that someone is easy to villify.

    I was trained as a scientist. I believe that theory provides questions, and data provides answers. I work as an engineer and a farmer, so I face trade offs every day: you never get something for nothing. My business is engineering finance, so I know how to put dollar values on the trade offs. Finally, and most importantly, my father was an English professor, and a scientific editor. He taught me how to see fallacies, and root them out. He was a sailor, and passing those skills to me he showed me that, however you might wish things to be, they are what they are. Best to recognize thm for what they are through careful observation, and Deal With It.

    I try to share the result of those meager skills here, knowing they are not always well received.

    Anyway, its nice to see that someone else is on board. Thanks for the support.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking with it.

    What’s yours?


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