Devolution: Another Short-Term Solution for Transportation
Devolution was a word people thought they were finished hearing from Richmond for a while, but it turns out it was just biding its time to re-enter the picture. The current budget deadlock in Richmond has brought the issue back into the discussion, if not front-and-center.
On its face, the proposal seems to be perfectly sensible: give localities in Northern Virginia direct control over the maintenance of the secondary roads which are currently owned by the county but maintained by the state Department of Transportation. Redundancies would be removed and process for improving and maintaining roads would be simplified, thus leading to an increase in overall quality of the road system in an area which desperately needs it. However, as is so often the case, the issue has been oversimplified. Turning over control of the secondary road system to the counties is not merely an issue of jurisdiction. Were that the case the issue would have been decided a long time ago (and it would still remain with the state; counties, by Virginia law, are political subdivisions of the state and not independent entities).
The issue of transportation in northern Virginia is not merely a question of jurisdiction. It is a question of money and the amount necessary to properly maintain the complex infrastructure in place in the region. Many will point to Fairfax County’s status as the economic engine of the Commonwealth as proof that it could handle the burden of transportation maintenance funding. A casual glance at the county’s operating budget, which is projected to contain almost 3.5 billion in revenues would seem to add credence to this argument. Once again, this oversimplifies the issue. Fairfax County, as well as the other localities in the northern Virginia region, have to devote their budgets to carrying out not only transportation needs, but critical services such as public safety, education, healthcare and more. Already in the case of Fairfax, departing County Executive Anthony Griffin has said that revenues coming into the county are expected to be less than expenses for the foreseeable future. To add yet more responsibilities onto the counties, without providing the additional revenue which would be necessary to cover the newly incurred costs, amounts to little more than an abdication of responsibility by the state government.
Virginia is not a collection of independent counties. It is a Commonwealth, distinguished from a state for the simple reason that resources are pooled together and then allocated to areas where they are most needed. This is done for the simple reason that sometimes, an individual entity cannot carry the burden of a particular responsibility alone. Nowhere is this truer than in northern Virginia. The region is the economic engine for the rest of the state, something which state leaders in Richmond have often pronounced but seem to have been slow to back up with actions designed to keep that engine running. The economic well-being of Northern Virginia is critical to the economic well-being of the rest of the Commonwealth. To impose costs of such magnitude on the region without providing funding assistance would amount to a serious, if well-intentioned, misstep.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of members of the NDP Steering Committee.