0
Votes

Column: Transportation Debate Begins

Governor McDonnell’s transportation proposal dominated the first three days of session. I welcome this long-overdue debate. The improvement of Route 1 is exactly the kind of project that has been stalled because of the lack of state money because it cannot be tolled or cannot be improved by a public-private partnership. It will only happen with real money from new tax revenue.

Virginia’s gas tax, one of the lowest in the nation, has been at 17.5 cents since 1985. As roads crumble and Metro struggles to move more passengers, Virginians cannot expect to have a reliable transportation system without infusing more funds. This means we all have to face up to increasing the gas tax. The preliminary results of my constituent survey are that 55 percent of my constituents agree.

I commend the Governor for putting forth a transportation funding proposal for debate, but I do not view his proposal as the right solution. We will be debating several approaches.

THE GOVERNOR’S PLAN has five components: (1) eliminate the $0.175 gas tax except for diesel and replace it with a new 0.8 percent general sales tax dedicated to transportation; (2) divert .25 percent of the existing sales tax from education, public safety and healthcare and fund transportation; (3) dedicate an new vehicle $15/year registration fee and dedicate these funds to intercity rail and transit; (4) impose a $100 annual fee on alternative fuel vehicles; and (5) dedicate sales taxes from internet sales s to transportation, if Congress authorizes states to tax internet sales (a big if).

Three years ago, Virginia Department of Transportation’s report, VTRANS 2025, concluded that the state’s transportation maintenance and construction funding shortfall is between $4-5 billion per year over the next 20 years. Governor McDonnell’s plan will generate only $3 billion over five years according to initial estimates. In other words, the Governor’s plan funds no more than 12-15 percent of the actual shortfall. His math does not work.

Virginia’s roads have always been funded with user fees — the more you drive, the more you pay. The Governor’s abandons that principle and says that everyone should pay, whether they are using the roads or not, even when you walk to the store and buy a loaf of bread.

THE ALTERNATIVE VEHICLE FEE is also troublesome. Hybrids and electric cars pay less in gas taxes because they use gas more efficiently, but there are only 91,000 on the road out of seven million vehicles in Virginia or 1.3 percent of all cars. Average American vehicle fuel efficiency is 23.8 MPG. If a hybrid driver gets 40 MPG and drives 15,000 miles, that driver saves about 255 gallons of gas or $44.66 of gas taxes per year (and about $867 per year in gas costs by the way). The Governor wants these drivers to pay that and another $55 on top of that. That’s not fair and creates reverse incentives. People should not be punished for conserving energy and polluting less.

Also, many Virginians purchased diesel passenger cars because of the cars’ fuel efficiency. The 2012 Volkswagen Beetle, Golf and Passatt get 40-42 MPG on the highway. Not only will these drivers pay more with sales taxes, they will also pay the same gas taxes they do today simply because they purchased fuel-efficient vehicles.

There is no question that gas tax revenues are a declining source of revenue, but they also work. Thirty percent of gas taxes are paid by non-Virginians. People passing through Virginia should also pay for the cost of our roads, as we do when traveling in other states.

Again, I welcome the Governor’s proposal and I look forward to working with him on better solutions to fix this problem once and for all. Let’s avoid gimmicks.

During the week or so that my constituent survey has been online at www.scottsurovell.org/survey, about 100 people have responded. I hope to get more.

The initial results are interesting. Transportation has passed the economy as the #1 issue. For U.S. 1, 64 percent of 44th District residents support a Yellow Line Metro extension to Lorton over light rail (12 percent) or more buses (9 percent). Here are some other interesting results: 74 percent support paying more for renewable energy, 80 percent support no-excuse absentee voting for seniors, 55 percent support raising the gas tax and 49 percent support raising the sales tax for transportation. The top choice for improving schools is lower class sizes (30 percent) and 74 percent oppose the $25 million tax credit for private schools passed last year.

If you have any comments or suggestions, please email me at scottsurovell@gmail.com and be sure to complete my online survey at www.scottsurovell.org/survey. It is an honor to serve as your state delegate.