About six months ago, the Minnesota bridge collapse gave the nation a tragic illustration of what happens when you don't pay enough attention to deteriorating roads and bridges.
In 2005, Gov. Tim Kaine seemed to understand the importance of improving Virginia's infrastructure, saying, "Solving Virginia's transportation crisis is the most urgent issue facing my administration."
Yet today, Gov. Kaine is raiding $180 million from the transportation trust fund to pay for new preschool and mental health programs. The plan is fiscally unsound and would harm the state's transportation interests over both the short- and long-terms.
Virginia's governors have a long history of raiding the transportation trust as a trick to balance the budget. Unfortunately, while politicians move money around to claim they've balanced the budget, commuters end up spending more time stuck in traffic and the state's roads and bridges deteriorate.
In 1991, Gov. Doug Wilder shifted $200 million from the transportation trust fund to balance the budget. As he was leaving office in late 2002, outgoing Gov. Jim Gilmore proposed using $317 million in transportation trust fund revenue to help balance the budget. Gov. Mark Warner actually took that $317 million and also diverted another $143 million in general funds that were supposed to be used on specific transportation projects in the Virginia Transportation Act of 2000.
Now Gov. Kaine proposes diverting $180 million "temporarily" from highway construction programs to increase spending on unrelated programs such as a health care, preschool education, and mental health.
Kaine says that the highway money, appropriated for transportation last year, could not actually be spent this year and claims the funds will be replaced when the construction projects are slated to begin. The last time transportation funds were "borrowed" in this manner it took eight years to pay the money back.
While Kaine says the state has more than enough transportation money, 21 Senate Democrats just called for a tax increase and more fees to pay for transportation projects that they say the state doesn't have the money for.
Like most things, the truth is in the middle. The Democrats are right – the state has massive transportation needs. But a tax increase is the last thing the state needs. Virginia must stop pilfering transportation money for non-transportation uses and continue to be a leader in utilizing public private partnerships, taking advantage of the willingness of private sector firms and investment houses to finance major transportation projects. While these partnerships can not be used for all projects, the money Gov. Kaine is taking could very well be the money needed to close a deal on the proposals that are now before the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).
A Reason Foundation study recently showed 22 percent of Virginia's bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. Other studies show Virginia needs to add nearly 1,000 lane miles of new roads and highways to keep up with the population growth and traffic congestion expected over the next 20 years or so.
The VDOT budget is big, $4 billion in 2007, and makes up one of the largest portions of the state's budget, so maybe chopping off $180 million looks like it shouldn't hurt. But anyone driving on the state's roads knows otherwise. There is maintenance to be done, potholes to be filled, and capacity that urgently needs to be added.
Perhaps it is easy to re-route transportation money because of its dispersed constituency. People living in different parts of the state, each taking their own route to work, aren't a mobilized force in politics. But state leaders must have the vision to ensure that Virginia has the transportation infrastructure in place to keep the economy moving, and its citizens safe.
When that bridge collapsed in Minnesota, 13 percent of that state's bridges were considered obsolete or deficient. Here in Virginia that figure is 22 percent. Transportation money should not be diverted to pet projects until that number is zero and no taxpayers are stuck in wasteful traffic jams that keep them from their families and friends. And tax increases should be off the table until the state is spending all of its transportation money – on transportation - and it has exhausted the billions and billions of dollars in private capital clearly willing to build roads in Virginia.