RICHMOND — When it comes to the nitty-gritty of Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s transportation-funding fix, state Sen. John C. Watkins isn’t a big fan.
Getting rid of the gas tax? Taking money that could be used for schools or health care? Betting on Congress to pass an Internet sales tax bill? The Powhatan Republican has doubts about all of it.
Still, just days after McDonnell (R) unveiled his plan, Watkins took to the Senate floor to applaud the governor for offering a solution and urge colleagues to work with him.
“All 40 of us need to find solutions,” Watkins told his Senate colleagues.
“They’ve also got to be solutions that at least 51 people on the other end of this dark hall can go along with,” he continued, referring to House members. “And I think if we come up with a solution, [McDonnell] will go with us because he knows that the economic vitality of this state and the quality of life in this state is at stake.”
Less than two weeks after the governor announced his transportation-funding proposal, the General Assembly has not fully embraced the particulars. But Richmond seems to be heeding the governor’s challenge to solve an issue that has vexed Virginia for nearly a generation.
A number of factors seem to be conspiring to prod lawmakers into action this session. One is the shrinking availability of funds for road repairs, which has made rural areas more aware of what urban areas have long considered a funding crisis. Another is the approach of 2017, when officials say the state will be out of money to build new roads. And there’s a popular governor, with national ambitions and a legacy to burnish, putting the issue on the front burner. Not to mention the fact that McDonnell will be gone in a year, quite possibly replaced by a successor more partisan and less likely to engineer a compromise.
“The governor’s proposal is so bold and so new that it’s been able to move the debate to a dialogue,” said Sean T. Connaughton, the state transportation secretary.
McDonnell’s plan tries to claim a middle ground between paying for roads with increased taxation or with revenue the state already has. He eliminates the gas tax but also raises the sales tax; he redirects some existing state revenue but increases some motor-vehicle fees.
In a rare move that underscores the urgency of the issue, Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) is sponsoring the governor’s plan in the House of Delegates. It is one of just four that list him as chief patron this year.
Other legislators have stepped up with transportation plans of their own, and at least eight bills are in the mix, an indication that state government is focused on transportation if not yet wedded to a particular approach.
For decades, regional, partisan and philosophical divides have stalled efforts to devise a long-term funding method for roads. In heavily congested Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, there have been calls for more funding. But rural areas were largely content as long as their roads were maintained.
“My gosh, you go to other parts of the state and you have these beautiful four-lane highways that at rush hour you can count the cars on one hand,” said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), the House majority whip. “And so why would those legislators think there’s a problem?”
As maintenance funding shrunk in recent years, rural areas started taking note of the dearth of road dollars, said Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), a former state transportation secretary.
“Statewide, people are beginning to feel the pain that we in Northern Virginia have been feeling for more than a decade,” Watts said.
Even those who agreed on the need for more funding disagreed on where to get it. In the General Assembly, Democrats have mostly favored raising taxes to pay for roads, and most Republicans have wanted to use existing revenue. But the issue does not break perfectly along partisan lines. As recently as last year, moderate Republicans joined with Democrats in the evenly split Senate to reject plans to take a greater share of general-fund money to pay for roads.
The rise of the tea party and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist have stiffened opposition, especially among Republicans, to any plan that depends on a major increase in state revenue. But with funds drying up, there’s a sense at the state Capitol that the time has come to solve the problem.
The political landscape has added to that the sense of urgency. The major-party candidates running to succeed McDonnell — former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe (D) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) — are seen as strongly partisan figures. Some legislators have said they doubt that McAuliffe could move the GOP-dominated House or that tea party favorite Cuccinelli could sway the more moderate Senate. And neither candidate has well-known ideas about transportation funding.