Defining the Issue

Defining the issue is the first step in winning the debate. And that’s what the pro-tax camp has successfully done, with the happy complicity of the MSM. Del. Vincent Callahan, R-McLean, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, understands what’s going on. Here’s how Michael Hardy and Jeff Schapiro quote him today in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Unlike the Senate and the governor who have defined the transportation crisis in terms of raising taxes, the House plan specifically addresses choke points and other measures that voters can identify with.

Unfortunately for Callahan, the media also has defined the transportation “crisis” as a problem of insufficient spending and taxes, which means that the very idea of prioritizing transportation spending by addressing choke points will not get any more of a hearing than a throw-away quote buried deep in a story.

Stacking the odds against Callahan and his colleagues even more, in this particular article Hardy and Schapiro label Senate Republicans as “moderates” — not “liberals” — for wanting to raise taxes and pour more money into Virginia’s failed transportation system. “Moderate,” of course, is meant as a synonym for the political middle, or mainstream. The House by contrast is a “redoubt of conservative Republicanism,” implying that delegates are out of the mainstream, for wanting to set spending priorities, reform VDOT, align transportation and land use planning, and not raise taxes in the face of a $1 billion surplus in the General Fund.

The failures of the media coverage of the 2006 transportation debate are scandalous.

The media refuse to examine the critical importance of land use in the transportation debate in any detail, even though Gov. Timothy M. Kaine made it a signature issue in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign, and though the House and Senate are moving closer to agreement on the issue.

The media continue to ignore the manner in which VDOT prioritizes and spends money on transportation, as if the undeniable accomplishments of former VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet were the final word on VDOT reform. Changing the way VDOT does business is a major thrust of the House legislative package, yet the House critique has gone largely unreported.

The media continue to ignore alternative strategies for reducing and/or coping with traffic congestion. Telework, traffic-demand management, traffic light synchronization, roundabouts, ramp metering, blah, blah, woof, woof, readers know the drill.

When confronting President Bush over WMD, or making an issue over Vice President Cheney’s hunting accident, the MSM claims it has the responsibility to “ask the tough questions” and “speak truth to power.” But here in Virginia, the same editorial pundits who support speaking truth to power to George Bush only parrot the opinions of the local political elite. Reporters conduct he said/she said reporting within the parameters of the transportation-crisis-as-spending-shortfall storyline, and the editorial writers attack those in the House who would challenge the status quo.

I don’t entirely blame the Capitol press corps, which is tasked with covering dozens of issues emanating from the General Assembly. General political reporters can’t become experts on every issue. But I do blame the editors and publishers of the daily newspapers who fail to mobilize the journalistic assets to properly cover the most important public policy debate in Virginia this year — an issue that affects virtually every Virginian. The coverage has been so breath-taking superficial that the journalism profession in Virginia needs to understake some serious self-examination.

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12 responses to “Defining the Issue”

  1. Rtwng Extrmst Avatar
    Rtwng Extrmst

    All good points Jim, but unfortunately the MSM is on the wrong side of this and will not challenge their “status quo” => “We must have more and bigger government”.

  2. Choke points bring up an interesting issue. You could argue that a partiular choke point, like the route 28 bridge is a result of a total failure in linking land use to transportation capacity.

    But only part of that problem is due to local or even far flung residential development. Some of it is due to changes in travel patterns becuase other roads have become congested. Some is because of new job opportunities in Manassas. Some is due to inreased economic ativity. Some is due to more vehicles in households as children grow older, and moms go to work.

    So what do we do, rebuild everything from Culpeper to Manassas, transform everybody’s habits, and wreck the economy, or spend the money to fix the bridge, whih was already inadequate 15 years ago?

  3. But I do blame the editors and publishers of the daily newspapers who fail to mobilize the journalistic assets to properly cover the most important public policy debate in Virginia this year — an issue that affects virtually every Virginian.

    But Jim, the importance of this issue is your opinion, not every Virginian’s.

    There are plenty of voters in the Richmond area, native Virginians, that simply do not care about the traffic problems in Tidewater or NoVa. They feel that is simply the price of living where there are lots of people.

    They don’t care that the money to fix those problems will either come from their taxes or cause a reduction in other services from the state. They see it as someone else’s problem and they are more concerned with local issues and social issues.

    It is a bit myopic, but that is the nature of the voter and the number one responsibility of the MSM is to make money for the stockowners…to sell newspaper or they respond to that myopia.

