No confidence in the plan

Published 10:33 pm Thursday, January 24, 2013

It’s hard to blame the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce for supporting Gov. Bob McDonnell’s proposed plan for a sales tax increase to support Virginia highway construction.

The Chamber has been in favor of just about every plan that has been put forward to raise money to solve the commonwealth’s seemingly intractable transportation-funding problems. A 2002 referendum to increase the sales tax in Hampton Roads and devote that money to transportation improvements got strong support from the Chamber, which lobbied hard on its behalf, only to find that the public was against it by nearly a two-to-one margin. Likewise, the Chamber put its weight behind a 2007 bill to set up regional transportation authorities in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia that was later found to be unconstitutional by the Virginia Supreme Court.

The Chamber of Commerce wants to see something happen to break the impasse in Richmond that has resulted in Virginia coming perilously close to running out of money to do anything for roads beyond the most basic maintenance of those that already exist. Gridlocked traffic hurts business, and Chamber of Commerce officials clearly would cast their lot with just about any plan that promises to ease the legislative gridlock that fetters the business interests of Virginia’s largest commercial regions.

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Even as Gov. McDonnell traveled around the state on Thursday to make the case for his proposal to increase the state’s sales tax by 0.8 cents, repeal the gas tax and devote a portion of Virginia’s revenue growth to transportation, a Chamber representative made a similar pitch to business leaders in Suffolk.

But in a question-and-answer session that followed Chamber Municipal Affairs Director Dean McClain’s presentation to the Suffolk Rotary Club, it became clear that the uncertainties surrounding McDonnell’s proposal are too great for some business leaders to accept. A case in point was the question about what assurance there would be that gas prices would fall if the state’s 17.5-cent gas tax were eliminated. McClain admitted there was no way to know how or even if oil companies pricing structures would change with the removal of the gas tax.

For people in Suffolk, there’s even less room for optimism, as the governor’s proposed list of transportation projects to be funded with the revenue from his plan skips the city completely. There’s no mention of helping the city widen Route 58 to alleviate the traffic from the warehousing and distribution industry that is increasingly calling the city home. There’s no mention of rebuilding the King’s Highway Bridge.

There was a sense of resignation and frustration among those attending the Suffolk Rotary Club meeting on Thursday, evidenced by one person who asked McClain whether he believes legislators will do anything — other than allowing more roads to be tolled — to change the commonwealth’s road-funding formulas before the state runs out of money for highways, an event that is projected to take place in 2017 or 2018. McClain replied that he believes something will be done, but his demeanor seemed to imply a serious lack of confidence in the answer.

The people of Hampton Roads, facing tolls on all their harbor crossings in the near future, as well as a toll on the proposed new Route 460, have little reason to feel any more confident than McClain. Unfortunately, neither the governor’s plan nor the political maneuvering that has surrounded its reception in Richmond give them any reason to be less skeptical about the future of transportation in Virginia.