State of the Commonwealth: Transportation

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine used the occasion of his annual State of the Commonwealth address last night to outline the framework of a potential deal on transportation funding. “There are significant areas of agreement between the House and Senate on this matter,” he said in a conciliatory tone that contrasted with previous threats to make transportation a major election issue. “There is just too much agreement here to walk away from the issue for a second year in a row.”

What are those areas of agreement? Quoting from his speech:

  • Statewide revenue needs amount to approximately $1 billion dollars more per year.
  • Taxes on auto insurance premiums should be earmarked forever for transportation solutions.
  • Abusive drivers should pay stiffer fines, which would be used for transportation needs.
  • Some surplus general funds can appropriately be spent on transportation.
  • Regions should be granted some degree of autonomy in raising funds for local projects.

As I read the political tea leaves, there is a very good chance that a master compromise will be achieved along these lines. The mood is pervasive that “something must be done.” Inevitably, “something” will be. Of course, any such transportation-funding package would represent a victory for Business As Usual, severing the nexus between those who use the roads and those who pay for them. For me, the sole consolation is that a general, statewide tax increase does not seem to be on the table.

Give the Governor credit for recognizing that more money alone won’t cure Virginia’s transportation woes. “In 2006, we took the first real steps to link transportation and land use planning through legislation concerning traffic impact statements, transfers of development rights, and cluster housing,” he said. “This year, let’s take the next steps towards smart growth management.” (“Smart growth management”? That’s a phrase you won’t read in the MSM accounts of the Governor’s speech. As usual, reporters focused exclusively on the tax question.)

Kaine reiterated ideas that he’d floated before, and he appeared to be receptive to the House of Delegates plan to curtail the intake of subdivision streets into the state system. Key points from the speech:

  • Give local government authority to reject rezoning proposals when new developments would overwhelm the existing transportation infrastructure.
  • Limit commercial curb cuts onto transportation corridors in order to preserve the traffic-carrying capacity of those corridors.
  • Create incentives for new subdivision streets to be designed so as to reduce congestion and long-term maintenance costs. “The state should not automatically pick up the maintenance costs for new roads unless those roads are designed to move traffic efficiently.”

Some elements of Kaine’s land use reforms will prove controversial. Some may criticize the entire package as grossly inadequate. I agree — these measures barely scratch the surface of the Fundamental Change that’s needed. But they represent a start that, hopefully, can be built upon.

If Kaine succeeds in negotiating a grand compromise along these lines, will traffic congestion in Virginia be tamed? Not by a long shot. These reforms will tinker on the margins: continuing to waste billions of dollars on the wrong priorities and bringing only incremental improvement to human settlement patterns. But we can be thankful of one thing: It could have been worse. At least lawmakers seem willing no longer to give carte blanche to Business As Usual. Slowly but surely, the issues are being re-defined and the momentum of debate is shifting.

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5 responses to “State of the Commonwealth: Transportation”

  1. E M Risse Avatar


    All your posts on Kaine’s State of the Commonwealth are good.

    This on on transportation is the best.

    By the way, for those who did not read the Business section of today’s WaPo should know the standards that Jim uses in running this Blog vis a vis the priniples of good journalism come out very well and much better than a lot of MainStream Media.


  2. Anonymous Avatar

    I’m not sure where to post this, but transportation seems closest. I’ve heard from a decent source that a lawsuit challenging the transfer of the Dulles Toll Road was filed recently in Circuit Court in Richmond. Can’t add a single fact to this statement.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    There’s a related issue also. Actually they are both part of a bigger issue that has to do with what entities can operate tolls roads in Va and then of course who controls the disposition of the net proceeds and for what purposes.

    A bill was recently put into the GA giving the NVTA the power to get into the toll road business.

    “SB782 just introduced in the Virginia Senate would allow the shell Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) to issue bonds for public tollroads or enter into longterm toll concessions with investor groups to develop tollroads in Virginia’s Washington suburbs.”

    Some think the bill will go nowhere because the Sponsor of it does not enjoy wide popularity in the GA.

    But think about this. The NVTA currently has no funds. It was created by the GA in 2002 on the premise that it would be the recipient of the 2002 Referenda funds – which failed.

    So – now – if this bill gains support – NVTA can essentially set up shop like the Dulles Airport Authority did with the Greenway.

    One further point. When Indiana entered into an agreement with private entities to operate toll roads – in the state – in return for a 3 billion dollar concession fee – the money went to INDOT to use statewide per INDOTs process for prioritization and allocation of funding for projects.

    What would keep VDOT from also becoming a similiar toll road beneficiary?

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Can someone please point me to the bill that would require subdivison street connectivity mentioned in Kaines priorities?

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 2:22, I’d like to see that bill, too.

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