Deeds Offers Smart Growth, McDonnell Offers Details
State Senator Creigh Deeds. Photo from Wikimedia.

State Senator Creigh Deeds. Photo from Wikimedia.

Now that there’s significantly more information available than a short AP article, I thought it might be useful to compare the fairly extensive transportation plans of the two candidates for governor of Virginia.

Let’s start with Bob McDonnell and really do it right this time. I think what’s really striking about the McDonnell transportation plan is the extent to which he is making procedural suggestions. It begins with an argument that the Kaine Administration has moved too slowly on transportation reforms and then segues into the four pillars of the McDonnell plan, which are all approaches: don’t be pro-transit or pro-highway, avoid regulations in order to move projects faster, plan on how to operate and maintain projects in addition to just building them, and ensure that funding sources are sustainable in the long-run. You have to go pages in to find precisely what McDonnell wants to get done in terms of transportation. In some ways, this is very smart; it acknowledges that legislation is a complicated and ugly process and that changing the rules is the point of maximum impact for a governor. At the same time, though, it’s very odd to see a politician talking more about how they’ll do things than what they will do.

When you get to McDonnell’s content, it’s really a mixed bag. He wants to shift funding for transportation away from tax revenue, or more specifically, away from things that seem like tax revenue. Money is, after all, fungible. Specifically, this means issuing $3 billion in bonds that have already been approved and seeking more bonds for congested areas (while promising not to pay the debt service with tax revenue), and then dedicated the first 1% of new revenue over 3% as well as 80% of any budget surplus to transportation. In addition, monies raised from privatizing the state liquor monopoly and from possible off-shore drilling will largely be dedicated to transportation. Privatizing liquor sales is a patently good idea; monopoly helps nobody and thankfully we’ve moved past Prohibition-era ideas about how best to regulate alcohol. Off-shore drilling revenue seems pretty pie-in-the-sky, on the other hand. What’s more, these funding ideas all seem to violate McDonnell’s “pillar” about sustainable funding. These are dedicated funding streams, but they are actually less sustainable. The reduction in budgeting flexibility and the prevalence in one-time cash infusions isn’t a good long-term plan.

The most interesting part of McDonnell’s transportation vision is a desire to devolve both administration and funding of transportation to regional accounts within VDOT. This includes ideas like using revenue capture near the Port of Virginia to fund port improvements as well as allowing Northern Virginia to keep 0.3% of sales tax revenue for local transportation spending. On the one hand, I can see this helping to staunch the flaw of all state governments, their eternal desire to spend more heavily on rural areas than on metropolitan areas. On the other, transportation is a network and the devolution of funding and decision-making can lead to the kinds of coordination problems that doom transportation projects across the county. I must say that as an urbanist I find this outlook very appealing but as a regionalist I find it worrying. The devil will be in the details, particularly as these policies interact with possible changes in funding for Fairfax as it either incorporates or uses incorporation as a negotiating chip for more spending autonomy.

Finally, though, McDonnell’s most concrete priorities are not particularly good for smart growth and sustainable transportation. There is an emphasis on HOT lanes, particularly between D.C. and Richmond. These are a good way of increasing revenue but aren’t going to really shift driving patterns. This is even more true for his idea of putting tolls on the inbound side of the North Carolina border (plus, why only the inbound side? There should be as many trips across the border in each direction, in the long run). Raising the speed limit on rural highways to 70 mph is a sacrifice in fuel efficiency.

At the narrower route-by-route level, there is no mention of transit whatsoever. McDonnell’s specific priorities, in his order, are “Widen I-66 in and out of Beltway; Complete, within budget and on time, rail to Dulles; Complete I-495 and I-395/95 HOT Lane Projects; Upgrade Route 460; Find consensus for Third Crossing and move forward; Build High Speed Passenger Rail; Improve I-81; Coalfields Expressway Completion.” This is heavily weighted towards highways, with the widening of I-66 the most egregious. That is precisely the kind of place where expanding the transit infrastructure around the Orange and Silver Lines rather than inducing demand for more lanes must be the priority. This is the kind of list that reflects the transportation ideas of 20 years ago, not of today. It won’t help get cars off the road.

Creigh Deeds’ plan is almost the polar opposite of McDonnell’s. While the priorities are far more in line with sustainable urbanism, the specifics really aren’t in place. For example, the first three priorities are bringing high speed rail to Virginia, expanding the traditional rail networks and getting the Silver Line to Dulles built. These are all very good goals, but Deeds doesn’t go too far beyond the specificity that I just did. On high speed rail, Deeds does discuss the need to put a spur going down to Hampton Roads, but most of these three planks talks in terms of “improving” or “expanding” or simply making sure that the Silver Line happens on time. Particularly on the Silver Line, where there is a host of things that need to be done around its construction to make sure that it has the maximum impact, I’d like to see more detail. The same is true for plank four, which praises smart growth, particularly Gov. Kaine’s creation of Urban Development Areas and a Subcabinet on Community Investment, but doesn’t say what the next step is.

Deeds then calls for better oversight of VDOT, a worthy goal that McDonnell also discusses. There’s definitely room for improvement there. Next Deeds calls for a $1200 tax credit to employers for each teleworking employee. This comes with a promise to reduce congestion by 5% per year of the Deeds governorship. McDonnell also mentioned teleworking, but I liked Deeds’ provision of a hard number for the tax credit and more importantly, a hard goal that he either will or will not meet each year. Those kinds of metrics lead to good governance. 5% per year is also an ambitious number, so good for Deeds on that one.

Points seven, eight and ten are upgrade the Port of Virginia, completing the Coalfields Expressway and expanding the capacity of the Hampton Roads connectors. I don’t think that these are particularly controversial, so I’ll move on to point nine, which is support of light rail or bus rapid transit. Since McDonnell really ignores transit entirely, this is an important difference to focus on. Deeds touts his support for transit in general and light rail in Norfolk specifically. This is really important and something for which Deeds should be praised.

Finally, it should be noted that Deeds’ transportation plan is a section in his “Plan to Jumpstart Virginia’s Economy” while McDonnell gives transportation its own issue heading. I do think that kind of thing is often revealing of how people approach the issue, so take it as you will.

To sum up, I’d say that Bob McDonnell has offered a very procedural, fairly detailed look at how to fund a traditional transportation infrastructure that will continue our dependence on sprawl and automobiles. Creigh Deeds has provided a very good outline for what a smart growth Virginia needs, but would be well-served by filling in the level of detail that McDonnell offers.

Obviously, this is in no way an endorsement of either candidate.

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