A “Victory” for the House? Depends on How You Define “Victory”

The Wall Street Journal editorial page this morning has praised “a gang of conservative GOP members in the general assembly” for foiling Gov. Timothy M. Kaine’s taxes-for-transportation plan. “This was a victory against long odds, because the renegade house members were lined up against the Governor, powerful Republicans in the state senate, elements of the business community and the state’s largely pro-tax media.”

The Journal cited the state’s revenue surplus as a major reason why voters never warmed to the tax-hike idea, and noted that it didn’t help that Kaine was trying to raise gasoline taxes amidst soaring retail prices at the pump.

I wonder how the Journal would interpret news from the Washington Post today that Del. David B. Albo, R-Springfield and a number of other GOP delegates would like to raise an estimated $400 million a year from Northern Virginia to spend on local road and rail projects. “Roads cost money,” the Post quotes Albo as saying. “I’d love to find a way to pay for the things we need by not raising taxes and using existing revenue, but I’m a realist.”

While most GOP delegates were willing to hang together to oppose a statewide tax increase, there seems to be little appreciation of the root causes of transportation dysfunction in Virginia. Oh, sure, you’ve got yer Bill Howell talking about tolls and privatization, and you’ve got yer Tim Hugo backing telework, and the House did pass some marginally useful legislation dealing with VDOT and land use, but deep down inside, in their heart of hearts, most delegates share the assumption of their counterparts in the state Senate that the cause of traffic congestion is insufficient transportation capacity. The disagreement is over how much money the state can afford to raise to pay for improvements.

Personally, I think it’s a bit too early for anyone to proclaim a “victory.” Yes, the House has temporarily beat back proposals for some $1 billion in tax increases. But simply starving the current, broken transportation system of funds isn’t going to solve anything. The House, along with everyone else, needs to get on with the business of re-thinking transportation fundamentals. Otherwise, they’ll end up like Dave Albo, promoting tax increases through the back door.

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14 responses to “A “Victory” for the House? Depends on How You Define “Victory””

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    The business of re-thinking transportation fundamentals then testing, validating, and implementing the results of all that thinking is going to take longer and cost more than what they have saved by starving the current system of funds.

    It is going to take much more than a billion dollars in tax increases to achieve any alternative plan, and then the alternative may turn out to be like the inter-county connector: that is, the same old plan only 50 years later.

    In the meantime, we still suffer under the costs of the congestion tax, for which we get nothing in return, and the costs of any action, whetheralternative or traditional continues to go up.

    In the end we are going to be coming around to the back door like beggars, but the alms will be around $4 billion instead of one.

    Yeah, I’d say it was too early to claim victory.

  2. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Thank you for recognizing the problem. “But simply starving the current, broken transportation system of funds isn’t going to solve anything. The House, along with everyone else, needs to get on with the business of re-thinking transportation fundamentals.”

    Your “but deep down inside, in their heart of hearts, most delegates share the assumption of their counterparts in the state Senate that the cause of traffic congestion is insufficient transportation capacity.” is challenged by the Post report on the view of the leaders in the Senate “They say the state’s less populated regions are also in desperate need of better roads to draw jobs and reverse economic decline.”

    Until our leaders recognize that the role of transportation is limited to being economic enabler, and not an economic driver we will be locked in to the current funding stalemate. Spending taxpayer dollars on transportation to “draw jobs and reverse economic decline” is like pushing on a rope. Reducing the costs of the congestion tax is the only way to advance the Virginia’s economy.

  3. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    And yet 90% of the states roads are uncongested 90% of the time and 45% of all travel happens on and during the other 10%. How hard is this to figure out, really?

    Traffic congestion is less during recessions, and some cities would willingly trade high unemployment rates for congestion. Traffic congestion becomes self-correcting when businesses choose to leave an area because it is too crowded and plagued by delays.

    Politicians want the growth that brings congestion, yet they also want to control or reduce that congestion. They refuse to implement effective strategies to relieve congestion because the stringent solutions required might, like congestion itself, redirect growth to other areas.

