Elections New Jersey Virginia

Today’s Governor’s Races Put Transportation on the Ballot, Indirectly

» First in a series of three articles on today’s elections. The second considered ballot measures; the third reviewed mayoral races.

Two governor’s races will be the highlights of the day, which some are claiming to be a “referendum on President Obama.” Whether or not that’s the case, the citizens of New Jersey and Virginia will be deciding a lot about how they want their states to be run in their respective elections. Top on the agenda: transportation.

Governor of New Jersey

Jon Corzine (D-incumbent) vs. Chris Christie (R) vs. Chris Daggett (I)

Update: Chris Christie wins the race with 49% of the vote, compared to Corzine’s 44%.

If there was one moment that defined Governor Corzine’s first term, it was his fateful car crash in 2007. A state trooper, at the Governor’s orders, was driving him at over 90 mph on the Garden State Parkway. The SUV hit the guardrail and Corzine, not wearing a seat belt, was severely injured. The Governor’s recklessness in his vehicle is indicative: during his four years in office, Mr. Corzine has been reckless with state transit funds.

The Transportation Trust Fund, which pays for New Jersey Transit operations expansion, is languishing, and Mr. Corzine’s response in 2006 was to borrow $6 billion to pay for its continued survival. That’s an irresponsible use of state money when raising taxes now will save money in the future, especially when the Trust Fund will be out of money by 2011.

Of course, Mr. Corzine has also encouraged a massive increase in state transportation capital expenditures, providing funding for new North Jersey lines, expanding the offerings in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and, perhaps most importantly, securing funds for the Mass Transit Tunnel/Trans-Hudson Express/Access to the Region’s Core project. These initiatives have made a more transit-friendly future for the state realizable.

Mr. Corzine has in recent weeks argued that he’d be willing to consider a gas tax increase — something his competitor Chris Christie has ruled out. Mr. Christie’s support for light rail expansion comes in the context of his dislike of the DMU River Line between Camden and Trenton, which cost $1.1 billion but only serves about 8,000 daily users. His primary campaign theme also appears to be cutting taxes; anyone with that point of view is not going to be able to support true transit improvements. Mr. Corzine should win this race.

Chris Daggett is also running in this campaign with a strong transportation platform, but he’s a distant third in polling.

Governor of Virginia

Creigh Deeds (D) vs. Bob McDonnell (R)

Update: Bob McDonnell wins an easy victory over Creigh Deeds. Perhaps the most damaging result of the night for transit advocates.

Bob McDonnell stirred controversy during the campaign when his college thesis berating women and gay people was released to the public — but Creigh Deeds has run a lackluster campaign that he’s now likely to lose.

That’s too bad, because Mr. Deeds has presented a solid, well-considered project for the state’s transportation problems, with a focus on mass transit. His own transportation plan provides strong evidence that he’d support high-speed rail for the state, that he’d ensure the completion of the Dulles Metro to Loudoun County, that he’d sponsor direct state grants to localities investing in bus rapid transit and light rail, and that, most importantly, he would connect transportation with “smart land use decisions.” He’s also been clear in his willingness to consider new taxes to support transportation financing, an essential campaign platform. Can’t get much better than that.

Mr. McDonnell, on the other hand, has suggested lowering taxes in this congestion-prone state. As the Washington Post put it:

“Mr. McDonnell… proposes to pay for road improvements mainly by cannibalizing essential state services such as education, health and public safety — a political non-starter. And rather than leveling with Virginians about the cost of his approach, as Mr. Deeds has done, Mr. McDonnell lacks the political spine to say what programs he would attempt to gut, or even reshape, in order to deal with transportation needs… Mr. McDonnell, champion of a revenue-starved status quo, remains in denial. He professes to feel the pain of Virginians struggling with financial hard times. In fact his transportation policy, a blueprint for stagnation and continuing deterioration, would subvert the state’s prospects for economic recovery and long-term growth.”

Though Mr. McDonnell has mentioned Dulles Rail and high-speed rail in his platform, his priority is clearly on paying for more roads in Northern Virginia. That’s the exact opposite of the approach the state needs.


Virginia Expands Rail Service, with an Option for More

New daily service to Richmond and Lynchburg is first step towards integrated state rail network

Virginia Rail Network

This week, Virginia Governor Tim Kaine (D) announced that the state would pay for two new daily trains from Washington, D.C., one to Richmond, the state capital, and the other to Lynchburg, via Charlottesville. The latter route already has once-daily service on the Amtrak Crescent (with part of the route – to Charlottesville – covered by the daily Cardinal as well), and the former has seven daily trains on the Amtrak Northeast Regional, Palmetto, Carolinian, Silver Star, and Silver Meteor. The agreement was signed with Norfolk-Southern, a freight rail company that owns the track between Washington and Lynchburg, and which will invest some of its own money in renovating the tracks for increased passenger and freight services. Though the additional service doesn’t amount for a huge improvement, especially along the Richmond line, the state’s willingness to invest almost $20 million in the trains augurs well for future passenger services in Virginia.

What’s most important about the money being spent on the trains is that it demonstrates that the state considers rail a viable travel alternative to other modes of transport. The increase on the Washington-Richmond segment to eight roundtrips a day suggests that future electrification of the corridor is a viable option (it has been suggested by Amtrak’s president in recent weeks as a high priority), as would be increased services to the southeast section of the state, which has a high population but only sees two roundtrips a day.

If state investment ramps up, three major Virginia projects (shown on the map above) are likely to see funding in the next few years: the TransDominion Express connection from Richmond to Lynchburg, and then south to Roanoke and Bristol at the state border; new service to Norfolk and southeast Virginia; and the Southeast High-Speed Rail project (tin-hsr). All three of these projects rely on upgrades to existing tracks, rather than construction in new rights-of-way – as a result, improved train service would be relatively simple and cheap to obtain on all three corridors. As of now, though, those projects remain in the conceptual stage, waiting for funds to be found.