ALTHOUGH Virginia’s recently completed legislative session was surprisingly productive despite the scandals that dominated the headlines and seriously tarnished the reputations of the commonwealth’s top three elected officials, there were some issues that got short shrift or failed to gain sufficient traction among lawmakers to make it to the finish line.
The most neglected issue by far was transportation funding, especially for Virginia’s top two seriously congested interstate highways: I-95 and I–81. Projects totaling $7 billion competed for just $850 million of available funding under the latest round of Smart Scale, leaving the vast majority of them unfunded. And only $1.7 billion of the Virginia Department of Transportation’s fiscal 2019 budget ($5.4 billion) is reserved for construction projects statewide.
The growing gap between available funding and need has gotten so large that seemingly nobody in Richmond wants to touch it, especially during an election year when all of the state House and Senate seats are in play.
However, a free-flowing transportation system is the circulation system of any healthy state economy, and the General Assembly’s continuing failure to devote a larger percentage of existing state revenue to it—and also to earmark future funding sources, such as internet sales taxes, specifically to upgrading the commonwealth’s transportation infrastructure—is an unacceptable dereliction of duty.
Despite an alarming rise in distracted driver accidents, which kill nine people in the U.S. every day, a bill patroned by Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Stafford, that would have barred drivers from using hand-held cell phones on the road died in the final hours of the session, even after House and Senate negotiators had reached a compromise allowing drivers to speak, but not to text or engage with social media. Unfortunately, efforts to educate drivers on how dangerous such behavior is seem to have little effect, and so the carnage will continue.
In light of the many unbelted drivers killed on Fredericksburg area roads, The Free Lance–Star also laments votes in both chambers that killed legislation that would have made failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense in Virginia. As it stands, failure to wear a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning a police officer must pull a driver over for some other violation before issuing a citation for failure to buckle up. The failed legislation would also have required that back-seat passengers wear seat belts, which for some mysterious reason is not required at all now.
The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ practice of suspending the drivers licenses of people who fail to pay any sort of fines or court costs is a bad policy that just won’t die. The full Senate voted 36–4 to do away with it, and it was anticipated that the full House would do the same. Unfortunately, a House Courts of Justice subcommittee voted 4–3 along party lines to kill the repeal measure. People shouldn’t be able to walk away scot-free from those fees and fines. But taking away their licenses—which may deny them the ability to earn a living so they can pay their fees and fines—is obviously counterproductive.
Our hopes that lawmakers would find a way to resuscitate budget amendments to boost funding for Virginia State Parks were dashed once budget work was completed. We called for funding for local state parks such as Lake Anna, Widewater and Caledon that would improve and expand the facilities and pay for personnel and necessary maintenance. But lawmakers rejected virtually all of the 32 funding proposals here and across the state, even though every dollar spent on the parks pays dividends in tax revenues, tourism dollars spent and job creation.
As they always do, drivers, park officials and others must wait and hope for next year.