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Roads


Virginia's unpaved roads bill acknowledges that it's not all about cars

Virginia legislators are considering a bill that would repair preserve nearly 300 miles of unpaved roads in western Loudoun County. While it may not seem relevant to the state's urban areas, it would make the state consider more than cars in assessing the needs of a street.


A gravel road in Loudoun. Photo by mdmarkus66 on Flickr.

HB 416, sponsored by Delegate Randy Minchew (R-Leesburg), requires the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to maintain Loudoun's unpaved road network, many of which date to before the Civil War. The roads are narrow and some feature old stone walls or are steeply banked. But some are still heavily used and have become badly rutted, frustrating residents who otherwise prefer unpaved roads.

If passed, it means VDOT would have to consider more than just the movement of cars when assessing the needs of these roads. Notably, the bill also asks that VDOT maintain the roads as is "whenever practicable," rather than paving, straightening, or widening the road.


Unpaved roads in Loudoun County.

In this case, the bill is aimed at keeping roads that already demand careful driving the way they are. But the unpaved road network also adds to the value of rural communities. People enjoy the aesthetics of the road and don't want to give that up in exchange for pavement and a slightly faster commute.

This supports Loudoun County's policy as well, since officials want most of development to go to the eastern half of the county closer to Dulles Airport, allowing the rest to remain rural. It also helps the county support its growing agritourism industry.

Recreational cyclists appreciate the gravel roads as well. "Gravel Grinders" are cycling enthusiasts who like riding on unpaved roads. Blogger DKEG has a self-made map of many of Loudoun's unpaved roads that any cyclist in the DC area could enjoy.

The proposed new standards are a tacit acknowledgement that people in rural and more car-dependent areas also appreciate calmer streets, and that wider or faster isn't always better. Communities can make drivers more mindful of their surroundings by narrowing or removing lanes, but in this case the roads are already narrow. It's great that Virginia and Loudoun County want to keep it that way.

Roads


VA legislative update: Bike safety bills advance, while some still try to limit Northern Virginia

As Virginia's legislative session continues, House Republicans are still trying to take local planning authority from Northern Virginia cities and counties. Two bicycle safety bills have moved forward. And Hampton Roads may get a regional transportation authority of its own.


Photo by William F. Yurasko on Flickr.

Bike bills seek to prevent "dooring"

Two bicycle safety bills have passed the Senate and are heading to the House of Delegates, including a bill that would require three feet of clearance when passing a cyclist. Another bill, Senate Bill 225, codifies that a car driver or passenger must ensure that the road is clear before opening their car door into traffic. And the House of Delegates passed HB 82, which specified that non-motorized transportation was included in the law that prohibits drivers following too closely.

However, two road safety bills that would have clarified a driver's duties to pedestrians in crosswalks were defeated in the House.

Delegates rewrite bill stripping Northern Virginia's ability to plan for itself

In our last update, we talked about HB 2, which would reduce Northern Virginia's ability to plan its own transportation projects. It's been significantly rewritten to put transit projects on more equal footing with roads and highways.

It will allow the state to evaluate projects on economic development, safety, accessibility, and environmental quality in addition to congestion relief, which would have been the only factor under the previous bill.

Meanwhile, HB 426, from Chantilly Republican Jim LeMunyon, has been tabled. It called for a "study" of transportation options on I-66 that only included more lanes for cars. It's unlikely that it will come up again this year.

But Delegate LeMunyon did get a House Bill 793 out of committee. That bill would have VDOT recommend specific transportation projects to the groups that plan these projects in Northern Virginia. Bills like this want to ensure that there's always someone advocating for highway projects that local governments may have already said they are not interested in. And this one violates the spirit of last year's transportation bill, which allowed Northern Virginia counties to plan for more public transportation solutions to congestion rather than pursuing a strategy that only focuses on newer and wider roads.

Another bill that we covered and is aimed at pushing a transportation solution that local counties may not want is House Bill 1244 from Delegate Tom Rust (R-Herndon), which would study and likely advocate for another highway crossing of the Potomac River as part of the Outer Beltway. It's been referred to the appropriations committee.

