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Cuccinelli’s plan to hand over road oversight to counties raises financial and practical questions.
Monday, October 28, 2013
Republican Ken Cuccinelli is not a devotee of subdued, nuanced policy proposals. Although he opposed this year’s major transportation funding legislation, that hasn’t discouraged him from rolling out a plan to overhaul the commonwealth’s road system, handing over duties for secondary road construction and maintenance to county governments.
It’s a bolder and more detailed proposal than anything offered by Democrat Terry McAuliffe. But the real question is whether it’s a good idea. Based on what he’s proposed so far, it is not.
Cuccinelli says he would distribute state aid in the form of block grants to counties using existing revenues. He maintains that the funding would be equivalent to existing expenditures, but that’s a low bar.
Spending on secondary roads remains well below pre-recession levels.
It’s also unclear whether his commitment to level funding necessarily means that every county would be held harmless. Cuccinelli’s plan calls for a new formula that is heavy on congestion measures such as population, number of licensed drivers and volume of vehicles, although he says he also will consider economic development potential.
The latter is key for rural parts of the state if they hope to hold their ground in transportation resources.
None of that inspires confidence among county officials, who also know that the rules can change. Cities and towns already handle road maintenance, but in recent months state leaders have discussed changes in the funding formula that would reduce local decision-making and allow the Commonwealth Transportation Board to set priorities. Further, state aid for urban roads is inadequate. A study by the Virginia Department of Transportation this summer found that 71 of 86 localities reviewed spend their own dollars to supplement state funding.
Cuccinelli’s plan also raises practical questions about whether decentralized authority for roads is desirable. It’s true that counties in most states control and maintain their roads. But most states with decentralized road responsibilities do not have independent cities. Local governments elsewhere are better able to coordinate on transportation needs and other issues.
It’s also true that most states impose fewer restrictions on local governments. In Virginia, such limitations mean that localities are heavily dependent on real estate taxes. It’s unfair to burden homeowners further by forcing them to underwrite paving, mowing and snow shoveling. Doing so would also deepen disparities that exist, most visibly in the public education system.
Cuccinelli acknowledges the problem by proposing to phase in so-called devolution, starting with the largest counties, and he would exempt the smallest counties that lack manpower and resources. But that would lead to a patchwork of road maintenance systems less efficient than the status quo.
Change for change’s sake may seem like a good idea on the campaign trail. But good governance demands that change be based on well-defined goals and solid planning. Cuccinelli’s devolution proposal doesn’t pass that test.
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