During last year’s General Assembly Session, Northern Virginians wanted to know whether and how the Assembly would raise funds to solve traffic congestion. As this year’s General Assembly session begins its second month, a plan introduced by the state’s Republican leaders seems to have answered the “whether” question, but elected officials in Mount Vernon are questioning the “how.” To skirt the objections of anti-tax members, the $2 billion plan relies on bonds for much of its funding. Another big chunk will come from fees and taxes issued by localities.
In this election year, Republicans have made solving transportation a top priority. House Speaker William Howell (R-Fredericksburg) personally presented HB 3202 to the House of Delegates’ Appropriations Committee, the first time in five years he had presented a bill to that committee. But State Del. Mark Sickles (D-43), despite representing one of the most congested districts in the state, is not only skeptical of the transportation plan, he says transportation isn’t even the most important issue faced by the state. “It’s the most urgent issue.”
The comment strikes to the heart of the objections to the Republican plan. Gov. Timothy Kaine and transportation advocates have called for a stable source of revenue to support Virginia’s traffic needs each year. A plan endorsed by every Northern Virginia locality would cost almost $700 million each year in this region alone. Today, that money does not exist in the budget. The Republican plan’s largest source of funds, $250 million a year, comes from loans that would total $2 billion by 2014.
“Debt,” said Sickles, “is not a new source of revenue. Debt is just a reallocation of whatever future revenues we have.”
By going into debt, Sickles said, the state is creating a loan-repayment obligation it must honor above all other priorities in its budget. Before it can pay for things like education, health care, law enforcement and employee salaries, the state will have to pay off its debt. “You have to pay the bondholders first, no question about that.”
State Del. Kristen Amundson (D-44) agreed that the plan relies too heavily on the state’s unaugmented budget. “I am not alone in saying that I have concerns about taking that amount of money out of the General Fund.”
SICKLES ALSO OBJECTS to another source of revenue in the plan: money raised by localities. In a particularly controversial clause — that Sickles believes will be struck out in committee — localities would take responsibility from VDOT for the maintenance of the roads that service new subdivisions. “That would be a huge change in Virginia and it really wouldn’t be fair,” Sickles said.
Instead Sickles introduced a bill of his own that was backed by the governor: designating a percentage of the state’s budget surpluses for a transportation fund. Kala Quintana, a spokesman for the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a body founded 40 years ago by the General Assembly to address the region’s transportation challenges with a focus on transit, said she is happy to see a transportation proposal, but “the devil is in the details.”
Shifting money to localities, she said, is unfair. “We’re willing to take on our responsibility but we’re not willing to let the state abdicate its responsibility to Northern Virginia. Because we’re sending our tax dollars down there.”
Mount Vernon Supervisor Gerry Hyland agrees. “What they have proposed clearly transfers much of the responsibility to pay for this plan on the backs of constituents and tax payers here in Northern Virginia.”
According to figures that accompanied the Republican plan, Northern Virginia localities together would be responsible for raising more than $400 million per year through assessments on real estate transactions and fees on rental cars and drivers’ licenses.
AMUNDSON, QUINTANA AND SICKLES said the state must create new sources of revenue in order to fund transportation without putting other state priorities at risk. Quintana said people opposed to paying more money for transportation should take into account that the economy is already paying a price. “Ultimately Virginians are already paying a tax. We’re paying a congestion tax. And it's really not doing any good… none of those revenues of that tax we are already paying are helping to fix the problem.” But she said the NVTC has not endorsed any specific taxes or fees to pay for transport.
Sickles said he was open-minded, but suggested that a tax on gasoline “makes the most sense.” He said Virginia has not raised its gas taxes in 20 years and currently has the 39th lowest state tax on gas in the country. Because 30 percent of these taxes are paid by motorists passing through the state, Virginians would only pay 70 percent of the new tax burden.
Sickles proposed raising the tax by less than 10 percent, and pointed out that people kept driving when gas prices jumped by a dollar over the summer. By itself, such a tax would pay “a big chunk” of the money needed for transportation each year.
Like the others Amundson stressed she was happy to see a proposal, regardless of its contents. “I’m just so grateful that there’s a proposal on the table.”
“Now the question is going to be how much compromise is possible.” If no compromise is reached, Amundson said she did not know whether she would vote for the bill as it now stands.
Sickles said he does not expect the plan to reach the House floor for several weeks, but he predicts it will pass. “We’re going to send a flawed bill to the Senate. And we’re going to pass on a flawed bill to the governor. And we’ll see what he does with it.”