Opinion

Bob McDonnell: Fixing transportation funding in Virginia

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Opinion,Op-Eds

When I ran for governor in 2009, I promised the people of Virginia that if they trusted me with this office, I would focus like a laser on putting in place policies that would allow the private sector in Virginia to create more jobs. Our message was simple: "Bob's for Jobs." And we meant it. We entered office in the height of the recession, with the worst unemployment rate Virginia had faced in decades, and $6 billion in budget shortfalls left by my predecessor, who had shuttered Virginia rest stops and called for a $2.2 billion tax hike. That first year, we didn't make excuses, and we set priorities, made tough choices and reduced spending to 2006 levels without raising taxes on our citizens. That first year, Virginia went from 35th in the nation to third highest in net new job growth.

In the ensuing years, we have invested in core functions of government, reformed Virginia's broken pension system and made state government do more with less. We gave state employees incentives for saving taxpayer money, saving tens of millions of dollars in the budget. We used public-private partnerships to defray the cost of maintaining Virginia's highway rest areas. We streamlined regulations and got rid of onerous accounting gimmicks put in place by previous administrations that forced some businesses to prepay taxes. Using new technology, we reduced the average wait time for a notary public to receive a commission from the Secretary of the Commonwealth from 30 to seven days. That's the kind of cost savings and increased efficiency that the people of Virginia expect and deserve from their elected leaders.

When I ran for governor, I also promised that I would not pass on a broken system of transportation funding to the next administration. Transportation is crucial to private-sector job creation.

We did everything we could to find new revenue for transportation without tax increases. We proposed privatizing the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control and putting the proceeds into roads. The General Assembly said no. We proposed allowing offshore energy production and putting the proceeds into roads. The White House said no. We reformed and audited the Virginia Department of Transportation four times, identifying $1.4 billion to put into transportation projects around the state. We have used public-private partnerships for HOT lanes to alleviate congestion on some of our most-traveled roads. We accelerated the issuance of bonds to take advantage of relatively low construction costs.

However, the stubborn fact remained that the 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax that we have used to build and maintain our network of transportation for the last 27 years no longer adds up to an adequate transportation network. The purchasing power of the gas tax today is less than half of what it was in 1986. Since 2002, the price of asphalt has increased 350 percent. We are on track to run out of money for new road construction by 2017, and the bill that passed the General Assembly this year addresses the problem. It shifts the source of Virginia's transportation funding away from the stagnant, flat gas tax to other taxes whose collections will keep up with inflation and economic growth.

Maintaining an efficient transportation network is a core function of government. There is nothing efficient about losing 67 hours on average per year due to congestion, as commuters do in Northern Virginia. Those 67 hours represent a very real cost to doing business in Virginia, and affect the quality of life for our citizens. The Texas A&M Transportation Institute estimates that congestion costs Northern Virginia commuters nearly $1,400 per year. That's the worst in the nation and it's unacceptable. That was one of the problems I had pledged to fix.

Is this new fix perfect? Absolutely not. When I laid out my plan on Jan. 9 in my State of the Commonwealth address, I said that there was going to be something in the plan that everyone didn't like because that's the only way a compromise bill could pass a divided General Assembly. And that is true of this bill. But this bill fixes a problem that had gone unaddressed in Virginia for 27 years. That's what I was sent to Richmond to do. That's why 44 Republicans and 43 Democrats supported the bill in the legislature. And that's why it has broad support in the business community.

Over the last three years, we have made state government more efficient, more responsive and better focused on the core priorities of the citizens who trust us with its management. Our unemployment rate has dropped from 7.3 percent when I took office to 5.5 percent, the lowest rate in four years, lowest in the Southeast and the second-lowest east of the Mississippi.

But if our network of transportation is insufficient and people can't get to work without sitting in hours of traffic or get home to help their kids with their homework, people and businesses will go elsewhere. This year, I told the legislature that we needed to finally put in place long-term reforms to the way we fund transportation. This bill does that.

Virginia will have the lowest gas tax in the continental United States. We will put billions into transportation after nearly three decades of declining funding. The end result will be a transportation network that will meet the growing needs of Virginians for years to come and allow more Virginians the opportunity to find the good-paying jobs they need and deserve.

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