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Floor debates begin on flawed McDonnell transportation bills

Governor McDonnell's transportation funding bills (HB2313 and SB 1355) are on the floor of the Virginia House and Senate today and tomorrow. The McDonnell Administration is facing objections on many fronts, but the Republican majority quickly pushed the bills through committee.

Photo by MSVG on Flickr.

Votes to pass the bills must take place before "cross-over" on midnight Tuesday in order for them to survive and cross over to the other chamber.

Many legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, will seek amendments on the floor, but observers believe that the Governor and leadership want to push the bills into a closed-door conference committee where the Republican majority will control crafting the final bill. That means the best opportunity for major amendments is now.

If you are concerned about these bills, you can get the latest from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, contact your elected officials, and monitor @csgstewart and @betterDCregion for a Twitter play-by-play.

Without critical amendments, the bill that ultimately emerges from the conference committee is unlikely to be a good deal for Northern Virginia or other metropolitan areas of the state. The McDonnell administration has squandered much of the $3 billion in borrowed funds the legislature authorized in 2011. The governor spent it on highway projects in rural areas, while neglecting funding for Dulles Rail, Tysons Corner, and Hampton Roads' top priorities—their bridge-tunnel crossings.

Prominent among the McDonnell Administration's wasteful projects have been Route 460, the Coalfields Expressway, Charlottesville Bypass and the Outer Beltway. If Virginia continues to pursue these projects it could waste a combined $5.5 billion, but if the legislature makes review and reevaluation of these projects a condition of new funding, there's still a chance to redeploy the funds to real transportation needs.

Eliminating all taxes on gasoline, the centerpiece of McDonnell's bill, could make traffic in our metro areas worse, reducing transit use and increasing driving. It cuts the sensible tie between transportation use and funding, forcing Virginians who drive less to subsidize those who drive more, hurting seniors and low-income people, carpoolers, transit users, those who live closer to their jobs.

Switching to the sales tax could also make Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads further subsidize long-distance driving throughout the state. It would also divert state general funds essential for education, health care, public safety and conservation.

Without amendments to ensure the Virginia Department of Transportation sets better priorities, there is no guarantee in these bills to meet the needs of the metro areas or the state's growing transit needs. There is no guarantee these bills will restore funding for local roads; for the past 2 years, VDOT has zeroed out funding for secondary roads in localities despite record transportation spending.

Fortunately, nearly all of the Democrats and a number of Republicans believe that eliminating all taxes on gasoline is a bad idea. Opposition to the idea also extends from the smart growth community to the Wall Street Journal.

On January 15, a Wall Street Journal editorial argued that McDonnell's scheme "violates the user-pays principle" of sound public finance:

[It] would mean that a Virginia resident who may not even own a car has to pay more for road repairs when he buys a cell phone, computer or Big Mac. Motorists who benefit most from the roads would pay almost nothing directly to use them... [F]unding transportation through a sales tax "makes roads free," at least in terms of direct payments, and thus will lead to more driving and more gridlock—the opposite of what McDonnell says he wants to achieve.
Let's hope the legislature rejects the Governor's proposal to eliminate the gas tax. We hope the legislature will vote for the following amendments:
  • Include mandatory reevaluation of VDOT's megaprojects. We could save much of the $5.5 billion to use to address our real transportation needs.
  • Reform the Public Private Transportation Act to ensure greater public oversight.
  • Keep the gas tax. It is an appropriate user fee tying payments to use of Virginia's roads, and it ensures out of state drivers also contribute. Apply the sales tax to gas at the wholesale level and/or index the gas tax to inflation.
  • Withdraw any increase in the statewide sales tax. A statewide increase will mean the state (VDOT) will just siphon the money from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
  • Allow a local sales tax for transportation in Northern Virginia that Northern Virginia controls and the same for Hampton Roads. Let our two most congested regions decide what to fix and build.
  • Require 25% of the new funding to go to transit, both urban and rural.
  • Require 15% of the new funding to go to local roads. VDOT has zeroed out money for local roads in order to build unnecessary highways in lightly trafficked areas. If we don't specify this, then we still won't get local street funds including pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
  • Keep the $15 vehicle registration fee for intercity passenger rail and public transit funding.
Without these amendments, the legislature should reject the Governor's bills and new funding for the state transportation agencies.

