Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Virginia Transportation Plan Begins To Unravel

It wasn't that long ago that Virginia's political leaders, on both sides of the aisle, were applauding and backslapping over passage of a long-awaited, long-debated transportation bill that would provide billions of dollars for overdue transportation projects.

It was not a terrific bill. It looked like a donkey with elephant ears and trunk and a pig tail. It was a "compromise" that pretended to avoid raising taxes, while actually doing so in a most inequitable manner. Nonetheless, most citizens of the state initially were pleased simply because, at long last, there would be money for projects that already are way behind. Governor Kaine backed the bill, with all its flaws, figuring it at least solved the transportation crisis.

Not surprisingly, however, the Rube Goldberg funding mechanism behind the bill is beginning to unravel. Two pieces are in significant danger in the courts. The first is the enormous fines imposed on "bad" drivers--up to $3000 for a traffic violation. The explicit purpose of these fines is to raise money, not punish bad driving. (We're all for cracking down on bad driving; but this mechanism, which falls disproportionately on lower income citizens and will clog the courts with traffic cases, is not the right way.) Two courts have now found that provision unconstitutional, under the equal protection clause, because the fines do not apply to out of state drivers. (We're not sure that rationale will hold up on appeal, but there are other legal attacks as well.)

The second is the taxing authority handed over to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority--a transparent effort by Republicans to avoid responsibility for tax increases. Loudoun County supervisors have voted to challenge the constitutionality of the Authority's new authority, and now another group of conservatives, including Prince William GOP Delegate Bob "Taliban" Marshall, have initiated a wider ranging suit as well. (See "Lawsuit Adds To Roads Bill Challenges" in today's Washington Post.) This aspect of the transportation bill is clearly vulnerable in the Virginia courts. (For Marshall's nickname, see our post, "Virginia's Taliban: Bob Marshall")

All of which gets back to a more fundamental issue: Virginia, particularly NoVa and Hampton Roads, clearly needs greater transportation funding (Richmond is fine, having robbed the rest of the state to build many a road project). Typically, when there is such a need, government raises funds, through taxes on the folks who will benefit from it, to pay for it. That's the "common good." The conservative wing of the Republican Party in Virginia, however, is so tied up in the dogma of low taxes that it has become dysfunctional when it comes to simple issues of good government: getting the best services for the least money.

The proper solution would be for party leaders on both sides to step up to the plate and say, "y'know, we have a problem--we need more roads; and the solution is to increase the gasoline tax by a few cents a gallon to pay for it." Yes, it's a tax increase, and there would be a bit of moaning and groaning. But given that Americans have fairly quickly adapted to $3 gas, without abandoning their SUV's or starting a depression, people would adjust in an instant. And at least there would be a nexus between the tax and the service (transportation projects).

That may happen someday, but not as long as the current myopic gang in the General Assembly is in power. Let's hope that changes in November. (It won't be Marshall and his cronies who get voted out--it will be more moderate Republicans facing wrath from their more moderate constituencies.)

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