The Gadsden flag, from Wikipedia.

It’s time for Virginia residents to storm the harbor of their state capitol and throw the tea overboard. Last week, Governor Bob McDonnell signed a transportation bill that massively expands the hand of government and overrides local decisions about how communities should grow and change. How’s that for big government?

SB 639 has an unprecedented, frightening provision that lets the Commonwealth Transportation Board, appointed by the governor, override a city or county’s own plans. Localities will have to include transportation projects the state wants, no matter what the local residents of that area think.

It’s astounding to see this from a supposedly conservative governor and state legislature. One of the most common­sense principles of current conservative movements is smaller government.

The national, and Virginia, Tea Party holds as a fundamental principle that “Governing should be done at the most local level possible where it can be held accountable.” Individual counties and cities ought to be able to decide how they want to grow, or not grow. Loudoun, Charlottesville, and Roanoke should make these desicisions instead of the state government in Richmond.

Tea Party groups have been alarmed about “Agenda 21,” which they say is a United Nations plan to undermine property rights. There’s no UN conspiracy (though planners shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the underlying fears), but Virginia has a very real assault on liberty happening today. Call it Agenda 639.

Agenda 639, or Senate Bill 639 as passed into law, forces each county to match local transportation plans to dictates from the Commonwealth Transportation Board. If a locality doesn’t want a particular transportation project, too bad. If VDOT spends money on the project anyway and a county rejects it, they have to reimburse VDOT, even if the county never wanted the project in the first place.

That’s not all. Virginia has for many years used a formula to allocate transportation money to the various counties and cities. That gave local levels of government more say over their transportation. Agenda 639/SB 639 moves hundreds of millions of dollars out of the formula, giving the CTB unprecedented control of how it’s spent. The governor in Richmond will now have more power to spend tax money than local leaders. That’s the opposite of “the most local level possible.”

If Virginia’s small-government conservatives aren’t alarmed at this, they should be.

One of the debates on the national transportation bill is to what extent the federal government should mandate that states and localities spend money on specific types of projects, even if those are projects, like paving sidewalks, that many people support to improve safety and economic development of an area. 

The House transportation bill simply eliminates these set-asides. This has led many people in cities where people walk and bike in large numbers to worry that their state departments of transportation would refuse to fund such projects.

A bipartisan amendment from Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) found a common sense and small government approach to this issue: let local communities, or regional metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), choose how to spend the money themselves.

This is the right strategy for both liberals and conservatives. There’s little enthusiasm for making more transportation decisions in Washington. Even in Washington, we’d rather make the transportation decisions at 55 M Street, SE (the District Department of Transportation headquarters) than inside 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE (the US Department of Transportation), 2 blocks away.

Look at the saga over streetcar tracks on the 11th Street bridge. Federal regulations made it impossible for DC to put tracks on a bridge, a project local voters supported and would have paid for with local money. Too many transportation projects are too expensive and take too long because of federal rules.

Let’s get rid of many of these federal rules and give the power to “the most local level [of government] possible.” Transferring federal power to big state governments isn’t enough to advance liberty. Give the power to local counties and cities.

With this bill on his record, Bob McDonnell might well turn out to be Virginia’s most big-government governor ever. Let Northern Virginia decide what Northern Virginia wants, let Hampton Roads choose what’s best for Hampton Roads, and let the Appalachian west set its own course.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.