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Column: General Assembly Goes Off a Cliff

The General Assembly adjourned sine die last week with a great sigh of relief from most everyone who participates in or follows its deliberations. Pre-session survey and hearing results suggested that the session would be about traffic congestion relief, expanding job opportunities, and strengthening the economy. Instead, the expanded Republican majority in the House, a slim Republican majority in the Senate by virtue of the Lieutenant Governor being able to cast votes to break ties, and a Republican Governor set about a broad social agenda that consumed the time of the legislature that finally ended past midnight last Tuesday with the rejection of a judicial candidate because of his sexual orientation. I had to leave the session early because of illness and could not vote on any of the judges. As I had the Clerk record in the House Journal, I would have voted for Tracy Thorne-Begland had I been present.

There is no better example of the way the General Assembly missed the point this legislative session than a review of its handling of traffic congestion as an issue. Jeffrey C. Southard, a veteran General Assembly watcher and currently Executive Vice President of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, wrote an article that appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch newspaper and the April issue of Virginia Town and City about the legislature "ignoring the fact that investment in our transportation infrastructure is critical for jobs, economic development, mobility, connectivity and safety."

As Southard explains the results of 26 years of inaction on the part of the legislature to address Virginia traffic congestion that in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads is among the worst in the nation, there is no more construction money for secondary roads, and there are more than 5,000 structurally deficient or functionally obsolete bridges. Our per capita spending on transportation has dropped to 42nd in the nation. Our gasoline tax at 17.5 cents per gallon is lower than 39 other states including our neighbors.

A recent television advertisement from the Governor says that we have made the biggest ever financial investment in transportation. What he fails to mention is that it is all borrowed money, and it has to be paid back with interest. Our debt service payment in 2012 is $314 million and in three years will be $421 million. The tolls that are being talked about in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia are well beyond an acceptable level. Governor McDonnell promised a proposal for a dedicated source of revenue this legislative session, but his plan to sell naming rights for bridges and roads will bring in less than $25 million per year.

Southard reminds us of "Thelma and Louise" who drove off a cliff to keep from getting caught. He poses the question, will the General Assembly "turn, face and fix the problems of the past or will they drive the Commonwealth off the cliff?" His focus is transportation; others are focused on different issues. A clear Republican majority controls Richmond. Will they take us off the cliff?