Investing today for a better tomorrow

When I ran for governor, I pledged that I would dedicate myself to making Virginia a jobs magnet. Our slogan was simple: Bob’s for Jobs. And that’s been my focus since we took office in January 2010.

When I took office, Virginians were struggling with 7.2 percent unemployment, a stagnant economy, uncertainty from Washington and a $6 billion budget shortfall. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work on day one. We cut the size of government significantly by reducing spending to 2006 levels without raising taxes. In fact, from fiscal 2007 to fiscal 2013, general spending (not including deposits into our Rainy Day Fund) grew at an average annual rate of one-tenth of 1 percent, well below inflation and population growth. Working across the aisle, my administration pushed smart reforms and invested strategically in common-sense job-creating policies. We saved millions by incentivizing savings instead of rewarding waste. We reduced entangling regulations and used technology to deliver services more effectively at lower cost. Virginia moved from 35th in the nation to the third-highest state in net new job growth in the first year of our administration. Today, unemployment in Virginia stands at 5.5 percent — the lowest in the Southeast, second lowest east of the Mississippi, and the lowest unemployment rate in the Commonwealth in four years.

This effort to help the private sector create good work for our citizens has not been easy. But we weren’t sent here to avoid the tough problems. And that’s why, this past session of the General Assembly, we came together to solve one of Virginia’s longest-standing challenges: transportation. With the legislation passed two weeks ago, Virginia now has the first long-term transportation funding plan passed in 27 years. It came just in time.

Study after study, ranking after ranking, showed that Virginia’s transportation funding problem was quickly becoming worse, as our roads and bridges were crumbling faster than we could afford to repair them. Northern Virginia has the most congested roads in the nation, increasingly a deterrent to economic development. A Texas A&M Transportation Institute study released earlier this year estimates that congestion costs Northern Virginia commuters nearly $1,400 per year and 67 hours per year on average sitting in traffic. Our residents know all too well the cost our dated transportation network extracts from each of us in lost time, money and added frustration. And our failure to address this problem was adding up to lost job-creation opportunities. It was unacceptable.

For nearly 30 years, we had talked about the problem while our transportation network became increasingly insufficient to meet the growing demands of our citizens. Over the past three years, we used every tool the legislature gave us to move forward on transportation. Unfortunately, even after taking every step we could to fund transportation, we still faced the reality that Virginia’s transportation network was relying on an archaic source of revenue — the gas tax.

The 17.5-cents-per gallon gas tax is worth less than half of what it was when instituted in 1986. In the last 10 years alone, the price of asphalt has gone up 350 percent. Virginia’s budget for new construction was being devoured by the cost of maintenance. As Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards go up and cars consume less and less gasoline while inflicting the same damage to our roads, further tying our transportation funding to the gas tax was becoming increasingly unwise and untenable. It added up to a simple and unavoidable math problem. Virginia was broke. And with no money left to build new roads, our economic competitiveness was at risk.

The first-in-the-nation legislation passed by Virginia’s General Assembly last month solves the problem. It moves the source of Virginia’s transportation funding away from the declining gas tax to other revenues that will grow with the economy. All told, the plan will provide more than $3.5 billion in new revenue for transportation over the next five years and will result in the creation of thousands of jobs — all while making Virginia’s gas tax the lowest in the continental United States. Thousands of much-needed road, rail and mass-transit projects across the Commonwealth will be jumpstarted as a result.

The plan is the first comprehensive transportation solution to pass both the House and Senate since 1986. The bill is not perfect. There are elements of the bill I disagree with and elements that others might not prefer as well, but it is a good compromise that finally solves the problem after nearly three decades of delay.

In 1983, Ronald Reagan signed legislation that raised the gas tax by 125 percent. He did it because, as he said at the time, “We simply cannot allow this magnificent [transportation] system to deteriorate beyond repair … The bridges and highways we fail to repair today will have to be rebuilt tomorrow at many times the cost.” Reagan was right. We must prudently invest in transportation infrastructure today for the sake of our economy tomorrow. That is what we have done in Virginia. We found common ground to provide the transportation solution Virginia needs and Virginians deserve. And it will mean more good-paying jobs for our citizens, and a stronger economy, in the years ahead.

The Virginia Way means finding solutions that will improve quality of life in the Commonwealth and make life better for our citizens. We choose results over rhetoric. It’s amazing the difference 100 miles can make.

McDonnell is the 71st governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.