Time to Give It a Rest, Russ

Now that Sen. Russell Potts has lost his desperate bid to be included in the gubernatorial campaign’s only debate to be televised statewide, it’s all downhill for the Winchester maverick. As one shrewd observer of the campaign suggested to me, the smart money in the tax-and-build lobby is switching its support to Jerry Kilgore, as evidenced by Kilgore’s recent endorsement by the Fairfax Chamber of Commerce.

Potts carried water for the tax-and-build advocates in the business community, promoting his plan to raise taxes for transportation by some $2 billion a year. But his campaign never ignited. He’s slipping back into irrelevance in the polls, and he’s locked out of the debate, which was his last chance to connect with voters. According to this interpretation, the tax-and-build crowd wanted to throw its support to a winner and picked Kilgore because he was the least of two evils.

Although Kaine has proven that he’s not averse to increasing taxes, he also says Virginia’s transportation system is broken and needs to be fixed before pouring more money into it. As Kaine says on his website, referring to the 2002 referendum in which Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads voters rejected local tax increases for roads projects, citizens “did not trust that state and local leaders, even with additional resources, could solve our transportation problems planning and building roads the same way we always have. The message was crystal clear—don’t throw money at a broken system. Fix the system.”

The tax-and-spend lobby doesn’t want to wait to fix the system. It wants mo’ money now! Kilgore doesn’t give them what they want, but he’ll give them more than Kaine: injecting more money into transportation by applying Virginia’s substantial budget surpluses to funding transportation projects, vigorously pursuing public-private partnerships and giving taxing powers to transportation regional authorities. Kilgore would make the Road Gang sweat for its money, but he’s put more on the table than Kaine.

If this interpretation is right, Potts might as well hang it up. Virginia’s once-fawning press — and the public — will focus on the two lead horses as the race comes down to the wire.

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  1. Ray Hyde Avatar

    You are probably correct that Potts can hang it up.

    But how big does a “tax and spend lobby” have to be before it represents the will of the people? The Northern Virginia Transportation Study reports that a majority of northern Virginians think their biggest problem is traffic congestion. And they are willing to raise taxes to do something about it.

    We also know from previous experience that they are not willing to fund a nonelected authority with no definite plan to solve the problem. Kaine’s analysis of what happened is simply wrong.

    It is not clear from the study that they want to raise their own taxes exclusively: their preferred method is to increase sales or income tax. In other words they are still demanding that after years of sending money down state for projects like Route 58 that some of the money they have raised for the state should come back home and be spent where the biggest problems are.

    If we rely on raiding the state “surplus” during good years we are simply guaranteeing that we will have other problems during bad years. Highways at least have recognizable users that can be taxed or tolled for the privilege of availing themselves of state services, and many of them come from out of state.

    It is hard to say the same for many other state provided services, particularly those that are designed to provide some kind of aid.

    As unpopular as increasing the gas tax is, that is a method of demand management that may have the effect of reducing unnecessary travel, and eventually reducing sprawl. We should recognize that since fuel is a global commodity, there is little we can do to reduce prices. Whatever fuel we refuse to buy will be snapped up by other countries. Even if we don’t directly increase the gas tax, we should at least convert it to a dollar based tax and not a gallon based tax: that way it can increase naturally over time and not decline in value as it has since 1986.

    At some point we are going to have to realize that there is a maximum density that road traffic can handle. That is not the same as saying that public transit or rail can handle that density better or more cost effectively. The fact remains that the best, fastest, most convenient, and flexible form of transit we have ever devised since Roman times, depends on roads.

    It may well be that part of the solution for urban traffic congestion is to tear down parts of the urban areas and put in more green space, and more roads. Some people have even suggested that we create urban farmland.

    This months issue of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation newsletter has considerable coverage on agriculture. Much of it has a dreamlike quality, and much of it is just wrong, but one author points out that two acres of land can produce vegetables for a hundred families. That figure is about right, because less than 2% of the nations land mass produces all our fruits and vegetables. Inexplicably, the author then goes on to decry the loss of “prime farmland”. Unless we start producing massive quantities of biodiesel, we just don’t need it.

