Tuesday, January 17, 2006

"The idea is, you're spending a lot of money, and you're trying to show people that you're doing something."

Paving Reelection Plans With Vows to Ease Traffic

Motorists are fed up, so some governors risk the 'big spender' label in promising to find fixes.

January 17, 2006

By Sam Howe Verhovek
Los Angeles Times
Copyright 2006

SEATTLE — Offered a chance recently to knock 9.5 cents in taxes off a gallon of gasoline, voters in Washington state said no. The message to Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Legislature was this: Keep the $8.5 billion in taxes, but follow through on your pledge to fix the state's crumbling, congestion-plagued highways and bridges.

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry may be staking his reelection prospects this year on his idea of a "Trans-Texas Corridor," a $180-billion multi-decade proposal to build super-wide pathways between the state's big cities for cars, trucks, high-speed trains and pipelines carrying water, oil, electricity and broadband Internet connections.

And in other states, such as New York, Virginia and Idaho, governors — and in some cases the candidates vying to replace them — are pushing multibillion-dollar solutions to chronic highway traffic and other big infrastructure problems.

Against this backdrop, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has unveiled his own rebuilding plan for California, arguably laying claim to the biggest of all big fixes: a $222-billion plan to refurbish freeways, ports, levees, schools and jails across the state.

These mega-proposals from state leaders reflect many economic and political currents, including bigger revenue projections from an improving economy in many states, unexpected congressional largesse in last year's $300-billion highway bill, and polling that indicates voters are fed up with traffic.

But they also represent a clear gamble on a sort of fix-the-potholes theory of campaigning, in which many state leaders seem willing to risk the big-spender tag for the big-fixer mantle.

"It is the true Mayor Daley-ism of gubernatorial politics this year," said Ed Sarpolus, a Michigan pollster, referring to the two generations of Chicago leaders generally credited with making their city work. "The idea is, you're spending a lot of money, and you're trying to show people that you're doing something."

At his inauguration Saturday, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, pledged to "address the transportation dilemma that complicates our lives and threatens our prosperity."

Traffic congestion was a huge issue in the campaign he won, and Kaine, the former lieutenant governor, has held 11 town hall meetings on the subject since his victory in November. The problem is especially acute in northern Virginia's ring of suburbs and exurbs outside Washington.

The literally concrete solutions outlined by Schwarzenegger and others have drawn plenty of critics. Fiscal conservatives worry about a new era of run-amok state borrowing, and environmental and mass-transit advocates bemoan more pavement as the solution to congestion.

In Texas, for instance, plenty of landowners in the path of the governor's big plan (which includes privately financed tollways) are irate over it. In Idaho, a grass-roots group calling itself the Road Kill Coalition has mounted vigorous opposition to a proposed four-lane divided highway just north of the booming capital of Boise.

For Schwarzenegger, the California infrastructure proposal also represents an attempt to change the conversation from his overwhelming setback at the polls in November.

Voters rejected all four initiatives he had vigorously promoted, which dealt with campaign funding, redistricting, teacher tenure and a cap on state spending. (Schwarzenegger, who vaulted to office in a 2003 recall election, is running for a full term.)

Although it may be unclear how these issues will play out politically, there is no question that spending across the country on highways and bridges is already up significantly.

Federal, state and local spending on roadways jumped about 12% in 2005 to a record $66.2 billion, after three years in which such spending was basically flat, according to Census Bureau figures.

The interstate highway system, launched in 1956 by President Eisenhower, marks its 50th anniversary this year. The pressures on it have grown immensely.

In the Northeast and Midwest, the aging highways and bridges represent a huge maintenance problem.

In some Sun Belt states, gridlock stems from continued population growth and expanding foreign trade, said Jack Basso, a senior official with the American Assn. of State Highway and Transportation Officials. (I-35, which stretches across Texas from the border with Mexico through San Antonio, Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is particularly jammed.)

There is "a whole range of pressures on the system," Basso said. "Overall, there's a clear need for investment. That's what a lot of the governors are responding to."

There is some indication that voters may be more amenable to such spending than in past years, and large-scale post-hurricane reconstruction efforts in Louisiana and Mississippi also will drive up spending.

The American Road and Transportation Builders Assn., an industry group based in Washington, said about 80% of transportation bond and other funding issues put before voters in the last two years had been approved, compared with about 50% in 2002.

In New York, voters recently approved a $2.9-billion highway and mass transportation bond, with about half the money dedicated to fixing roadways. These include many major arteries in and around New York City, including the Van Wyck Expressway, Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and Henry Hudson Parkway.

Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican thought to have presidential aspirations, said in delivering his 12th and final State of the State address this month that New York could afford transit upgrades and other new programs while delivering tax cuts, because the state is running a projected $2-billion surplus.

He even unveiled a program to promote sale of tax-free ethanol at service stations along the New York State Thruway. Pataki said ethanol, derived from corn, would help cut dependence on "terror-promoting foreign oil." Some skeptics called his proposal pandering to voters in Iowa, where the first presidential contest of the primary season is held.

Voters also approved highway bond issues in Maine and Ohio in the November election, although in Oklahoma they turned back a proposal to raise the gas tax, and bond issues were defeated in Arkansas and Colorado.

Though spending on highway programs increased noticeably in 2005, part of it was caused by sharp hikes in the cost of materials used in construction.

And, said William R. Buechner, vice president for economics and research at the American Road and Transportation Builders Assn., even the expanded total work on the nation's highways barely represents two-thirds of the investment needed for major fixes to the system.

"I think we're moving in a positive direction here, but we're far from a real fix," Buechner said. "There's still a lot of work that needs to be done that's not getting done."

© 2006 Los Angeles Times www.latimes.com