    This is not a new problem. Rome restricted deliveries to night time because the carts made the streets dangerous, but night deliveries interrupted sleep. London had parking restrictions in the 1600’s. Affordable public transportation was developed to ease the overcrowding and polllution that prevailed before. Zoning was developed in New York to encourage people to move out of the city center, subsidized by flat fares on the trolleys. Later, trolley tracks became jammed with trolleys and the system became overcrowded. When roads began to take over from railroads, the problem soon became obvious:

    “None of us should delude ourselves, however, that the road problem of Virginia . . . will be solved at least for many years. Those who use the roads will demand wider, smoother and safer roads due to their increasing use and the consequent congestion on the highways.” – Governor Harry Byrd, 1930 State of the Commonwealth

    Whether you call Smart Growth, Transit oriented design, New Urbanism, pedestrian Oriented Communities or what have you,the end result of higher densities will be more congestion in more localized places. We might be able to alleviate some of that by creating a transit system that is 20 times as dense as we have, but I doubt we have the economic stomach for that, either, particularly since that style of living is likely to attract only 15% of the population.

    Planners and environmentalists are disingenuous when they urge us to fight congestion through smart growth. Politicians at heart, they really want more congested environments (for everyone else) but presumably want that congestion to be somehow managed and accommodated. If it is not accommodated, people will start to move to the suburbs specifically to avoid congestion. As
    George will put it, “The purpose of ‘smart’ ‘coordinated’ growth is to prevent the masses, in their freedom, from producing democracy’s byproducts — untidiness and even vulgarity. And the bland notion of ‘planning’ often is the rubric under which government operates when making its preferences and prophecies — often meaning its arrogance and its mistakes — mandatory.”

    So, it’s not all that hard to push a rope – you just need to freeze it first. but anyone that thinks any of this is going to be solved, by whatever means, without lots and lots of money needs to go

    Back to square one.

  4. Bob Griendling Avatar
    Bob Griendling

    Jim, I ask, what is victory?

    For the Dems, either no transportation deal or a comprehensive one is victory, the former because it imporves the electoral landscape in ’07.

    For the GOP, something akin to what they were proposing may seem to be a victory to them, but more likely a victory for the Dems because voters won’t see any benefit by ’07.

    But Jim, is it a victory solely if taxes aren’t raised?

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Bob, No, I wouldn’t define victory as simply not raising taxes — although I definitely would like to defer raising taxes as long as prudently possible. To me, victory would be winning the acknowledgement of a critical mass of the General Assembly that the solution to traffic congestion is not just raising taxes/adding capacity.

    A rational approach to transportation would entail (1) creating communities with a mix of housing/office/retail/amenities to reduce the number and length of automobile trips, (2) reforming counterproductive zoning codes, subdivision ordinances and comprehensive plans in order to create more transit-friendly and pedestrian-friendly communities, (3) creating funding sources for transportation that establishes a rational nexus between those who use/benefit from transportation facilities and those who pay for them, (4) promoting telework, (5) liberating mass transit from government monopolies and encouraging private sector innovation, (6) using a wide range of tools, from corridor management to intelligent transportation systems, to increase the capacity of existing thoroughfares, (7) stretching the value of road construction/maintenance dollars through outsourcing, and (8) prioritizing transportation projects on a congestion-mitigation Return on Investment basis.

    Virginia has started tinkering with a number of these, but has not systematically explored any of them. Until the General Assembly gets serious about fundamental change, we cannot declare victory — no matter how high/low taxes and raised/cut.

  6. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Bob – with all due respect, you’re blowing smoke. Most people in NoVA want an adequate public facilities ordinance and don’t believe that anything related to transportation is anything more than another way to foster more development. THey believed that in 2002 and still do today. People voted for Tim Kaine because many of us truly believed his statement that “enough was enough.” Many of us saw his very modest proposal to postpone development where the roads could not handle today’s traffic as a small step towards APF. (Kaine made his “promise” with full knowledge of the power of the builders in Virginia.)

    Yet, once confronted with the expected opposition, Kaine did a 180 and joined the other side — “pay more, so we can develop more.” There are quite a few good Democrats, Independents and Republicans who now believe that Tim Kaine has joined the dark side.