And HB 957, which would delay giving the state more control over VRE's executive board, passed the House. The bill initially called for repeal but this delay means that repeal can be considered again next year.

Good news for red-light cameras, Hampton Roads

The Hampton Roads area may soon be getting a local transportation planning authority similar to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority with HB 1253, which has moved out of committee. This may be a benefit to Northern Virginia since such a group could bolster the argument that transportation decisions can be answered effectively by local governments.

Meanwhile, House Bill 973, which would have repealed localities' authority to install red light cameras, has been defeated.

We'll keep you updated on what happens to these bills.

Roads


VA legislative update: Hybrid tax going, but bills to limit Northern Virginia remain

As the Virginia legislative session continues, lawmakers in Richmond have agreed to remove the hybrid car tax, and successfully defeated an attempt to take away Northern Virginia's ability to plan and fund its own transportation projects. But several destructive bills, including one that could force the state to widen I-66 in Arlington, are still on the table.


Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

Hybrid car tax poised for repeal

Several lawmakers introduced bills to repeal a tax on the sale of hybrid cars, which the state passed last year. One such bill has now passed both houses and Governor Terry McAuliffe says he will sign it.

The original bill's justification was to make sure that hybrid car owners who use less gas, and thus pay less in gas taxes, still contribute to maintaining state roads. But its critics contend that the $64 tax is an inefficient way to make up for the lost revenue and unfairly punished hybrid drivers who are helping the environment by using less gas.

Attempts to limit Northern Virginia's choices narrow

Legislators have tabled several bills that sought to restrict the power of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), which selects and funds transportation projects in that area. Instead, Republicans want Richmond to decide what gets built there, especially if it involves widening and building new highways.

Meanwhile, House Bill 658, sponsored by David LaRock (R-Sterling), would limit "transit, rail, and public transportation" to get at most 25% of Northern Virgnia's transportation funds. Not only is that an arbitrary standard, but it ignores how transit is already moving people and reducing highway congestion.

This proposal could prevent good transit projects from happening. If the region wants to ramp up a major new Metrorail, light rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit project and spend more in one year than another, this cap would severely limit that ability. Besides, Northern Virginia should be able to choose how much to spend on different transportation priorities as it sees fit.

Bill would rate transportation projects on "congestion reduction"

Meanwhile, the legislature is still debating HB 2, which would require that the state pick transportation projects based on how much they are "expected to provide the greatest congestion reduction relative to cost." This relies on defining congestion solely as how many cars can move through an area, which automatically puts public transit at a disadvantage.

By its very nature, transit doesn't involve moving cars, and often requires a higher initial investment than a road project of comparable size. This proposal also ignores the ancillary benefits of transit, like lower pollution and the ability to tie transportation to land use, which can reduce overall car trips and conserve land.

"Study" bills push wasteful highway projects

A few bills require the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to conduct studies of highway projects their authors really want to see built. HB 426, by Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) demands a study of adding extra lanes (that aren't subject to HOV restrictions) on I-66 inside the Beltway in Arlington and Falls Church.

The original bill would have forced the I-66 widening to be part of VDOT's capital plan. LeMunyon changed it to only require a study, which means that even if it passes, it wouldn't necessarily mean the project happens. However, once a study gets finished, it's a lot easier for a sympathetic future administration to turn it into reality, and gives project supporters something concrete to push for.

The language doesn't allow VDOT to consider any sort of transit alternative to widening the highway, even though there is a rapid transit option, the Orange Line, literally running down the middle. It already assumes that the only solution for I-66 is more lanes for cars. Besides, VDOT already studied widening I-66, and the results show that general purpose lanes are not effective, while HOV, managed toll lanes and express bus perform better.

Another bill, HB 1244 by Thomas Rust (R-Fairfax) would push forward on studies to build an Outer Beltway with new bridges over the Potomac outside the Beltway. This would stimulate more car-dependent sprawl on what is now rural land at the region's edge.

Maryland opposes the idea, in order to protect its rural land in Montgomery's Agricultural Reserve and Charles County in southern Maryland. It instead wants to add capacity, for transit or cars, on the American Legion Bridge between Potomac and McLean, and is widening the Route 301 Henry Nice Bridge south of Washington. Despite this, former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton initiated a study about potential new bridge locations. HB 1244 would make VDOT take the results of that study and recommend specific options.

