A smart plan for new roads

Published 8:40 pm Wednesday, January 26, 2011

During his first year in office, Gov. Bob McDonnell has demonstrated strong leadership in addressing several key challenges across the Commonwealth. Working in a bipartisan manner with the General Assembly, he has placed priority emphasis on securing Virginia’s future economic prosperity, focusing on job creation, economic development and transportation.

It is well known that Virginia faces a transportation crisis. Nearly 2 million jobs are fully dependent on the state’s transportation network. And it is a network that continues to suffer from a lack of funding over the past two decades. That is why we believe Gov. McDonnell’s plan to pump $4 billion into our roads over the next three years represents a major step forward for the Commonwealth, and deserves broad support.

Over the past decade transportation funding has been stagnant, while the Commonwealth’s population has grown to over 8 million. We can see the result in the backups and delays that punctuate too many daily commutes. Our future prosperity depends upon our ability to ensure that goods, services and people can move freely and safely from point A to point B.

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The Governor’s plan will jumpstart the effort to get serious about transportation in the state. It will also create immediate jobs while securing the Commonwealth ’s attractiveness as a place for business.

While it contains many parts, one of the chief components is a common-sense proposal to accelerate the sale of previously authorized bonds, and issue federal bonds that don’t count against state debt capacity. The present very low interest rates make these bonds an attractive way to deal with the state’s transportation challenges.

Governor McDonnell has asked the General Assembly to issue, over the next three years, $1.8 billion in state revenue-backed bonds that were approved by an overwhelming majority of Democrats and Republicans in 2007. These bonds already count against Virginia’s existing debt capacity. By speeding up their sale, we can lock in projects at historically low prices.

The Governor is also calling for updating Virginia code to allow the Commonwealth to utilize $1.1 billion in federal GARVEE bonds, federally authorized bonds sold to finance a specific capital project. In the case of these bonds, the state will use federal transportation funds to pay the debt service.

That’s nearly $3 billion to improve our roads in the Commonwealth, today. The other benefit? It is estimated that every $100 million in transportation construction equals 3,000 new jobs. In the middle of a tough economy, when our citizens need the work, there is no excuse to delay the issuance of pre-authorized bonds that can be used to get Virginians back to work, move goods around our state more efficiently, and get commuters back home quicker. Further, VDOT already has the money necessary for debt service for these bonds.

We understand that there are concerns from some that the issuance of these bonds would represent excessive borrowing by the Commonwealth. That could not be further from the truth.

Virginia’s non-partisan Debt Capacity Advisory Committee recently updated the Commonwealth’s debt capacity model by an 8-2 vote to reflect new sources of income and a smoothing of capital project outlays over time. However, the model stays within the previously established limit of 5 percent of debt service to blended revenues over the 10-year horizon.

The Governor’s proposals stay firmly within the limits of the debt capacity model. Wall Street bond rating firms have been briefed on the changes to the debt capacity model and understand them. Democratic State Senator Edd Houck accompanied the governor to visit the major bond rating firms in Manhattan recently and told his local paper, “There were no questions raised about the proposed change, in fact, they fully understand that this proposal is really not changing the debt-capacity model, it’s really just leveling it out over 10 years.” The fact is, none of the governor’s transportation proposals will increase Virginia’s total authorized tax-supported debt.

This Governor and the General Assembly have demonstrated what is possible when states employ fiscally conservative practices to navigate through tough economic periods. They cut $4.2 billion from this current budget by reducing state spending to 2006 levels, and not raising taxes. Their commitment to fiscal discipline, keeping taxes low and setting budgetary priorities is making the commonwealth a national leader.

The Governor’s transportation proposals will get roads built today, not years down the road, and put Virginians back to work in this tough economy — all while keeping the commonwealth within the limits of its tax supported debt. This is a commonsense transportation plan that Virginia needs, and we strongly support it.

John Luke, MeadWestvaco

Thomas Farrell, Dominion Resources

Bobbie Kilberg, Northern Virginia Technology Council

Raymond DeStephan, Schnabel Engineering

Philip Shucet, Hampton Roads Transit

W. Barry Bryant, Bryant Contracting Inc.

Ab Boxley, Boxley Inc.

Jeffrey Southard, Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance

J. William Karbach, The Branch Group

Ken Lanford, Lanford Brothers

Mark Romer, James River Equipment

Charles Luck IV, Luck Stone

Gary Wright, Adams Construction Co.

Stuart Patterson, Branscome Inc.

John Batzel, Carter Machinery

This opinion piece was originally printed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on Jan. 23, 2010.