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Statehouse Beat: Who will pay for highways?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Apparently upset that the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways failed to find a pot of gold to pay for construction and maintenance of state roadways, a trio of Republican delegates -- Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan; Paul Espinosa, R- Jefferson; and Gary Howell R-Mineral -- announced they were heading down to Richmond to meet with Virginia House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, to discuss the Commonwealth's new transportation funding plan.

(As Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, points out, they could have an additional motivation, since in 2012, the Howell for Delegate Committee gave $10,000 to the West Virginia House PAC.)

Virginia is adopting a rather radical plan, shifting transportation funding away from the traditional gas tax formula to a system that primarily relies on about $640 million a year in new sales and use taxes.

The Virginia plan, as the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy's Ted Boettner adroitly points out, shifts the burden for paying for transportation funding away from drivers and onto low- and middle-income families, who are hardest hit by regressive sales taxes.

Boettner notes it also penalizes Virginians who are trying to reduce their transportation costs by carpooling, using mass transit, or walking to work, as well as those who have opted to live close to their workplaces to reduce commuting costs.

He writes: "So far, it appears that the Governor's Blue Ribbon Task Force is headed in the right direction by ensuring that out-of-state drivers pay their fair share and that we continue to tie our transportation funding to those that use our roads the most, while not placing an undue burden on those with the least ability to pay."

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Meanwhile, Chuck Riecks, chairman of Friends of the Cardinal and the West Virginia representative on the National Association of Railroad Passengers, will offer a different take on Virginia's transportation plan in a presentation he is to make this week at the state Council of Churches' Public Policy Forum.

While the governor's Blue Ribbon panel focused strictly on highways, Riecks notes that Virginia is embarking on a comprehensive transportation plan, with revenue from the state's new funding model going not just to build and maintain highways, but to expand other modes of transportation, including one closest to Riecks' heart, passenger rail service.

(Virginia leaders undoubtedly realized they could not pave their way out of traffic congestion problems in the state.)

Though a public/private partnership called Amtrak Virginia, Virginia helped fund new daily rail service from Norfolk, Richmond and Lynchburg to Washington, and recently announced that the Lynchburg route will be extended to Roanoke.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell announced last week that state ridership on Amtrak had doubled since 2009, to more than 1.6 million passengers in fiscal 2013, saying, "It is clear Virginians embrace the idea of passenger rail service."

Riecks' presentation also will cite a study showing that unlike Baby Boomers -- for whom getting a driver's license and a car was a rite of passage -- members of the Millennial Generation (persons 18 to 34) prefer public transportation, with 70 percent using public transportation several times per week. He also cites a report showing that 25 percent of college-age adults do not have drivers' licenses.

Before burdening the state with a $1 billion road bond issue, Riecks states, "We need to be working toward a transportation system that the upcoming generation -- you know, all those young people we constantly hear we need to be keeping in our state -- are really thinking about."

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Finally, having gotten a extensive background in railroads given his work with the Heartland Intermodal Gateway as executive director of the Wayne County Economic Development Authority, Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, sent along an interesting read about why railroad gauge (the distance between rails) adopted the unusual standard of 4 feet, 8.5 inches.

Long story oversimplified, American railroads adopted the gauge because it was the standard in England. Early railcar builders in England used that gauge because they used the same jigs and equipment they used to build wagons -- wagons that used the same dimension between wheels.

Wagons in England used that width because it was the only way to ride comfortably on rutted roads constructed during the occupation of Europe by imperial Rome, with ruts created by Roman chariots that traveled the roads hundreds of years earlier.

Seems that a Roman bureaucrat more than 2,000 years ago decreed that would be the standard wheel spacing for chariots, being the optimal width for a chariot pulled by two horses, side-by-side.

That ancient bureaucrat's decision continues to have impact to this day, including affecting the design of the most advanced transportation system built to date, the space shuttle.

The original shuttle design called for wider solid rocket boosters, but engineers for Thiokol had to scale back the design, since the boosters had to be shipped by rail from Utah to the Kennedy Space Center, and had to be able to clear tunnels along the way -- tunnels whose dimensions were determined by that four feet, 8.5 inch edict.

The moral of the story, or at least the version sent along by Delegate Perdue: "Horse's asses control almost everything ... "

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

 

 


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