Bil­lions to­day, gone to­mor­row

Mr. McDonnell pro­poses a big stop­gap for Vir­ginia roads.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

GOV. ROBERT F. MCDONNELL (R) has un­veiled a trans­porta­tion plan that will yield sev­eral bil­lion dol­lars for new roads, rails and bridges over the next three years, pro­vide a jolt of new em­ploy­ment, and kick-start sev­eral hun­dred stalled projects, in­clud­ing more than 100 in North­ern Vir­ginia. It is a cred­itable, badly needed boost for a crum­bling trans­porta­tion net­work. It is also woe­fully in­ad­e­quate.

The main prob­lem is that it fails to achieve what the gover­nor has re­peat­edly said is nec­es­sary: to es­tab­lish an on­go­ing, sus­tain­able and long-term source of rev­enue to ad­dress Vir­ginia’s most crit­i­cal prob­lem. He has ac­knowl­edged the glar­ing short­com­ing of his plan, that it pro­vides plenty of dol­lars in the short term but very lit­tle af­ter that. In essence, it is a $2.9 bil­lion stop­gap that would rush money out the door to­day but leave Mr. McDonnell’s suc­ces­sor, who takes of­fice in 2014, with vir­tu­ally no trans­porta­tion fund­ing op­tions.

A chart by state an­a­lysts makes the prob­lem crys­tal clear. It shows that the cen­ter­piece of Mr. McDonnell’s plan — the ac­cel­er­ated sale of state rev­enue bonds — would pro­vide $600 mil­lion in each of the com­ing three years, start­ing now. That $1.8 bil­lion is cer­tainly a good thing, and the gover­nor makes a good ar­gu­ment when he says it is well timed to take ad­van­tage of low in­ter­est rates on the debt the state would in­cur and low bids from contractors starved for busi­ness.

But in the four years af­ter the gover­nor has left of­fice the state will have reached the limit of its abil­ity to bor­row money and pay ser­vice on that debt. Ac­cord­ing to the state chart, Mr. McDonnell’s suc­ces­sor would be able to bor­row just $450 mil­lion over the en­tire length of his term — a pit­tance given the tens of bil­lions in trans­porta­tion con­struc­tion fund­ing needed statewide.

The other main fea­ture of the gover­nor’s pro­gram is to shift $140 mil­lion from the gen­eral fund — read: ed­u­ca­tion; pub­lic safety; and health and so­cial pro­grams — for trans­porta­tion projects in North­ern Vir­ginia and Hampton Roads. Even if one agrees with Mr. McDonnell, who ar­gues that that is sound pol­icy — and we have our doubts — it’s not likely to gain ap­proval in the state Se­nate, which is con­trolled by Democrats.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the gover­nor’s pro­pos­als have been hailed by busi­ness groups and contractors. But even many of them say that an ap­proach of feast to­day, famine to­mor­row is not good enough. Some of Mr. McDonnell’s own aides and al­lies be­lieve— or rather hope— that by ac­knowl­edg­ing that his pro­gram is just a be­gin­ning, he has set the stage for propos­ing per­ma­nent new trans­porta­tion rev­enue next year, mean­ing a tax in­crease.

That would be a break from Repub­li­can or­tho­doxy and a de­par­ture from his own pledges not to raise taxes. But as the gover­nor has im­plied by his own re­marks — “Much more must be done,” he said last month — there is sim­ply no other op­tion if Vir­ginia is go­ing to fix its bro­ken road sys­tem in the long term.

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