The Commonwealth continues to avoid its responsibility to address its transportation needs. While we cannot “build our way out of our problems,” we are inadequately funding transportation in all areas, from road construction to transit to rail.
The Virginia Department of Transportation plans to spend approximately $1.6 billion on construction this year and $1.8 billion on road maintenance of state monies a year. The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance estimates that the Commonwealth needs to provide an additional $1.6 billion annually to address statewide construction and maintenance needs. Since road maintenance is the first priority for funding in Virginia, and since revenue has not been sufficient to pay for our maintenance needs, we have been transferring funds from construction to maintenance (almost $500 million in fiscal year 2012). According to VDOT, in our 57,867-miler road network we presently have 5,032 lane-miles of our primary highways which are in poor condition, 27,166 lane-miles of our secondary roads in poor condition, and 1,730 of our bridges which are structurally defect.
Our failure as a state to invest sufficiently in transportation means that we will soon be unable to access federal monies available for road construction that require a certain level of state matching funds. Even State Transportation secretary Sean Connaughton says that by 2017, we will have no money left for road construction in Virginia. The result will be that our businesses will face increasing problems, especially in Northern Virginia, in moving their products to market, and our citizens will experience more frustration with congestion.
The General Assembly recently authorized the acceleration and issuance of approximately $3 billion in transportation bonds to take advantage of low interest rates and provide some immediate construction dollars for 900 projects across the state.
While this influx of funding will help move some projects forward, the Commonwealth remains without a long-term plan and revenue source for addressing our funding shortage. I believe we need to find ways to raise consistent annual revenue through the levying of user fees like raising the gas tax or tolls. Virginia has a lower gas tax than any of our bordering states at 17.5 cents/gallon and has not increased it since the 1980s. Raising the gas tax by just 1 cent would generate an additional $52 million annually.
I am pleased to be a part of a coalition that secured funding for the very successful Amtrak train that runs through Charlottesville from Lynchburg through the Northeast corridor. Though it is one of the most successful trains in the Commonwealth in terms of ridership, we are approaching the end of its pilot project funding and will have to continue to work to ensure dedicated state funds to keep this train operating.
While I support building roads where appropriate and consistent with community needs, I do not believe that road construction alone will solve all problems of traffic congestion. In an era when vehicle travel in Virginia has increased, we need to look not only at asphalt but also at trip reduction, better planning, and support public transit and bicycling. I support greater efforts to encourage telecommuting, smarter development patterns, better transit, and bicycling alternatives.