Things are still very busy in Richmond. We are seeing the effects of local debates regarding Northern Virginia's transportation future reverberate at the state capitol just as hotly as they were contested back home. Bills rise and fall very quickly in the Virginia legislature, and we will keep you up to date on what is happening.

Government


Was last year's Virginia transportation bill a bait and switch?

Last year, Virginia legislators passed a bipartisan transportation bill that promised to give Northern Virginia the authority to plan and fund its own transportation projects. Now that the money is flowing, a bevy of new bills seek to wrest control of funding from locals, and send it back to Richmond.


Dollar lure image from Shutterstock.com.

The issue is that some legislators feel the only way to solve Northern Virginia's transportation problems is by building and expanding highways, and they want to prevent local governments from doing anything else. To them, money spent on public transportation is better spent on ensuring that everyone has the "freedom" to only be able to drive to work.

But unlike many parts of the state, transit has proven its value in Northern Virginia. For communities that have tried for decades to raise their own taxes to implement their own priorities, these proposals are a gross violation of bipartisan trust, and a clear bait and switch.

Bob Marshall's bills

Delegate Bob Marshall (R-Bull Run) never wanted Northern Virginia to have its own money in the first place. He unsuccessfully sued to stop the process. Since that didn't work, he's now submitted a HB40, a bill to repeal the new funds.

But that's unlikely to pass, so Marshall is hedging his bets with HB41, a bill to have the statewide Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) pick projects that Northern Virginia is allowed to build, instead of the locally-controlled Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA).

Marshall also has a third bill, HB84, to remove state elected officials from the NVTA board. That would seem to give locals more strength on the board, but if Marshall's second bill to strip NVTA of its powers goes through, what would be the point?

Jim LeMunyon's bills

Jim LeMunyon (R-Chantilly) is trying the opposite tactic. Instead of cutting the NVTA's authority, his HB425 would increase the number of General Assembly legislators on NVTA's board, thus effectively weakening representation from the counties and cities.

A second bill, HB793, requires VDOT to suggest which projects NVTA will build. It does not ask for any input from Virginia's corresponding transit agency, the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT).

Finally, HB426 would simply bypass NVTA completely, and require VDOT to widen I-66 inside the beltway, over Arlington's objections. The bill is written so that only an auto-based option could be considered. Even when 66 already has a transit option that could be improved and extended in any number of ways that could move more people than an extra lane.

David LaRock's bills

David LaRock (R-Sterling) is sponsoring HB635, a draconian bill that would block NVTA from funding new transit projects, instead forcing them to fund only projects that help highways.

And just in case NVTA can build a case that transit projects do help highways, LaRock also filed HB653 to restrict it to using no more than 25% of its own money on mass transportation projects, no matter what.

Finally, LaRock is sponsoring two bills attempting to override the local authority that sets toll rates on the Dulles Toll Road.

HB647 would outlaw use of any state money on construction of Phase 2 of the Silver Line, unless the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) matches the toll rate for its airport lanes (currently free) to the toll rate on the Dulles Toll Road.

This is seen as a move that would force MWAA to lower its overall toll rates, since it wants to keep its Dulles access lanes as free or cheap as possible.

Lastly, LaRock has also sponsored HJ84, a resolution that asks Congress to intervene and lower the tolls set by MWAA.

Others

Christopher Stolle (R-Virginia Beach) proposes HB2, requiring that all allocations to the Northern Virginia highway district go towards highway congestion relief projects. It's not clear whether that means only VDOT money, or all funding for Northern Virginia including NVTA money, but either way it would prohibit spending on things like safety or maintenance projects.

Finally, David Albo (R-Lorton) is sponsoring HB281, which stops NVTA from spending money on joint projects with DC or Maryland unless the costs are borne exactly equally. This would make it harder to fund regional projects like 8-car Metro trains, and could end up costing Virginia big money on projects where it would make more sense for Virginia to contribute less than 50%.

