Much has been written about the “pragmatic” platform of Virginia governor-elect Bob McDonnell. The common wisdom is true as far as it goes — McDonnell ran on “kitchen table” issues that were of special concern to suburban voters — but the media has paid too little attention to one of the election’s most important topics: transportation. McDonnell won the affluent suburban counties surrounding D.C. where transportation is a major concern (Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun) by a combined margin of nearly 30,000 votes. By comparison, the 2005 Republican gubernatorial candidate lost them by a combined margin of over 55,000 votes.
McDonnell did this, in part, by explaining his policies to voters in one of the most comprehensive transportation documents ever compiled for a statewide race. Whereas most transportation discussions concentrate on the need for new revenues and the completion of specific projects, McDonnell’s plan laid out a fundamental policy shift. McDonnell presented “four primary pillars”: 1) making investments based on projects’ value to taxpayers, not political influence; 2) reducing the time it takes to deliver projects without sacrificing environmental protection; 3) advancing a new strategy to operate and maintain existing infrastructure (and reduce congestion) that relies more extensively on technology and private-sector partnerships; and 4) transitioning toward a funding model that reduces congestion and establishes a stable revenue stream.
The dirty little secret behind transportation funding is that the best projects are not always those that get funded. Often, political influence, the need for geographical balance in road building, and the desire to bring economic development to disadvantaged areas trump more meritorious criteria such as congestion reduction and highway safety. McDonnell’s plan advanced the notion that transportation funds should be allocated to projects on a cost-benefit basis, using consistent metrics and focusing on the most acute challenges.
Additionally, McDonnell’s plan avoided focusing exclusively on big-ticket, photo op–generating transportation projects. High-efficiency, lower-dollar ventures — such as smart intersections that adjust light times based on traffic flows, and opening spare shoulder capacity or reversing lanes during peak periods — arguably do more to alleviate traffic in urban areas than does new capacity.
The final pillar is of particular import. Throughout the country, a debate has raged for years about whether to increase fuel taxes to fund transportation projects. The simple reality is that the gas tax, aside from being wildly unpopular (89 percent of Virginians opposed increasing it in a July 2008 survey), is not effective. Raising the tax does not significantly reduce congestion, and even a high tax does not raise enough revenue to meet long-term transportation demands.
This is due to at least three unavoidable failings. First, the charge does not vary with traffic congestion; someone driving at 2 a.m. on a deserted rural interstate pays the same as someone driving on Interstate 95 during rush hour. Second, gas-tax revenues are deposited in a centralized fund. As a result, legislators are free to — and often do — spend the money on politically convenient projects regardless of the transportation and revenue benefits thereof. Third, as vehicles become more gas-efficient, the government collects less revenue per mile driven.
In addition to tolls, McDonnell wants to utilize a number of alternative funding sources (from privatizing state-owned liquor stores to using a percentage of sales-tax revenues for transportation) and plans to put together a task force to find more upon becoming governor.
As McDonnell implements his bold transportation strategy, he will prove to be a transformative leader on an issue that affects Virginia families and businesses on a daily basis. Others would be wise to learn from him.
– Mary Peters is a former U.S. secretary of transportation and currently the principal of Mary Peters Consulting Group, LLC.