    No one believes that anything before the General Assembly will fix the transportation mess we have. No one trusts any Virginia elected official on land use issues, especially given Kaine’s switch and Gerry Connolly’s wholesale giveaways to the developers. (How about $43 million plus in Fairfax County taxpayer subsidies to land development and zoning services since “Condo Connolly” took over the BoS chair?) This is not to argue that the GOP is sitting any better.

    People in NoVA want an end to policies that support growth without regard to the impacts on current residents. If I wanted to run for office in 07, I’d go door-to-door and say “I’m running because Tim Kaine lied to us about development and I’ll fight for an adequate public facilities ordinance as my number one priority. I’ll oppose any transfer of more money from NoVA taxpayers until we get APF.” I’ll bet you I’d get more votes from Democrats, Independents and Republicans than a candidate who says we need to continue the status quo, but with more funding for VDOT.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    (1) and (2) are part and parcel of the same thing. It might reduce the number and length of some car trips,but it will result in more localized congestion, and maybe even more congestion overall. Reducing the number of trips is NOT ordinarily a rational approach to transportation, although it could be in some limited cases. (3) I have no problem with, except that even non-users benefit from roads, so it can’t be totally user driven. (4) I agree with and support, however we may have already sucked much of the juice out of that orange and it conflicts with (1). If you accomplish (5) You will effectively eliminate much of mass transit, unless you have privately operated but subsidized mass transit. This is a recipe for pork, payola, and patronage. (6) Increasing the capacity of existing thoroughfares is a waste since 90% of our roads are underused 90% of the time. It is also an admission that (1) is insufficient. (7) and (8) I have no problem with.

    But I really have a problem with (2). It is OK so far as it goes, but the likely market for the market created by such zoning might only be 15% of the population. What it leaves out is what happens to everybody else, who happens not to be in an area designated for transit friendly development. Are you also willing to also reform counterproductive zoning codes that requires people to stay in the business of farming, for example? If more density is good for some areas, why not all?

    I know your answer will be that those people should be allowed to live where they please as long as they pay their full locational costs. But we can already see that those costs are subject to maipulation: people whose costs include supporting the Dulles Toll road are also supporting the transit that will make it possible for future residents to live in transit friendly neighborhoods. Whatever happened to THEM paying their full locational costs?

    Transit is going to require massive and widespread subsidies to even partially work. Here, again, some allowance needs to be madefor the ide ahat transit provides some limited benefit to non-users. So, those people who are left out will be expected to pay for the transit that helps make those included in development areas possible. At the same time they will likely be excluded from increasing density even when it is to their benefit (they may live next to those 90% of roads that are underutilized). This will be done partially in order to artificially create the demand required to fill the designated areas, and the cover story will be that it is for the environment, to save prime farmland, etc.

    This amounts to disingenuously making certain preferences and prophesies mandatory, and I don’t think it will fly. When Virginia does systematically explore these ideas they may very well come to the conclusion that Fundamental Change is a really lousy idea, and that, bad as it is, business as usual is the best option after all. The main reson they are likely to reach that conclusion is that the costs for all this theoretical thinking and experimental development is going to be far higher than the money we “saved” on transportation by not providing it.

  8. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I see what TMT says as the other side of the same coin I described above. If we get APF’s they will be disproportionately used against those who are “left out” of development plans, and consequently used to ram still more development down TMT’s throat. After all, they will say, that is where the most facilities are; even if they are inadequate, they are more adequate than places that have none.

    Will Rogers once joked that if you wanted to cure traffic congestion, just make people pay cash for their cars up front. The APF idea is the same kind of joke. None of the development we have was built when the facilities were adequate, and much of it was built specifically to get away from places that had inadequate facilities and were over built. We are not going to pay for APF’s up front, so it is a recipe for creating either no development or only hoplessly expensive development (See Morgan’s Riflemen).

    APF’s are a good idea only if you are willing to provide a dedicated and adequate funding stream for them, same as for Metro.

    And that means you need a lot more money.

