The roots of the transportation compromise found? Plus: Cuccinelli’s reservations about the whole thing

While mining my archives for Republican reactions to Sen. Creigh Deeds infamous call for higher gas taxes during the 2009 gubernatorial campaign — and finding plenty — I also came across what may be the genesis of the current transportation funding bill.

The basic ideas for a wholesale tax and an increased sales tax are all discussed in this 2010 article written by the former Chairman of Virginia’s Commonwealth Transportation Board, Ray Pethtel. The piece describes how the state can raise a billion dollars a year to address the transportation crisis — including a wholesale gas tax, sales taxes and regional taxing authority. If you have the time, read it in full to see just how much of the current plan before lawmakers owes its existence to Mr. Pethel’s pen.

At the time Pethel’s article was published, I asked the Heritage Foundation’s transportation expert, Ron Utt, for his thoughts. They were rather pointed:

Among the problems common to most such exercises is that the alleged needs are never specified in any detail, nor is there any indication as to how the additional money would address these needs. Instead, in five different parts of his article Mr. Pethtel contends that “everyone… agrees” or that “there seems to be general agreement…” or that “I’ll assume that there is agreement…” on the need for an additional one billion dollars per year for transportation. This absence of any meaningful detail is particularly important with current transportation programs throughout the nation which operate on an objective-less management scheme, and where political influence and constituent pandering largely guide spending decisions. Mr. Pethtel quite correctly identifies congestion as the chief problem confronting Virginia’s urban areas, and as a threat to our collective prosperity, but cost effective congestion mitigation is not an important goal of either VDOT or of any of the state’s metropolitan planning organizations.

Nor is it a part of the current compromise bill. But back to Dr. Utt:

The successful implementation of any of these options requires that voters and motorists are as stupid as Governor Kaine and the General Assembly assumed them to be when they enacted HB 3202. This assumption turned out to be terribly wrong, and that bill has become something of a legislative corpse – the body is dead but the hair keeps growing. A better bet might be to treat the voters with respect instead of contempt, and demonstrate to them that the government of Virginia can be rendered capable of providing quality services for taxes paid. That hasn’t been the case over the past eight years, and voters quite correctly chose not to waste hard earned money on empty promises and policies based upon privilege.

The challenge for the new governor is to demonstrate that the future will be different than the past.

If this compromise bill should win legislative approval — which is likely, if Democrats agree to fill the gaps left by Republican defectors in the House and Senate — we will then be witness to a great experiment: will putting more money into the existing road system produce better results?

I have my doubts, but am willing to let the experiment run.

Another person who has some concerns about the bill is Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. In my radio interview with him (which you can catch this weekend on these stations), the Republican gubernatorial nominee told me this:

I have my concerns about what’s going to come out of here, I think that it’s anybody’s guess. I wouldn’t call it a rolling wreck yet, although I guess if you just use the Senate and the House bills as the outer limits I think there’s cause to be concerned. But at the same time, they aren’t limited to that and I do think that the House passed their bill initially simply to keep it alive, not so much because they were enamored with the bill as it stood as a final product. So we’ll have to see how that goes.

I also think you’re going to see, whether you see it in this bill or whether you see it from my campaign, there’s going to be some effort at decentralization. We have this problem with transportation that is fairly simple, and that is that we control it all from the center. We’re one of only four states to do that. And that’s not a particularly conservative approach…

So I think we’re going to need to see some spin-off authority, and whether that happens in this bill or not I don’t know. But we will certainly be coming forward with some discussion of that in the governor’s race.

The House-Senate compromise treats the symptoms of the transportation problem with the ointment of money. Cuccinelli appears ready to address the underlying disease — the Byrd system of road construction and maintenance — with surgery.

Let’s just hope the patient is prepared for both.