Stark contrast

These delegates, all Republicans, represent constituencies that are from the farthest reaches of the Washington metro area, or even outside it completely. Their legislative priorities reflect a desire to ensure that people living in far-out areas can quickly drive around the region. They don't think that it's possible that making sure people closer to the region's core have more transit options could even benefit those driving from farther away.

This flies in stark contrast with NVTA, which functions well and tries to accommodate the needs of everyone. NVTA allows outer suburban jurisdictions to build the roads they want, while also allowing the more urban ones to focus on transit, cyclists, and pedestrians.

It's ironic that Republicans who emphasize small government would support something that takes away power from local governments. If you'd like Northern Virginia to have control over its transportation future, you can tell them here.

Government


Virginia General Assembly rolls up its sleeves

Virginia's 2014 General Assembly is officially in session. As usual, there are plenty of proposed bills that could affect urban areas. Here are some of the key ones to follow.


Virginia flag image from Shutterstock.com.

Bills that look promising:

  • SB97, requiring car drivers to leave three feet of clearance when passing a bicyclist.
  • HB761, allowing local governments to hire transit fare inspectors and to collect fines from fare violators. This will be necessary for any future streetcars that use a proof of payment fare structure.
  • HB626, changing the formula used to distribute transportation funds around the state, eliminating a provision that took $500 million off the top and allocated it to highways.
  • SB320, sponsored by Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington), allowing jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to implement plastic bag fees.
  • HB212, prohibiting drivers from holding pets while driving.
  • HB482, making failing to wear a seatbelt a primary offense, allowing police to stop and ticket people for that alone.
Bills that look troubling:
  • HB2, limiting transportation funding going to the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads construction districts to only projects that reduce highway congestion. Safety projects, maintenance projects, many transit and bike/ped projects, and just about everything else would be excluded.
  • HB40, HB41, HB425, HB635, and several others that all seek to reduce Northern Virginia's authority to build its own transportation projects, especially transit.
  • HB426, requiring VDOT to widen I-66 in Arlington.
  • HB281, restricting Northern Virginia from partnering with DC or Maryland on transportation projects, unless the costs are born exactly equally.
  • HB160, giving courts authority to reduce charges currently defined as "reckless driving" to merely "speeding."
  • HB792, requiring Northern Virginia communities to rewrite their zoning ordinances to restrict the number of housing units smaller than 500 square feet.
  • HB908, defining Uber as a "contract passenger carrier" rather than a taxicab, effectively removing any ability of localities to regulate it.
Other bills of interest:
  • HB870, providing a tax credit to companies that build their own infrastructure, including new roads.
  • SB505, a huge bill enacting a broad range of incentives for the use of natural gas as a transportation fuel.
  • HB560, allowing VDOT to grant Right of Way (ROW) permits to certain types of private companies, instead of only to public utilities.
  • HB691, creating a "Prince William Metrorail Improvement District," to begin the process to extend Metro into Prince William County.
  • SB156, requiring that either toll rates for E-ZPass users and non-E-ZPass users be set the same, or requiring the operator of a toll road to pay the annual fee for all E-ZPass users living within 50 miles of a toll road. This bill comes from Senator John Miller of the Hampton Roads area, where they are debating controversial proposals to let private operators collect tolls in exchange for rebuilding tunnels. But if the law passes it would also include much of Northern Virginia.
  • SB1, from Adam Ebbin again, that would repeal a higher tax on hybrid-electric cars. The tax was originally imposed to make up for such cars contributing less to the gas tax. Ebbin questions whether taxing more efficient vehicles is the best way to solve that issue.
  • HB122, defining three-wheeled mini cars that kind of look like hardcore golf carts with bigger engines as "autocycles" and regulating them in various ways. It's not a coincidence that this bill comes from Edward T. Scott, delegate from the very district that's home to the first autocycle manufacturing plant in the US.
  • HB475, legalizing pedestrians stepping into the roadway to solicit charitable contributions.
  • HB255, requiring red light cameras to have yellow light phases lasting at least three seconds.
It's going to be an exciting year, with numerous bills to root both for and against. There are also a lot of bills about the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and how Virginia will allocate the money from last year's transportation funding deal. We'll talk about those next week.