Here's a more detailed breakdown of where we find nearly $5.5 billion in waste:

  • Route 460: This $1.4 billion proposed new highway between Suffolk and Petersburg costs over $1.1 billion of taxpayer funds, plus tolls. The current Route 460 carries just 11,000 trips per day.
  • Coalfields Expressway: A $2.8 billion new highway is in the least-trafficked area of the state.
  • Charlottesville Bypass: This $243 million project doesn't solve congestion and saves minimal travel time for commuters.
  • North-South Corridor: This estimated $1 billion piece of an Outer Beltway around DC doesn't address commuter needs and would add development and traffic in areas without infrastructure.
Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director and a founder of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which he built into the leading smart growth organization in the Washington, DC region, addressing the interconnected issues of land use, transportation, urban design, housing, and energy. A retired Navy Captain with 24 years of active and reserve service, he earned a BA and JD from the University of Virginia and an MA from Georgetown University. 


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One point must be corrected. There are no facts upon which one can determine whether residents of NoVA would pay more or less under the Governor's proposal. Why? The Commonwealth does not report gas tax collections by local jurisdiction (something I hate). So there is no way to determine whether this proposal would cost residents of NoVA more or less. I have my own concerns about some of the proposal, while liking parts of it. But this one criticism simply cannot be made.

by TMT on Feb 4, 2013 4:36 pm • linkreport

Thats poppy cock. We know the average commute distance for residents, and we know the average gas efficiency for vehicles in the general public so we can make some estimates on what that equates to for usage in NOVA. (BTW for most Fairfax and Arlington residents that equates to between 80 and 110 per year spent on gas tax).

The sales tax is equally easy to determine for the average person in NOVA who spends $1000 per month (estimate on low limit) an 8point (0.008) increase represents $96 per year, those who spend $1500 per month (general spending) $144 per year, and those who spend $2000 per month (high limit) $192.

Now add in the fact that many households in inner suburbs have only one car (like myself) but two combined spending) and you see that this modification increases taxes on those individual by 3 or 4 times what they pay now.

by Tysons Engineer on Feb 4, 2013 5:07 pm • linkreport

Its logic that of course this is going to hurt people in inner suburbs and more developed regions, even without the exact data on hand.

by Tysons Engineer on Feb 4, 2013 5:08 pm • linkreport

"Prominent among the McDonnell Administration's wasteful projects have been Route 460, the Coalfields Expressway, Charlottesville Bypass and the Outer Beltway. "

Is there ANY road ever proposed that Mr. Schwartz or the Coalition For Smarter growth hasn't opposed and called "wasteful" or "unnecessary"?

by ceefer66 on Feb 4, 2013 7:53 pm • linkreport

@Tysons Engineer

Even worse, it helps people like my dad. He is a home inspector, makes a very good living, but drives 20,000-25,000 miles a year. My mom drives into DC with a hybrid that gets ~25 miles to the gallon. They are both heavy road users, and are both on the road during rush hour, and they will pay less under the new system. Such a terrible idea.

Oh, and under this scenario, I will pay nothing. Living in DC, would mean I would get to get cheap gas and contribute nothing to VA's roads, all the while happily continuing to shop at the DC costco, which is now markedly cheaper than Northern Virginia, due to the parity in sales tax, and no grocery tax.

by Kyle-w on Feb 4, 2013 7:59 pm • linkreport

Well when all the proposed routes are bad compared to improving transit then yeah.

Unless you feel billions on redundant roads who's primary beneficiaries are truckers are looking to avoid some stopligts is better than helping people in populated areas get to work a little easier then yeah it doesn't make sense.

by Drumz on Feb 4, 2013 9:43 pm • linkreport

RE: "redundant roads";

Maybe, just perhaps, the lack of redundant roads is one reason why the DC region consistently ranks number 1 in traffic congestion.

We cancel roads and kid ourselves that "mass transit" is the solution to all our needs.

The nation's worse-congested traffic is the result.

by ceefer66 on Feb 5, 2013 12:37 pm • linkreport


Other than the HOT lane proposal from Edsall to the Pentagon, a fairly debatable proposition, what roads have been canceled due to anti road sentiment in Northern Virginia, lately, that would reduce congestion?

by AWalkerInTheCity on Feb 5, 2013 12:44 pm • linkreport

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