Our View: Running on empty

Posted: October 23, 2012

Quietly, as if on little cat’s feet last week, the Commonwealth Transportation Board doled out the last remaining dollars currently available for major road-building in the state when it gave its imprimatur to a $1.4 billion public-private plan to construct a 55-mile tolled stretch of U.S. 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg.

What does this mean? For starters, as the Daily Press in Newport News reported last week, that no big-ticket road projects can be funded without a significant influx of new revenue, whether public or private. Not only has the construction kitty run dry five years earlier than anticipated — 2017 was that much-publicized date — but the state’s bonding capacity has bumped up against the 5 percent limit that enables Virginia to keep its cherished AAA credit rating.

“The CTB awarded . . . the last dollars,” Aubrey Layne, a Hampton Roads representative on the board, told the Daily Press. “There are no more available and there is no more bonding authority . . . We don’t deficit finance. We’ve used all our resources.”

What remains in the transportation fund has already been earmarked for existingconstruction and maintenance projects. That translates to a hold on all major new and/or envisioned road-building endeavors, not only in Mr. Layne’s congested bailiwick but also, say, here in the Northern Valley and elsewhere.

Mr. Layne credits Gov. McDonnell’s transportation plan for getting the ball rolling and the machinery moving on several critical projects, but hints that the General Assembly now needs to do its part, presumably on the revenue side.

Of this the Legislature seems well-aware. Del. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, vice chair of the House Transportation panel, says roads will be a “major topic” at the 2013 Assembly session. Critical to this discussion, he said, is getting all pertinent information and options before state residents.

“We can’t borrow anymore,” Mr. Cosgrove added. “We’re going to have to make some fundamental decisions of where we want transportation to go and how to pay for it. Tolls are becoming more and more prevalent, and I’m not sure that is what citizens want. But we’ve got to pay for projects some way.”

That we most certainly do — unless we want the state to, literally and figuratively, stand still on roads, something at which the business community might look askance. So what will it be, lawmakers — more tolls, a greater infusion of private money . . . or higher taxes, whether on sales or fuel?