Photo by woofiegrrl on Flickr.
Governor McDonnell released a transportation plan for Virginia yesterday, which essentially boils down to: take away money from future generations, and use it to build only roads today.
Most of McDonnell’s plan involves borrowing money. He wants to issue $1.8 billion in bonds backed by the state, and then another $1.1 billion in GARVEE bonds, which borrow against future federal transportation aid.
And what does he want to spend it on? The only thing he mentioned in his speech was: roads, roads and roads. “This is the best opportunity in modern Virginia history to build roads,” he said.
What about transit, pedestrian and bike facilities, and more? Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton promised to devise a list of specific projects, and perhaps McDonnell was oversimplifying in his speech, but it’d be a big surprise if his final list includes more than token transit and bike-ped projects.
Virginia is not sure how to pay for the second phase of the Silver Line, but it’s a good bet that widening freeways will come far before that or any other rail projects.
Borrowing in this way, of course, essentially means spending future decades’ transportation money. From McDonnell’s point of view, why not? He won’t be governor. The easiest way to get credit for starting a lot of projects when he has no money is to spend future governors’ money.
Maryland got itself into a real pickle with very aggressive use of GARVEE bonds for the Intercounty Connector. They dedicated federal money to that project, but then the economy tanked and local tax receipts dropped. Since they’d bonded for the ICC, they couldn’t stop that project, and instead had to cut maintenance on most existing local roads.
And like the District, Virginia is getting into risky territory already with its level of debt. McDonnell argues that low interest rates and the cost of construction make now a particularly good time to borrow, but his priorities are remarkably narrow.
The McDonnell administration also released a ““Multimodal Strategic Plan” for transportation. The plan does lay out a vision including transit, biking, walking and more, but has no specifics on how to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile, McDonnell wants to take control of Metro to bring in “accountability.” If he gets it, how soon will it be until he suddenly discovers some ways for Virginia to cut its contributions to Metro so it can build even more roads?
Added: Borrowing money per se is not necessarily bad. However, that borrowing needs to be tied to some economic development goal that will increase the tax base enough to pay for it, or other revenue increases need to be found to pay for it. McDonnell is simultaneously arguing that Virginia should borrow money, but opposing any means of raising revenue to pay for it. He’s just kicking the problem down the road.
And while creating sprawl will generate some economic activity to grow the tax base, those roads will have to be maintained, forcing revenue increases later as well. And it’s the wrong land use pattern for Virginia, which is the bigger issue.