With a large number of Virginia's voters expected to stay away from the polls in next month's off-year election, it should not come as a surprise that local Reston residents steered clear of last week's tax referendum forum.
The proposed half-cent sales tax has garnered much interest and news coverage throughout Northern Virginia in the last few months, but only 10 local residents were on hand Wednesday night for a debate between state Del. Kenneth Plum (D-36) and Stewart Schwartz, who heads the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
During the debate at the North County Government Center sponsored by the Hunter Mill District Council, Plum and Schwartz, who are often on the same side of many issues including transportation planning, each politely detailed their side's rationale.
<b>THE REFERENDUM</b>, if passed, would increase the sales tax from 4.5 percent to five percent and raise $5 billion over 20 years to fund Northern Virginia projects like the $350 million Dulles Corridor Transit project and the $150 million plan to improve Route 1 in Fairfax and Prince William counties.
Plum, who represented the group Citizens for Better Transportation, said passage of the transportation tax is critical if Northern Virginia is to "make the transition to mass transit" and begin to fix many of the region's biggest congestion tie-ups.
For his part, Schwartz, equated the proposed tax to the "Trojan Horse" with its promises of mass transit only masking new suburban sprawl and increased traffic congestion. "The road projects planned from this referendum would not end Northern Virginia's gridlock."
According to Schwartz, the rail to Dulles project, which he supports, is part of the project to attract votes, but in reality, he said, "Greek soldiers will emerge to build more and more roads."
Schwartz added that he believed the rail to Dulles project could be built without passage of the transportation tax.
Plum disagreed. The state and federal governments would not provide additional necessary funding if taxpayers in the region do not provide a "show of good faith" by voting for the measure. "If it doesn't pass," he asked, "what's the message?"
<b>WHILE PLUM</b> acknowledged that such a plan takes time, the Reston delegate said that it is "imperative that we say 'yes,' simply because we are not going to have other parts of the state sending us money."
The notion that wealthy counties of Northern Virginia "don't get their fair share" from legislators in other parts of the commonwealth was a key point for Plum throughout the night, just as it has been for other vocal supporters of the tax hike. The referendum law does not allow the state to take transportation dollars, Plum said. "This would allow us to keep our money local, for a change, and to use it for our own pressing uses."
Schwartz, the anti-sprawl activist, told the audience that it was typical for cities to try and "build their way out of gridlock." Atlanta, according to Schwartz, is one such city. "Atlanta went wild with road building and they got more sprawl, more traffic and more air pollution," he said. "Our great concern is that we will repeat the past and be in the same congested boat, five, 10, 15 years down the road."
With more roads comes additional suburban neighborhoods and commercial centers and that leads to longer time in our cars, Schwartz said. "The scattering of development simply equals more driving," he said. "Enough is enough, it's time to implement smart growth first."
Schwartz went on to say that Fairfax and Loudoun counties risked becoming like Prince William County, which he referred to as "the wild, wild West for developers."
Plum, who said he is a longtime proponent of smart growth, dismissed his opponent's suggestion that future development should all be tied to mass transit. "There are market factors at work here, people want to be out in the country. That's a reality," Plum said. "The notion that government can make everyone bunch around a metro stop is silly."
<b>THE DELEGATE ALSO</b> disagreed with Schwartz' characterization of the tax as little more than a boon for developers and a strain on the average taxpayer. "Essentially it will amount to only $25 a year," the delegate said. "It is a broad based tax and the notion that somehow we are going to stop growth is ridiculous. The question should be: how do you accommodate our expected growth? Invest in mass transit and make improvements to the existing road systems."
Plum acknowledged that the referendum would not address all of Northern Virginia's transit needs. "It's an incremental step forward," he said. He warned the audience Wednesday night, however, that if voters reject the half-cent increase, the region's congestion would increase. "If we don't vote for it, we will be sitting in traffic like we are now, only worse."
Schwartz countered that developers, especially in Loudoun County, are anxiously awaiting the new roads that would be built if the referendum passes. "Doctors should always watch what medicine they prescribe before they prescribe it."