    But, to make the best use of roads we already have, we may have to start using them more effectively. That means we are going to have to allow more development in areas that are at presently largely unused – “prime farmland”. Even Tim Horne of the Rural Conservation Alliance has said as much.

    Fixing dysfunctional patterns of development is going to have to recognize the limitations of both road traffic and every other system known. Road traffic can only support a certain density, and when people cry out that we should prevent more development, that is what they mean. Every other known method of transport is slower, more costly, less convenient, but mostly more expensive than road transport. What is worse, public transport requires high density as a de facto subsidy, but high density has many additional costs of its own.

    We are going to have to limit public transport to only those areas where it really makes sense. One way to do that is to use more and smaller buses to more closely mimic private autos: in other words more jitneys and fewer lumbering stinking buses. With modern communication technology, jitneys can almost emulate door to door transport by private auto.

    Finally, we are going to have to address long-standing recognized problems that can only be fixed with better road infrastructure. We can’t wait for new development patterns to fix the problems we have now. I’m not convinced that a roundabout at Gilberts Corner is a sufficient answer, but damn near anything is better than what exists now. Go for it. Then if traffic calming on route 50 does not work or turns out to be insufficient, well, we will have learned an object lesson.

    Traffic on the bridge at Point of Rocks screams the need for another river crossing. Every one who drive anywhere can make a list of obvious problems that need to be fixed.

    There is also a minimum density road traffic can handle. This weeks Time magazine had a fascinating article on the appearance of hybrids in Montana. According to the article, it is no longer cost effective to drive a huge SUV a hundred miles to the big box store to get a discount on large quantities of dog food. It is now more cost effective to make multiple trips to the local store and get normal quantities (at a higher price) via hybrid.

    Make no mistake. This is a major shock to those that live in that neck of the woods (or plains).

    Virtually everyone wants something fixed, and is willing to pay for it. So my question again is, how big does the tax and spend lobby have to be before you recognize it as a legitimate force in public policy?

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    In 100 years when someone at The Library of Virginia looks back at Bacon’s Rebellion and the 2005 election and they discuss Russ Potts they will likely come to the same conclusion that I have.

    Potts’ main contribution to this race was that he refocused the debate, or lack thereof, to the single biggest problem Virginia faces at the first part of the 21st century – transportation.

    Most importantly the Potts campaign will carry over into the upcoming General Assembly session where transportation will be the issue.

    I would expect that the GA will come up with a comprehensive plan (thanks, Russ) and that a specific amount of money will be set aside each year ($2 billion?) in order to fund the plan.

    Now, will they put the funds in a lockbox so it is only used for transportation? Who knows, but I hope so.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, How big does the tax-and-spend lobby have to be before I recognize it as a legitimate force in public policy? A lot bigger than it is now. Russ Potts delivered the tax-and-spend message on transportation. He’s been rewarded with a five percent approval rating. Neither Kaine nor Kilgore embrace the tax-and-spend message (maybe bits and pieces of it, but certainly not the pure, distilled version that Potts offered), and they have the loyalty of the other 95 percent of the electorate. If judged by the origins of his campaign contributions, Potss’ message isn’t selling downstate at all.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Right, and except for isolated areas, downstate has nowhere near the traffic problems NOVA has. That has always been the case, money comes from NOVA, goes downstate and disappears, as in Route 58. What’s not to like?

    As it stands now, juridictions like Fairfax and Prince William are already investing millions in their own roadways, so downstate is getting a free ride on the NOVA economic train again.

    But the Post points out today that both Kilgore and Kaine have left themselves wiggle room, so if anonymous is correct and transportation becomes THE ISSUE, then we will have a lot of fun beating whoever is elected over the head about not being up front during the campaign.

    Potts never had a chance, regardless of his road position, so it is a big stretch to claim that his dismal showing reflects the road spending desires of the whole populace. Where is the statewide version of the NOVA transportation study? I’m not willing to accept that the dismal showing of the Potts campaign is a proxy for what people think is needed, particularly given the studies that we do have.

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