    So, if you really want to blame someone, blame the citizens.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Terry M., I would respond to you this way: In Richmond, there really is no transportation “crisis,” so, you’re right, Richmonders really don’t care. I’ve made that same observation.

    In NoVa and Hampton Roads, however, traffic congestion is undeniably worse than in Richmond and it undeniably is a matter of citizen concern. The WaPo and the Virginian-Pilot have no excuse for their superficial reporting and commentary.

  5. Jim, do a majority of the residents in those areas see it as a crisis? Or, do they too see it as just something to complain about that goes with living in the big metropolitan areas?

    If you were to simply ask, informally, “What one word would you use to describe traffic in _____?” Do you really think more than half would say “crisis”?

    I don’t.

    In fact, if you asked the editorial boards the same question, do you really think the response would be any different? I can imagine “really bad,” “hell on wheels,” and “it sucks,” but not “crisis.”

    I dunno Jim, but I just think the MSM is responding to the mindset of its audience. How many crises can they handle at a time? And really, do you think the average citizen is going to be easily convinced that more roads, lanes, and bridges are not the answers?

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Terry, Yes, I believe that some residents regard traffic congestion as a major problem that they would like solved, although I would agree that the idea of a “crisis” is largely a fabrication of the political elite — which is why I put the words “crisis” in quotes so often!

    I do believe that many business leaders, civic leaders, elected official and journalists are totally sincere when they characterize traffic congestion as a genuine crisis. Just read the editorials in the Washington Post, the Daily Press, the Roanoke Times and the Virginian-Pilot, the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star. Read the press releases of Tim Kaine, other politicians and the special interest groups. They routinely depict traffic congestion as a “crisis” and they, not the public, are driving the push for higher taxes.

  7. As a resident of Hampton Roads, I assure you that traffic is very bad. I do not understand how we will build the seemingly agreed upon third crossing or any other significant local project without additional funds- whether you call them taxes, tolls, surcharges, whatever.

  8. Jim, I don’t disagree that the governor and others use the word “crisis” to describe the situation. Those that do so realize that a crisis is the best way to raise more money and take attention away from other things. The chancellor of the VCCS wants the projected enrollment growth to be labeled as a crisis for the political attenion it would bring…of course, that doesn’t make it one.

    If you think these people are sincere, I won’t challenge you on that. I just don’t think most of the electorate agrees. Of course, maybe they are incapable of understanding that it is a crisis. After all, people aren’t exactly staying away from Hampton Roads and DC in droves are they? Or perhaps they are, but there are still so many others willing to put up with what some view as a minor inconvenience.

    I do know that traffic is bad in these places. In fact, I have turned down exciting opportunities in DC simply because of the congestion and cost of living. So, I make my economic choices. Further, I think most people use the same type of thought process.

    It seems to me though, that I have seen very few surveys that show an increasing number of people relocating on the basis of traffic of traffic congestion.

    If there aren’t, then how would we know there is a crisis?

    In other words, I guess what i want to know, is just that: How do we, or how will we, know there is a transportation crisis?

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    Terry M — the frog in that slowly warming pot never feels the crisis until it is too late, either.

    Jim, it is all in the eyes of the beholder. I think the House’s position has been well presented by much of the media, especially the broadcast media with far greater reach than the newspapers The “$2 billion without raising taxes” is a classic soundbite and is repeated constantly. The fact that they are counting funds already dedicated to transportation and are projecting ridiculous revenues from their traffic fine scheme, well the reporter’s don’t get to that.

  10. Do you suppose that one reason there is no road crisis is because they sucked all the money to build those fine roads out of NOVA and Hampton Roads?

    Do you suppose the reason they don’t have a road crisis there is because the population density is less?

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    One reason we don’t have a the problems in the Richmond area is they have used tolls here for 40 years, in many cases keeping the tolls in place after the bonds were paid to build up cash for other roads. Some of us pay hundreds of dollars in tolls annually, far more than all our other transportation taxes and fees combined. And it warms our heart to see that your turn is coming in Northern Va and Hampton Roads — tolls baby. Get ready.

  12. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 5:53, What long-time Richmonder can forget the tolls on Interstate 95 — three of them between downtown Richmond and Petersburg! Even today, we have tolls on both the Downtown Expressway and the Powhite Parkway. With a population half the size of NoVa, we have a comparable amount of tolled roads.

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