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Voters Reject Sales Tax Hike

Smart growth advocates call for new land use policies

The mood was subdued at the Sheraton Premier Hotel in Tysons Corner Tuesday night as advocates of the Northern Virginia sales tax referendum conceded defeat.

Voters in nine Northern Virginia jurisdictions rejected the tax increase at the polls Tuesday by a vote of 54-46 percent.

In a short statement read to the elected officials and business people assembled at the hotel, John Milliken, the chairman of Citizens for Better Transportation, the main pro-referendum group, said he was disappointed with the results.

But, he said, "the problem doesn't go away." He also urged the opponents of the referendum to help come up with a solution to the region's traffic problem.

"Now the burden is on you to join all of us to help find a solution that all of us can support," he said. The tax increase would have provided around $5 billion for transportation improvements over the next 20 years.

The sales tax referendum was the only referendum on the ballot to be turned down. The two constitutional amendments, the two proposed state bond issues and the two Fairfax County bond issues all passed by at least 30 percentage points.

Fairfax County Board Chairman Katherine Hanley, a supporter of the referendum, said the referendum's defeat is particularly devastating for transit projects, which would have benefited from about 40 percent of the revenue from the tax increase.

"The road money will be here," she said. "It will just take another 12, 15 years for it to happen. This was an enormous infusion for transit."

She speculated that the measure's defeat may have been driven by antipathy towards public transit. "Unfortunately, I think this may be a referendum on transit," she said. "There may have been a big dollop of people saying, 'we don't want transit.'"

BUT STEWART SCHWARTZ, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the problem with the referendum was not that it provided too much for transit but that it failed to address land use policies that encourage sprawl.

"The public understands that the real issue here is sprawl and the need for smarter growth," he said.

Schwartz spent the evening with a cheering crowd of referendum opponents at Whitlow's, an Arlington bar.

Anti-tax advocates and smart growth advocates, the two largest opponent constituencies, celebrated their victory together in a contest in which they were outspent by a considerable margin.

"This was David versus Goliath," said Laura Olsen, the assistant director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Our vision really resonated with people."

"Most of the time I would disagree with these people," said Charles Ballogh, a Republican activist from Alexandria, nodding to the environmentalists and smart growth advocates in the bar. "If you can't work with somebody who agrees with you who can you work with?"

"I've been accused of being a conservative, a Republican and a libertarian. This is probably a case of libertarianism shining through big and bright," he said, as he waived a full Styrofoam plate about.

Hanley said she did not know why people had voted the referendum down. But Art Wells, the president of the Fairfax County Federation of Citizen Associations, said that a number of factors could have contributed to the measure's defeat.

"I'm guessing having four bond issues and the economy and the outlook of the Commonwealth's budget for this year and next year, plus in Fairfax County the higher real estate assessment" has something to do with it, he said.

GOVERNOR MARK R. WARNER said the failure of the sales tax referendum was the result of a mixed message from the voters.

"While the bonds for higher education and parks passed overwhelmingly, a host of voter concerns surrounding the two regional transportation measures led to their ultimate defeat.

"Leaders in both of these regions have for years sought solutions to relieve traffic congestion. These referendums — with overwhelming bipartisan support — offered one solution.

"I wholeheartedly supported these measures because they offered the people an opportunity to address their critical transportation needs. While these solutions have been rejected, I now call upon those who opposed them to help us find workable solutions.

"Both of these regional initiatives were supported in an overwhelmingly bipartisan way by elected leadership at the federal, state and local levels, and business, labor, education, and community groups. In particular, Senator John Warner and the Republican patrons of these measures in both regions should be thanked for their leadership.

"I am not going to give up on better roads and improved mass transit. I still believe Virginians want better transportation networks, and I am going to continue to work hard to achieve them."

"In looking within the Lee District, the only area where the sales tax question seemed to get any traction was in our newer areas, such as Kingstowne and the adjoining neighborhoods," said Lee District Supervisor Dana Kauffman. "The case was obviously not made in the older parts of the district.

"Since it now comes down to rearranging priorities, many sacred cows will have to be led to the slaughterhouse. Without new resources, this is a zero sum game," Kauffman insisted.

"I THINK IT'S JUST a terrible lost opportunity,” said State Sen. Patricia S. “Patsy” Ticer (D-30). “We won’t have the opportunity again to take control of our own destiny in our own region. This is not the whole answer to the congestion problem and nobody ever said it was but it was an opportunity to begin with some basic remediations.

"The biggest loser was public transportation and that’s what people have been asking for and needing for a long time. Planning is the key but we can’t plan right now for our current situation; we can only plan for the future. Land use and transportation need to be on the table but at the same time that you are discussing the future and how the system works, you need to solve the current problem that is so bad that it can only be exacerbated by doing nothing.

"The theory that just because somebody might have changed the legislation at some time in the future would preclude us from having any legislation of any kind. It’s a disappointment and I think it’s going to get worse and worse and when we have worsening of our quality of life, our air pollution gets worse, too.

"Jobs are not as plentiful as they used to be and people don’t have the luxury of moving close to where they work. We need to move toward real mixed use and we have begun to do that. Someone said that this referendum was really an opportunity to do just what the old time conservative Democrats wanted to do – pay as you go. Even though the bonding isn’t paying exactly as you go, it’s a beginning to do that. The facts were laid out and people were afraid of taking some baby steps for fear of falling and you have to take a risk in order to get anywhere at all. We’re just going to have to keep on working and do what we can with less and less funding.”

As for the bond issues that passed, Ticer said, "The bond issues and the Constitutional amendment all passed so we will at least have some much needed capital funding for our colleges, universities and our park system."

ALTHOUGH THE LONG-TERM consequences of the referendum's defeat won't be known for a while, Hanley said that it would not help the Northern Virginia's standing at the General Assembly.

"The message is clear," agreed Del. John Rollison (R-52), who was instrumental in getting the referendum on this year's ballot. "The message is that transportation is a priority but it's not the highest priority."

OVER THE PAST six months, referendum proponents argued that the half-cent tax increase was the best deal Northern Virginia was going to get to combat its traffic problem. Opponents countered that Northern Virginians were already paying their fair share of transportation taxes and that the projects for which the sales tax revenues were earmarked for would only encourage sprawl.

Reporters Carla Branch and Chuck Hagee contributed to this story.