    And it is no good to claim that it has to be done without impacting current residents. It is still going to come out of your pocket in the end. Just as roads benefit those who don’t drive and transit benefits those that don’t ride, development benefits those that don’t build. This last creates a real problem and hardship because existing residents have no way to capitalize on their fortune unless they move.

    But if the APF’s are disproportionately applied, then there won’t be any place to move to. In that case the benefits and disbenefits of APF’s cancel each other out, and there is no reason to implement what is a lousy idea to begin with.

  9. NotGroverNorquist Avatar

    I don’t have online access to the WSJ, but did it really refer to the “general assembling” and did it also fault Kaine for “trying to raise gasoline taxes?” If so, does the WSJ have a fact checker on staff?

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    Once we’re done with this doomed debate, we can move on to contemplate the doubled energy prices we can all expect when we get to enjoy the full benefits of a deregulated electricity market in a couple years. Hmmm — double the cost of juice and hopelessly clogged roads. Will the last ones out “free market” Virginia please turn out the lights on your way to North Carolina?

  11. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Not Grover, Thanks for catching my typo. I have corrected it. And that’s a good point about Kaine’s “gasoline tax.” There has been so much back and forth that I can’t remember every permutation of every tax plan. But was not the point of both the Kaine and the Senate tax plans to NOT tax gasoline at the pump — indeed to tax anything but gasoline at the pump? In that case, the WSJ got its information very wrong.

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Yesterday as I was cruising along at below traffic speed but still 65 in 55 a tow truck passed me like I was sitting still. He was running at least 75 and maybe more.

    He was towing a school bus.

    That kind of behavior makes you think there might be some value in Albo’s plan to increase fines for really bad drivers, especially since almost a third of traffic cogestion is caused by incidents. I have long held that fines for professional drivers should be tripled – these guys should know better.

  13. Bob Griendling Avatar
    Bob Griendling

    Jim, I agree with most of your proposals, or at least the goals you hope to achieve with them. But I am suspicious of the outsourcing and private partnerships. I’d rather reform public entities because private entities require a level of cost public ones shouldn’t — profit.

    I agree with Ray that even non-users of transportation facilities benefit from them, but I do favor higher gas taxes and other directly related user fees.

    And with congestion the way it is, building roads to nowhere in the hopes of fostering economic development may not be feasible.

    Ray, I’m surprised you think we can’t do more teleworking. Seems we have many opportunities to expand it.

    But overall, demanding such reforms before expanding capacity simply won’t work in the real world. First, we’ll need to reform American capitalism itself, eliminating the public supported breaks we give to business, whether they be home developers, road builders, or farmers, as well as homeowners, i.e., interest rate deductions.

    Bottom line is we need more capacity and land use reform. My interest is the politics of it. Which brings me back to the same question, asked in that context: How do you judge when the reforms you want are sufficient to invest more in increasing capacity? Jim, you may have a clear vision in your head about what that threshold is, but I sense from the SmartGrowth folks and anti-taxers who make many of the same arguements you do that any amount of reform will never be enough.

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    I think EMR convinced me that those that really can telework already do so. There are a lot of people for whom it does not apply, retail, mechanics, etc.

    There is more we can do on telework, but Ed suggests the well is not as deep as we would like to believe. Then again, it runs counter or provides impetus that is counter to his other ideas. I was formerly more optimistic, but in this case I found his argument persuasive. I’m open to more hard data, and I believe the biggest hindrance is organizational, not technical.

    I favor higher gas taxes and user fees, too, but not exclusively because we all have a stake in roads. I would make the same argument for transit: it is OK for the general public or auto drivers (which is much the same thing) to provide some support for transit because there is some (small) benefit to everyone for those that are able and willing to use Metro etc. On the other hand, once we understand how small that benefit really is we might decide it’s just not worth it, and we should let the thing be privatized where it works and disappear where it doesn’t.

    I’m with you.

    We cannot take hard lines on every issue and make progress in any direction. Unfortunately, for some, strategic stalemate is just as good as any other means of conservation, never mind whatever other harm it does.

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