By the time Virginia's new governor takes his oath of office, the state's long-term road and transit budget will be $4.6 billion poorer than it was last spring. Virginia is dismembering not just its transportation future, but its economic future at a pace few voters will comprehend until the damage is irreversible.
In braver days, the crisis might have transformed the 2009 election into a season of renewal and resolve. Instead, the two gubernatorial candidates have twisted it into a season of equivocation and insipidity.
An effusive endorsement would ring false in the final hours of what has been a profoundly frustrating contest of banalities. Neither candidate has made a convincing case on the merits of his ideas or the strength of his leadership. The choice instead rests on which one will do the least violence to the cause each claims to embrace.
By this measure, Creigh Deeds ekes out a modest advantage over his opponent. He offers a political strategy rather than a substantive plan for solving the state's most overwhelming challenge. While that strategy does not provide transportation advocates the leadership they crave, the Democrat at least allows them a fighting chance to press forward.
In contrast, Bob McDonnell's plan is a chain-link fence of stall tactics designed to distract voters into believing that progress is being made while not providing the money to actually make it. Under a Gov. McDonnell, transportation advocates would waste four years clawing their way over, under and around barriers erected by the state's top elected official.
While Deeds has not been an A-team power broker in the legislature, the state senator understands the inside-baseball maneuvers, the partisan pecking orders and the personality quirks that comprise the culture at the state Capitol. He also understands that his success depends upon the proper balance of benevolence and brawn.
He describes himself as a "guy that works hard to get along with people," but he also acknowledges that the state's last transportation plan passed in part because of Gov. Gerald Baliles' willingness to use threats and retribution.
"It's hardball politics, but it's the way you get things done," Deeds said.
His mantra that "all options are on the table" has become tiresome, but the senator's voting record confirms he's not afraid to back unpopular yet necessary measures, including a gas tax increase.
A native of western Virginia, his is a compelling voice able to articulate to rural regions the shared wealth that will extend from investment in urban infrastructure.
Deeds has a commendable record of moderate progressivism that the state needs to break loose from the turmoil of the recession. He has supported the prudent budgetary management of Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and promises to continue their sound policies. Well before they arrived in Richmond, Deeds recognized the value of strong economic development programs and passed legislation modernizing the Governor's Opportunity Fund. His plan for college scholarships tied to public service deserves consideration, although funding will be a challenge. He approaches offshore drilling proposals with proper caution and practicality. If Deeds has failed to win the hearts of most business groups, it is primarily because he refuses to play on their fears over union and environmental legislation pending in Congress, where he has no vote.
There is no denying Deeds' sincerity and his will to move Virginia forward. But if his chaotic campaign is a measure of his executive skills, a Deeds administration is likely to yield trying moments.
McDonnell, who represented Virginia Beach in the General Assembly, possesses superior management and negotiating abilities, but the Republican has too often flinched in the face of push-back from absolutists within his party. He helped win passage of legislation permitting a 2002 regional referendum on a sales tax for transportation but refused to publicly support the initiative once it was on the ballot. He brokered a 2007 transportation package, but then blamed Gov. Tim Kaine for the plan's collapse under legal challenge while ignoring flaws that can't be easily ascribed to others.
In his boldest hour, McDonnell was willing to accept new taxes for roads only if he could hand off the decision to voters or to local governments. This year, he has retreated even from that feeble stand.
The most redeeming quality of his transportation plan is its utter inability to win passage in the legislature. He proposes to funnel revenues now earmarked for schools, health care and law enforcement to road construction. He remains convinced the federal government will give Virginia royalties for offshore drilling, even though he seems breathlessly eager to give those rights away for free. He equates higher debt with new revenues.
His plan to privatize state liquor stores has merit, but he admits his estimate of $500 million in revenues "in the near term" may be optimistic. Even if correct, that amount alone won't build even one of Hampton Roads' priority projects, much less address statewide needs.
On other matters, McDonnell's inability to resist divisive social issues could result in real harm to law-abiding Virginians with whom he should have no quarrel. He has promised to end an executive order prohibiting employment discrimination based on sexual orientation within the state work force. That's not just an insult to gay Virginians, but a threat to the careers of men and women who have depended on those legal protections for eight years and two administrations.
His actions as attorney general suggest a troubling eagerness to water down gun control measures and interfere in private church matters.
McDonnell may be a more persuasive leader, but he is asking Virginia to follow him down a dead-end road. If he is governor, he will spend four years churning out spreadsheets with fantasy forecasts and writing stern letters to the president, Congress, state legislators and city councils demanding that they do something to save him from his own inertia.
If Deeds is elected and breaks his promise to pass an adequately funded transportation plan, that failure will fall directly on his shoulders. He's not asking that accountability be passed to future governors or postponed for more prosperous times. He's willing to take on that responsibility here and now.
In return for that commitment, we give him our support.