In a time of plenty, can we spare a little more to modernize Virginia infrastructure?

February 7, 2022 12:03 am

The Benjamin Harrison Bridge over the lower James was rated in “fair condition” by VDOT in 2018. (Spencer Tassone/Virginia Commonwealth University)

It’s rare that Virginia’s governors and budget writers have the luxury to look over a state treasury flush with cash and struggle to figure out how to spend it all.

Maybe while it’s top-of-mind, just a thought: Pour as much as you can into modernizing Virginia’s public infrastructure.

Consider for a moment: revenues that feed the state’s operational general fund, which pays for such basics as public education, health care and law enforcement, came in for the fiscal year that ended last June 30 at $3.1 billion, or 14.4 percent, greater than the prior fiscal year’s collections. That’s the largest dollar-amount year-over year increase in Virginia history.

By the end of calendar 2021, the state sat atop a $2.6 billion surplus, some of which is already spoken for. The Virginia Constitution gets first dibs through mandatory set-asides in flush times into the commonwealth’s Rainy Day Fund. For the budget now under consideration through the middle of 2024, that would amount to $1.7 billion.

There are other statutory claims on state revenue windfalls, too. But that leaves plenty for the General Assembly and the governor to divvy up to satisfy pressing needs of the commonwealth as well as their own constituencies and own policy goals.

The prevailing political zeitgeist, as manifest in November’s election, augurs decidedly toward returning the money directly back to Virginians in the form of rebates and tax breaks.

It’s always a laudable intention to put some hard-earned currency back in the bank accounts of taxpayers. No argument that voters last fall spoke clearly that they don’t believe they’re being taxed too little.

Virginia’s economy, roughed up mightily a couple of years ago by the pandemic, would doubtless benefit from refunds and tax savings embedded in current legislation that would end the state’s share of the sales tax on groceries, roll back the recent gasoline tax increase, double the standard deduction for state income tax filers and put more of military retirees’ benefits off-limits.

It used to be an unwritten but widely accepted practice on Capitol Square that when Virginia had good revenue collection years and found itself with fattened finances, one-time revenues went to one-time needs like repairing or replacing rundown roads and bridges, new construction on state-supported institutions of higher learning and aid to K-12 facilities.

But what if we returned money to Virginians not so much in a check or tax savings but in ways that pay both short and longer-term dividends?

Maybe this is an excellent time to again consider a significant investment in basic upgrades that not only keep the commonwealth competitive among its sister states in the never-ending quest for quality business growth and expansion but to leapfrog over them.

What do major employers look for when they’re shopping for a site to put a major expansion like those Amazon is making in Virginia and Texas?

Low taxes, sure. Who wants to give a larger piece of earnings to the government rather than shareholders (and the obscene compensation packages of chief executives)?

But any state can do tax deals, and a race to the bottom isn’t a workable continuing strategy for landing the best jobs or building the sort of communities workers want to call home.

Safe transportation matters. Good roads and new, well-maintained bridges as well as abundant rail service that keep their vital supply chains open catch the eyes of corporate location scouts.

Virginia is in the middle of the pack nationally, ranking 25th in the number of structurally deficient bridges, according to fresh data from the American Road and Transportation Builders Association. Of Virginia’s nearly 14,000 bridges, only 530, or 3.8 percent, are rated structurally deficient, down from 773 that met that definition in 2017.

That may sound like an acceptable risk unless the bridge you’re driving across happens to be the one out of every 25 that’s structurally unsound. More of the largesse now available could reduce those risks even further.

Expanding companies want good schools from pre-K all the way to relevant college graduate-level programs plus a healthy community college and tech school system that are front-line employee training facilities for their massive manufacturing operations that require highly skilled workers. When they see students in crumbling New Deal-era structures where they swelter in the summer, shiver in the winter and deal with leaky roofs year-round, they can’t skedaddle fast enough.

The needs there are significant, as my colleague Roger Chesley compellingly illustrated last week. More than half of Virginia’s public school buildings are at least 50 years old, he reported. And he cited a legislative commission report from last year that placed the cost to the commonwealth of replacing the 1,000-plus buildings dating to 1970 or earlier is nearly $25 billion.

Even if local school construction was a primary state government responsibility (it’s not), the surplus isn’t large enough for the state to stroke a check for that whole amount. But it’s beyond debate that the commonwealth can, does and should play a role in addressing the most inequitable disparities between wealthy and poor districts and has the means to do far beyond what it’s doing now.

A corporate search posse demands a sturdy, hardened, modern electrical grid resistant to the depredations of weather and hostile hackers that can shut their operations down and cost them millions of dollars daily (see last year’s epic Texas power grid failure that caused 246 people for reference). While the commonwealth doesn’t run the electrical utilities (to the contrary, many would argue that Virginia’s dominant utility runs the commonwealth), the state does have the legal and regulatory authority to incentivize such investments by private-sector providers.

They demand universal, crazy-fast digital broadband access, not just for their offices and factories but for support, professional and administrative staff whose ability to work remotely has been essential during the pandemic lockdowns to meeting the demands of a 24-hour economy. In present day Virginia, urban and suburban areas do quite well with abundant high-speed internet availability, but rural Virginia – as is disproportionately and unfairly the case – is left out.

As noted in this column last year, a study by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service shows the deep digital disconnect in Virginia. Plotted on a locality-by-locality map of Virginia, those with the best high-speed Internet access such as fiber-optic, cable or DSL lines show up in ever-darkening shades from the least (tan) to the most (burnt umber). Those where fewer than half of the households have such access show up as beige. This interactive image shows vast pale-shaded digital deserts in rural areas, especially the Southside and Southwest Virginia regions.

Help already appears on the way. The $1.2 Bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act, passed by Congress days after last fall’s election and signed into law by President Joe Biden, will provide billions nationally for universal highspeed internet. And the General Assembly last year allocated millions more for Virginia Technology Initiative grants to expand broadband into areas of need.

Infrastructure isn’t sexy, but it’s smart. It’s an investment in ourselves as a commonwealth. It may not pack the immediate thrill of a rebate check or getting a refund rather than owing on your state income taxes, but building infrastructure creates well-paying jobs and even more indirect employment, new business opportunities and sustainable economic benefits that ripple across the economy.

And maybe best of all: when the work’s all done, we’ve got something concrete to show for it.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]