Roads


Follow the money in Virginia's transportation bill

Virginia's complex transportation funding bill, HB2313, is headed to Governor McDonnell for his signature and potential amendments. The bill is a prime example of political sausage, seeking to satisfy Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, transit and road constituencies.


Photo by jimmywayne on Flickr.

It also represents poor public policy by undermining the "user pays" principle, failing to reform VDOT spending, allocating far too little to transit in an urbanizing state, and off-loading responsibility for local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Some political observers argue that the only way Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads could win rural legislators' support for new revenues would be to place the burden on themselves. And they have, by increasing local sales taxes, recordation fees and transient occupancy (hotel) tax, and with a higher state sales tax, which derives heavily from the two regions.

Virginia's smart growth and conservation community expressed concerns with the bill on Saturday.

While Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will able to raise (tax themselves), keep, and allocate new transportation revenue, VDOT escapes responsibility for meeting the needs of the two most economically important parts of the Commonwealth. The bill frees VDOT to take more of the statewide sales tax revenues for highway construction outside the two regions.

Now that the bill has passed, and presuming the Governor signs it, it will be incumbent upon legislators, local elected officials and the public to watch-dog how the money is spent, starting with the next update of the state's 6-year transportation plan, due in June. Setting the right priorities with the local money from and for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will be equally important.

Who voted for and against?

The 25 to 15 vote in the Senate included 17 Democrats and 8 Republicans voting yes, and 3 Democrats and 12 Republicans voting no. Northern Virginia yes votes were Senators George Barker, Charles Colgan Sr., Barbara Favola, Mark Herring, Janett Howell, Dave Marsden, Toddy Puller and Richard Saslaw, all Democrats. No votes were Democratic Senators Adam Ebbin and Chap Peterson, and Republican Senators Richard Black and Jill Holtzman Vogel.

The 60 to 40 vote in the House included 25 Democrats and 35 Republicans voting yes, and 4 Democrats and 36 Republicans voting no. Northern Virginia yes votes were Democratic Delegates Robert Brink, David Bulova, Eileen Filler-Corn, Charniele Herring, Patrick Hope, Mark Keam, Kaye Kory, Robert Krupicka, Alfonso Lopez, Kenneth Plum, James Scott, Mark Sickles, Luke Torian and Vivian Watts; and Republican Delegates David Albo, Mark Dudenhefer, Thomas Greason, James LeMunyon, Joseph May, Randall Minchew, and Thomas Rust.

Northern Virginia no votes came from Democratic Delegate Scott Surovell and Republicans Richard Anderson, Barbara Comstock, Timothy Hugo, Scott Lingamfelter, Robert Marshall, Jackson Miller, and David Ramadan.

The complete bill history can be found here.

Follow the money

The best source for tracking the new taxes and the funding allocations is the HB2313 Transportation Conference Report, but even this requires interpretation.

While the bill no longer eliminates all taxes on gasoline, it still reduces what road users will pay in daily operating costs. It eliminates the 17.5¢ retail gas tax and shifts to a wholesale sales tax on gas. This reduces user fees in 2014 by nearly one-third, and by 20% in 2018 assuming the receipts increase because of a rise in gas prices.

The bill makes up for reducing gas taxes primarily by increasing the sales tax on new car purchases, charging a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles like hybrids, and tapping statewide sales taxes on goods and services (but not food).

Day-to-day vehicle user costs will decline, and all taxpayers will pay more even if they drive little or not at all. Meanwhile, transit fares are likely to continue to climb in the absence of adequate state support for transit maintenance and operating costs.

VDOT is free to continue wasting money on unnecessary highway projects

The statewide portion of the bill is truly a highway bill: it directs $538 million (annually by 2018) to the highway maintenance accounts, but this will effectively free up an equal amount in highway construction funds, allowing the current administration to continue a pattern of funding rural highways with little traffic demand.

