Today’s Courier Herald Column:
6 Months can be a lifetime in politics. At the end of July, the most talked about political topic was transportation, and how Georgia would pay for it. Many state legislators, feeling the heat for the Frankenstein-like transportation funding mechanism that they put before the people, ran away from their own “solution”, insisting they would be back before the legislature this session with a better plan.
Actual solutions, however, tend to cost money. They also require an investment of time, political capital, and some sense of vision where the state needs to go. With transportation planning, all of the above seem to be in short supply.
Virginia’s Governor, Bob McDonnell, has proposed a significant revision to the funding formula for his state’s transportation network. He plans to scrap his state’s tax on gasoline altogether and replace it with a .8% increase in the state’s sales tax. Taxes on diesel fuel – mostly used by large trucks which are the cause for a majority of the ongoing required road maintenance – will remain in place. And a bit more curiously, he plans on initiating a new $100 annual fee for alternative fuel vehicles citing the fact that they don’t contribute to the federal gas taxes which will remain and thus aren’t paying their fair share towards transportation projects.
McDonnell’s plan may carry some political risks, but it at least attempts to articulate how to deal with transportation needs of a rapidly growing state in the face of projected declines in motor fuel taxes due to significantly increased fuel efficiency. As manufacturers are making cars with significantly higher fuel economy ratings then they were just 10 years ago, consumers have also changed the mix of vehicles we purchase favoring smaller vehicles and less large truck and SUV models. The less gas that is purchased, the fewer dollars will be collected by the state and federal government via gas taxes to fund transportation.
McDonnell’s vision offers much more than bigger and wider roads. Virginians are now well accustomed to various forms of transit. Those that live in the northern part of the state routinely use subway, commuter rail, or intercity rail on a regular basis. Passenger rail is not limited just to the D.C. area, however, as it connects Lynchburg, Richmond, and Norfolk. The D.C. Metro subway system is being expanded yet again, and Virginia Beach is also adding light rail.
McDonnell – a Republican – notes that this increased dependence on passenger rail “requires greater financial support from the commonwealth”. He proposes a new $15 fee for each annual vehicle renewal to be devoted to passenger rail and transit.
Six months ago, a proposal like this from another Southeastern Republican Governor would likely have involved serious discussion from Georgia’s leaders who always like to use the word “competitiveness” when searching for reasons to justify their agenda. Today, T-SPLOST is better forgotten in the minds of state leaders as they do not want to remind voters how angry they were just two seasons ago. They would prefer we not notice that little is being done to provide a framework and vision to solve problems that we were told by those same leaders were critical to our economic future during the last campaign.
True, Georgia and Virginia are not similar in their attitudes or acceptance toward rail. They do, however, share the same long term problem with the current funding structure for transportation. Whether the state continues to travel down a policy path directed to roads or opens it up to state support of some form of rail, the relative dollars available to fund any initiatives will dwindle due to continued increases in fuel efficiency.
As such, Georgia is now not just challenged with creating and projecting a vision of what needs to be done to keep our transportation infrastructure current. We must now begin to seriously consider what must be done in order to keep funding even on its current inadequate pace, if not be so bold as to try and figure out a politically acceptable way to increase it.