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Virginia Needs to Reform its Government to Meet Today’s Challenges

Virginia is now facing the greatest challenges in our modern history, given the radical changes taking place in the economy at home and abroad that require bold, creative new thinking in our state government to find meaningful, sustainable solutions to rapid growth.

Major issues facing the state include:
– our inability to resolve our planning and transportation problems
– our tax structure that encourages local governments to make bad land use decisions which makes our ability to solve our transportation impossible and does not foster sustainable economic growth
– our local government structure created in Colonial times that does not work in a state of 7.5 million residents

We need new, meaningful efforts from our next governor and the General Assembly to resolve these issues so we can put an end to the political gridlock at the state capitol.  A study group, representing a cross section of Virginians, needs to be formed to formulate a non-partisan plan to tackle those aforementioned problems.

Such a group needs to model itself after the blue ribbon committees organized by former Republican Gov. Linwood Holton in the 1970s and by former Democratic Gov. Jerry Balisle in the 1980s which, respectively, led to the creation of the state cabinet system and to the last major investment in our transportation system.

Virginia should consider a new form of governing based on the Portland, Oregon Metropolitan Government: a regional, elected government empowered to deal with planning, transportation and other issues impacting 25 cities and three counties with a population of 1.5 million – similar to our Hampton Roads. Metro (, as it is known in Portland, is a vital, positive factor in fostering a high quality of life for the residents in that creative, popular metropolitan area.

Virginia needs to merge our regional planning district commissions, metropolitan planning organizations and federally mandated regional transportation planning groups, to create a similar new form of government. Given that PDC’s were created in 1968 and only two have been combined since, these merged programs would need to reflect the growth patterns and account for the last 40 years of rapid growth in Virginia. This new form of government also needs to be elected, have taxing authority and have authority to make planning and transportation decisions at the regional level.

Virginia must come to grip with the reality that our tax structure which encourages more commercial real estate than what the market will support needs to be retooled.  We do not need more shopping centers, office buildings, industrial buildings and hotels in many of our communities. I have read that we increased by 100 percent the amount of retail space in the country from 1990 until 2005, when the economy began to crash. Consumer spending grew only by 14 percent during that same period – a large portion of that growth was due to loose credit. That means in our state not only do we have excess retail capacity, but excess distribution and warehouse space to supply that system and port capacity to handle goods coming into the country from Asia we no longer need. China has closed more than 80,000 plants because there is no demand for their goods globally. All signs indicate that the “shop until you drop” culture fueled by debt and using our homes for cash is gone.

But we do need new employment centers that will create 21st century jobs that will pay livable wages for our residents. As is the case for our country, we are faced with the task of rebuilding many segments of our economy. In 1950, 25 percent of the economy was manufacturing, while ten percent was in the financial sector. By 2006, those numbers had mostly reversed – ten percent of the economy was manufacturing, while 25 to 30 percent was in the financial sector. We do not make things – but we have become a consumer nation that sought to make money off of money – thus the culture that caused the sub prime crisis and the near failure of our financial system. Thus, we need more money for research and development for our universities so we can be more aggressive in creating 21st century products that will give birth to new industries.

The Secretary of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) under this plan should be responsible for insuring a statewide concept for our transportation program and meet our obligations to federal highway and transportation programs.
Virginia’s state planning function needs to be moved out of the state budget office relative to certain matters, and the secretariet of transportation, commerce and environment need to be legally charged with responsibilities to coordinate state efforts and resources with this new program. In the 1960s and 1970s Virginia had a state department that worked with communities. That department was eliminated and merged into the budget office. The state’s failure to play a role in our planning process over the last 40 years was a tragic mistake.

The reality is that in Virginia, as long as we allow growth to take place as it has over the last 40 years, we will always have transportation problems. Local land use decisions create burdens on our system VDOT can’t solve as it does not have the financial nor legal means to do so.

Needless competition between communities create development that has led to many of the dead, vacant retail spaces, we now have around the state that will need to be repositioned, given the decline in the retail sector of our nation’s economy. We now are faced with continued redevelopment needs in our core cities and a similar challenge in our older suburbs.

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