Just last week, VDOT announced it would allocate another $869 million in federal Garvee bonds to Route 460 and the Coalfields Expressway, two of the most wasteful, unnecessary projects in the history of Virginia. Four questionable projectsRoute 460 ($1.4 billion), Coalfields Expressway ($2.8 billion), Charlottesville Bypass ($240 million), and the Outer Beltway in Northern Virginia (estimated $1 billion)total a potential $5.5 billion in misallocated spending.

Many expect that Secretary Connnaughton intends to divert a substantial portion of the new statewide money to the controversial and sprawl-inducing Outer Beltway, rather than to the critical commuter corridor needs of the metro regions.

Just 21% of the statewide funds go to transit and passenger rail in 2018, although passenger rail advocates are rightly pleased that $44 million in 2014 and $56 million per year by 2018 will go to current Amtrak services for which Virginia is now responsible, and for capital investment in the passenger rail network. An existing funding source supports upgrades for freight rail.

The $84 million for public transit isn't a lot of money when it must be shared among transit agencies across the state. The bill allocates a separate $300 million to Dulles Rail, but like some of the road money it's coming from the existing state sales tax at the expense of General Fund needs like education and health care.

The bill fails to address the empty secondary and urban road capital accounts, unless the administration commits to use some of the freed-up road money in the Transportation Trust Fund for this purpose. Instead, the bill implicitly off-loads the cost of local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads through the local sales tax increases in those two regions. Shifting this responsibility allows VDOT to spend more money on rural highways.

Part of the future depends on a bill in Congress

Part of the bill also depends on the federal Marketplace Equity Act, a bill in Congress which would let states charge sales tax on Internet purchases. If that does not pass by January 2015, the sales tax on gas will rise another 1.7 percentage points to make up for the expected revenue from the MEA. This would bring gas taxes back to a level comparable to where they are today, if not a little higher at current per-gallon prices.

The Washington Post also reports that Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) secured another provision that would kick in if the MEA does not pass. In that case, the amount of general fund revenue directed to transportation would drop from $200 million a year to $60 million a year.

More taxes rise in NoVa and Hampton Roads

The bill would raise between $300 and $350 million per year in and for Northern Virginia by 2018. It does so by increasing the sales tax in northern Virginia by 0.7 percentage points on top of the statewide 0.3 point increase, for a new total of 6%.

There's also a 0.25% recordation tax on recorded deeds and a 3% transient occupancy (hotel) tax. The bill retains the existing local 2.1% tax on fuel. 70% of the funds will go to "regional" projects and 30% to local projects in the locality where the money is raised. The funds can go to roads or transit, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority will decide how to allocate the money.

For Hampton Roads, the bill would raise $219 million in 2018, using a local sales tax increase of 0.7 percentage points and a 2.1% local tax on fuel. However, the legislation directs these funds only for roads, despite the great need for transit and widespread support for light rail in the region.

Following the success of "The Tide" light rail in Norfolk, 62% of voters in Virginia Beach's referendum last November supported extending light rail to the beach. The Navy has also expressed its strong support for extending light rail to Norfolk Naval Station.

In a final example of VDOT off-loading costs onto the two metro regions, the bill failed to allocate state funds to Hampton Roads' Midtown/Downtown Tunnel project which local officials want. Instead, the authors of the bill say that localities should use the new regional funding sources if they want to buy down the costs of the tolls, even as VDOT diverts $1.12 billion of state and federal funds to the unnecessary Route 460 over the objections of many in the region.

Budget


Virginia conferees reach flawed transportation deal

As the clock winds down on the 2013 Virginia General Assembly session, a conference committee has reached a deal to eliminate the gas tax, but impose a wholesale tax on gas, divert more general fund revenue to transportation, and charge a $100 per year fee on alternative fuel vehicles. Some of the new funding will go to transit and rail, but the lion's share will go to highway construction.


Photo by ervega on Flickr.

The conference committee deal would generate an estimated $3.5 billion in additional transportation funds over the next 5 years, roughly $900 million a year after that, and even more in future years. It includes some positive provisions to address our transportation challenges, but is a flawed deal, with a number of provisions that are cause for serious concern.

If approved, the deal will affect for decades how Virginians travel, how much we pay in fees and taxes, and how our tax dollars are spent.

