In Virginia Transportation Problems as Priority Issue

Posted: Mar 08, 2006 6:26 PM

Those of us who live in the Washington, D.C. Area know that it is rated as the second most congested urban area in the nation. We spend more and more time in our motor vehicles, consuming more and more gasoline and augmenting the pollution.

I am no partisan of Virginia’s new Governor, Timothy M. Kaine. Truth told, I didn’t vote for him, although I had to swallow hard to vote for his opponent. But Kaine wisely is making transportation his priority issue.

Both Houses of the Virginia General Assembly have strong Republican majorities and are conservative. A majority of the Republicans in the House of Delegates are generally anti-tax, although thirteen broke ranks and helped to enact former Governor Mark R. Warner’s unnecessary $1 billion tax increase.

What I do not comprehend is the House of Delegates defeat of a measure which would have permitted those of us in Northern Virginia to vote ourselves a very small tax increase for transportation if we wished to do so. I also am anti-tax. I even vote against most bond issues. And I certainly do not favor raising the income tax.

But why not let us vote? If we think the transportation crisis is so severe that we are willing to tax ourselves to attempt to solve it, why should we not be given the opportunity to do so? I will wager, if we get that chance, a transportation-only tax increase would pass by at least 65% to 35% in Northern Virginia.

Meanwhile, there are three different transportation plans floating around the Virginia General Assembly. One is a Senate plan which calls for $4 billion in transportation projects in both Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads or Tidewater Area. Another is a House of Delegates plan, calling for about $2 billion. The third is Governor Kaine’s plan, which is sort of midway between the State Senate and the House of Delegates plans.

There is considerable difference in the proposed financing of these plans. The Senate plan has among its features a 5% tax increase on wholesale gasoline purchases. According to WASHINGTON TIMES reporters Seth McLaughlin and Christina Bellantoni the House plan would use part of the multibillion dollar surplus which the State of Virginia currently enjoys while financing the balance of the House plan with debt. The Governor’s plan has so far been ignored as the House has passed its plan and the Senate has passed its plan.

The problem is that the General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn March 11th. Virginia is one of those larger states in which the legislature does not meet fulltime. The Governor told the TIMES that he does not expect the House and Senate to reconcile their differences before adjournment. So the Governor may hold the legislators in an extended session to try to get the job done, as he has authority to do.

I am no proponent of big-time government spending but I think transportation is an exception. As the most principled conservative in the Senate, James M. (“Jim”) Inhofe (R-OK), has pointed out, infrastructure and national defense are the only two items mentioned in the Constitution so if we would stick to the Constitution we would limit our Federal spending to those two areas. Not that such will ever happen but it is nice to think that the transportation spending I advocate is at least constitutional.

Speaking of that, the transportation bill which Senator Inhofe, Congressman Don Young (R-AK) and others put together last summer, really has taken a bum rap. The Alaskan Bridge to Nowhere has become the poster child of those who don’t want to see earmarks from Members of Congress.

In conservative circles it is fashionable constantly to rip into the bureaucracy. I’m all for that, except that earmarks are a way around the bureaucracy. First, the transportation bill has been crafted with a carefully calculated formula for the distribution of its authorized funds. Secondly, earmarks simply represent the judgment of the Member of Congress as to the transportation needs of his district. Money which is not earmarked goes back to the states where nameless, faceless bureaucrats determine where the money is spent. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t rail against the bureaucracy while at the same time rail against those who circumvent the bureaucracy. Of course, there were excesses. But not that many and far fewer than opponents of all earmarking would suggest.

The new House Majority Leader, Representative John A. Boehner (R-OH), is a fierce opponent of earmarks. The Majority Whip, Representative Roy Blunt (R-MO), whom Boehner defeated by a small margin, is a fierce defender of earmarks. We will not be facing another transportation bill for a couple of years and a whole new cast of characters may be in charge by then. But if these two continue in their respective offices when a showdown over this issue would come, I wouldn’t bet against Blunt.

Meanwhile, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) is said to be crafting a bill to link earmarks with lobby reform. I doubt very much that many of the earmarks that the opponents rail about in that transportation bill came about because traditional Washington lobbyists were responsible for them. Rather, I think mayors, county board members, city council members and aldermen lobbied Senators and Congressmen to include their projects. These “lobbyists” were giving no gift. They didn’t take Members to golf outings. They probably didn’t even buy the Senator or Congressman lunch. Probably it was the other way around.

Are we going to make it difficult for mayors and other local elected officials to get their projects included in bills which directly relate to the home area? That would be a dreadful mistake, in my opinion, even though Lott, now Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, is sincere in wanting real lobbying reform.

As regular readers know, I am a persistent advocate of the new media. I believe talk radio, the Fox News Channel, THE WASHINGTON TIMES and the Internet combined provide a welcome alternative to the big three networks and the major old-line newspapers such as THE NEW YORK TIMES and THE WASHINGTON POST and their lap dogs, TIME and NEWSWEEK.

One disadvantage of the new media is that it will grab something such as earmarks and crusade about it. Scarcely anyone is represented who can give the other side of an issue. This certainly was true of earmarks. Yet in the few instances when I have been able to present the point of view articulated above, almost all callers agree with me. I think transportation folks will need to develop a strategy for the new media as issues such as earmarks will surface again and again.

In short, I hope as a resident of air-clogged, traffic-chocking Northern Virginia, that the Virginia General Assembly gets its act together and Governor Kaine holds the legislators’ feet to the fire until they enact a workable transportation plan. I’ll bet there are residents of at least 25 additional metropolitan areas who are hoping for the same.