First Things First for New Virginian Governor

McDonnell has vowed to construct new roads and bridges without raising taxes.

LIKE ALL candidates, Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell's campaign was steeped in the future tense, promising a radiant future under his leadership. Today, McDonnell looks the present tense square in the eye.

It is a horrific sight. The economy remains listless and fragile. Resources available to the chief executive are dwarfed by a long list of challenges.

It would be easy to view the present as a cause for despair, but McDonnell can instead recognize it as an opportunity to set a tone for his term. If he seizes that opportunity, he can win the confidence of Virginians and use that trust to press for progress on the state's most nettlesome problems.

The first test of McDonnell's leadership will be twofold, requiring him to be a good steward of the state's vanishing finances and to restore faith in Virginia's highway agency.

No issue is more pressing than our declining highway and rail infrastructure. McDonnell has vowed to construct new roads and bridges without raising taxes.

It is a fact that roads are not built for free. It is also a fact that the cost to Virginia families from an increase in gas or sales taxes can be counted in pennies.

McDonnell understands those realities, but he also understands something else: Pennies matter right now. Families have resisted persuasion on the mathematics of transportation funding because they are consumed with the mathematics of their own survival.

Virginians won't be willing to pay for better roads until they believe better roads are possible. They have come to view the Virginia Department of Transportation as an obstacle.

Avoidable mistakes resulted in flooding at the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and the Downtown Tunnel this summer, paralyzing the region .

Construction has been canceled, rest stops shuttered and maintenance slashed. A precipitous decline in revenues has made down-sizing necessary, but in the process of dismantling itself and bemoaning the services it can't provide, VDOT has failed to explain what it can do. The agency simply lacks a clear mission, and that has led to lost credibiilty.

The transportation plan McDonnell announced during his campaign is packed with unlikely ideas that could keep the new governor occupied until the day he leaves office.

It will be years before Virginia can collect royalties from offshore drilling, if the federal government ever feels generous enough to grant the state a share. It will be years before state revenues are healthy again. It will be years -- if ever -- before Virginia is given permission to toll interstates.

Rather than expend all his energies on wild goose chases, McDonnell must focus on what he can accomplish right now, in the present tense.

He can hire strong finance and transportation managers. He can redefine VDOT's mission, giving it clear and meaningful goals that can be achieved with existing resources.

He can make sure revenues from the federal stimulus and any future bonds are targeted to projects that yield the greatest and swiftest benefits. He can repair relationships with companies disillusioned by the state's retreat from public-private partnerships.

This is not a new blueprint for reform, but rather a variation of one used by Gov. Mark Warner when he took office in 2002 and faced remarkably similar financial constraints. Warner hired VDOT Commissioner Phil Shucet and together they sharpened the agency's mission and restored public confidence . A budget crisis intervened and Warner was forced to expend the good will he had accumulated to resuscitate funding for schools, health care and law enforcement. Transportation was set aside for another day. That day has yet to arrive.

Unlike Warner, McDonnell is constrained, by his own choosing, by absolutists who demand he swear off all taxes and fees, no matter how necessary . McDonnell has made fleeting attempts to stray from that orthodoxy, but there is no evidence he intends to do so as governor. While he may lack the will to see Virginia through to a full resolution of its transportation challenges, he can use his four years to make the unglamorous but critical reforms to rebuild VDOT's credibility.

That's only a first step, but it's one McDonnell can take right now. His leadership won't be judged by his campaign promises, but by his willingness to accept accountability for fulfilling them. That accountability comes to roost in the present tense.