Since Governor McDonnell unveiled his plan the day before session began, there have been plenty of twists and turns to the effort to pass the most significant transportation funding boost in the Commonwealth since 1986. Reflecting the deep disagreement over various proposals, the House and Senate each narrowly adopted a major package, with sharp differences between the two versions.

A conference committee met this week and hammered out the proposed deal that now must pass each chamber. The House and Senate could vote on it as early as today.

Where will the money come from?

The primary disagreement between the House and Senate has been over whether to raise revenues through the gas tax and other user fees or to take money from the general fund.

Gas tax: The governor's proposal and the House version of the transportation bill would have eliminated the current 17.5¢ per gallon state gasoline tax, which the Senate voted to raise it and index it for inflation. The conference committee version would eliminate the gas tax, and fill the resulting budget hole (over $4.5 billion in the next five years) by imposing a wholesale tax on gasoline and diesel and increasing the sales tax on vehicle purchases.

Eliminating the gas tax weakens the logical tie between transportation use and funding, and Virginians who use roads less will subsidize those who use the roads more. The compromise does retain elements of a user-pays approach through the wholesale fuels tax and sales tax on vehicle purchases, although it sends a weaker price signal.

A better alternative would have been to increase and/or index the gas tax, or apply the sales tax to gasoline purchases, as the Senate version did. These measures would properly tie fees and taxes to use of public infrastructure and allow revenues to grow with the price of gas. The governor is correct that the gas tax is a declining revenue source, but the main reason it is declining is that it doesn't rise with inflation and hasn't been increased since 1986.

General fund: If much of the proposed funding deal only brings us back to where we are today, where do the additional funds come from? The deal would divert a portion of the existing sales tax, increase the sales tax, and devote possible future online sales tax revenue to transportation.

Sales tax revenues typically go to the general fund. Although transportation is a core function of government, there are few or no other state dedicated revenue sources for education, health care, public safety, and conservation. The deal would divert an estimated $3 billion over the next 5 years that could have gone to other core services, at a time when Virginia ranks 35th in state investment in higher education, 38th in public K-12, and 46th in Medicaid spending.

Clean vehicle fees: The compromise also would impose a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles, as the governor had proposed. This "hybrid car tax" is particularly hard to justify when gas taxes are being cut, and it would create a disincentive for purchasing vehicles that help achieve critical goals such as reducing pollution and conserving energy.

Regional funding: The proposed deal also includes regional funding packages of approximately $300-350 million annually for Northern Virginia and $175-200 million annually for Hampton Roads. Funding is likely to come through local sales tax revenues but many details remain unclear.

Where will the money go?

Amid all the debate, a central issue has largely been ignored: how will the state spend these additional funds?

Highway construction: The General Assembly authorized almost $4 billion in additional transportation funds just 2 years ago. The administration has earmarked almost all of these funds for roads, and has spent much of the money on destructive projects that do not address pressing transportation needs.

In the proposed deal, although there is some good news for rail and transit, most of the funding again will go to road-buildingat least $2.6 billion over the next 5 years alone. The ultimate impact of this deal depends on how wisely this money is spent.

Passenger rail funding: Passenger rail is a transportation success story, with record ridership last year. Without dedicated, sustainable funding, however, Virginia could lose its intercity services due to federal funding changes. A bright spot of the proposed deal is that it would provide roughly $50 million annually to preserve and expand passenger rail.

Transit funding and Dulles Rail: The deal would provide additional funding to transit as well. In addition, $300 million would go to Phase 2 of the Dulles Metrorail (Silver Line) project, which would help address the relatively small contribution Virginia has made to a project that could significantly enhance multimodal transportation in one of the nation's leading economic and employment corridors.

However, going forward, it appears transit will only receive about 1/6 of the funding devoted to roads, despite transit's benefits in reducing congestion, energy consumption, and pollution while providing better services for elderly, disabled, and low-income citizens.

The compromise before the General Assembly offers some meaningful benefits, but it has numerous shortcomings and does nothing to advance overdue policy reforms to help ensure that our transportation dollars are used wisely.

Virginia needs a more balanced, efficient, and cleaner transportation system. Time will tell how far this deal gets us.

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