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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.

Roads


Will Montgomery fund new transit, or build more roads?

Maryland's gas tax increase means it now has the most transportation funding in a generation. Will Montgomery County spend its share on transit to support its urban centers, or keep building highways?


Downtown Silver Spring. Photo by dan reed! on Flickr.

Coupled with existing revenues, the new gas tax has made $15 billion available for transportation, a 52% increase from last year and the most transportation funding in a generation. This month, the County Council will send the state a list of their transportation priorities in order to receive some of that money. As in past years, there are a number of road projects on the list.

But the Planning Board, noting the high cost of new highways and efforts to direct future growth to urban centers, urged the council to choose transit instead. Transit isn't "the answer to every transportation problem," they write, but "where roadway widenings to solve perennial traffic congestion would significantly affect existing communities, natural resources and parkland, a more efficient solution is needed."

Funding would give county's transit plans teeth

Not all of the projects on the list are likely to receive funding. But if they were, the county's transit network could expand dramatically.

Some projects already have the support of county and state officials, including the Purple Line and Corridor Cities Transitway. Also included are funds for more 8-car trains on the Red Line, which will allow Metro to stop turning trains around at Silver Spring instead of running them to the end of the line at Glenmont.

There's also funding to build three of the county's proposed BRT lines along Georgia Avenue, Route 29, and Veirs Mill Road, as well as studying future lines on Rockville Pike and New Hampshire Avenue. A proposed HOV lane on I-270 could eventually support transit between White Flint and Tysons Corner. Planners also recommend funding new sidewalks and bike paths along Georgia Avenue between Forest Glen Road and 16th Street, which the State Highway Administration is currently studying, and a pedestrian underpass at the Forest Glen Metro station.

These projects would serve the county's existing urban centers, like Silver Spring and Bethesda, by giving people alternatives to driving. And they would support the development of future ones like White Oak, where County Executive Ike Leggett envisions a research and technology hub.

Planners say transit would better serve growth areas

But many of the road projects in the priorities list could undermine those efforts, whether by directing funding away from transit or by encouraging more people to drive there.

The priorities list includes three interchanges along Route 29 in East County, at Stewart Lane, Tech Road, and Greencastle Road, which have been in planning for decades and would cost $344 million. (Maryland has already set aside $7 million to design a fourth interchange at Fairland Road, estimated to cost $128 million to build.) Under the county's traffic tests, they have to be built before development in White Oak can happen.

County planners estimate that the three interchanges would cost the same to build as an 11-mile BRT line along the same corridor between downtown Silver Spring and Burtonsville. They say transit would not only better support the creation of a town center in White Oak, but give commuters from points north an alternative to driving, ultimately reducing local congestion.

"We believe that prioritizing the [Route 29] transit corridor improvements is the better choice," their report says.

Other road projects on the list include funds to build Montrose Parkway, a highway that would divide White Flint and Twinbrook. And there's a proposal to widen Norbeck Road between Georgia Avenue and Layhill Road and build an interchange at Georgia, even though the road runs parallel to the underused Intercounty Connector a half-mile away.

Maryland's new transportation funds present a rare opportunity to the state and Montgomery County, its economic engine. Some road improvements may be necessary and beneficial, especially in the county's suburban areas. But the county's urban centers are where most of its future growth will happen, and they need transit to thrive. We have to make the right choice now, because we may not get it again for a long time.

Government


Topic of the week: No more federal gas tax?

A new bill in the House of Representatives proposes eliminating the federal gas tax and making states pay for roads and transit themselves. Would that be good or bad for transportation?


Photo by RW PhotoBug on Flickr.

The Transportation Empowerment Act (TEA), by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Georgia), would virtually eliminate the federal gasoline tax over a 5-year period and devolve the responsibility of funding roads and transit to the states. It now has 19 co-sponsors in the House. We asked a few contributors to give their thoughts on how it could affect transportation funding.

David Cranor: This could be made workable. First, we could devolve gas taxes to states. Then, we could take the general funds used to enhance state funding to pay for Transportation Enhancements, recreation trails, Amtrak, TIGER, and so on.

The upside is that it gets rid of all the belly-aching and actually means less money for roads, unless states raise their gas taxes. The downside is that it reduces political support for non-car transportation.

David Edmondson: If the federal government cuts the gas tax and its investments in transportation, this would undoubtedly be bad for transit and non-car modes of transportation. But there may be a silver lining.

Despite the best efforts of advocates, federal transportation dollars overwhelmingly favor roadway projects, and most of those are highways or overbuilt arterials. And, given that these are often capital projects, the end result is high maintenance costs on localities that wouldn't have built the project in the first place if the money weren't "free" from the feds.

If states raise their own gas tax to match the loss, they'd be able to use that money how they see fit. A whole slew of federal strings would come off, freeing states to make the decisions they think they ought. While that might mean more questionable interchanges in Wisconsin, that state will actually need to pay for them entirely.

Advocates' fear that states won't raise their gas tax are certainly valid, of course. The tax discourages driving and was designed to fund infrastructure of national importance. Eliminating it would cut the federal government's ability to do either of those things. Yet the chance to cut all the bloat and waste advocates fight against and this money encourages would be quite a silver lining.

Matt Johnson: In Georgia, Graves' home state, the state constitution expressly prohibits the expenditure of gasoline tax revenues on anything other than roads, so without federal money, the Peach State would essentially only invest in highways. That's actually not a huge change.

MARTA, which operates rail, bus, and paratransit in Fulton and DeKalb counties is the largest transit agency in the country that receives no funding from the state government. Of course, MARTA was able to build their rail system using local and federal funds. But without the federal share, it would have been impossible.

Which is probably what Graves and Lee want. After all, the GOP has long suggested that investing in transit is a wasteful subsidy, while investing in roads is a sound investment for economic development.

According to Senator Lee, "Under the Transportation Empowerment Act, Americans would no longer have to send significant gas-tax revenue to Washington, where sticky-fingered politicians, bureaucrats, and lobbyists take their cut before sending it back with strings attached." [emphasis added]

Of course, this isn't accurate. According to a Government Accountability Office report from September 2011, both Georgia and Utah are winners in the transportation dollar lottery. Both states got $1.10 back in federal transportation dollars for every $1.00 they sent to Washington between 2005 and 2009.

Of course, they're no different from the other 48 states. But wait a minute: aren't there winners and losers? Doesn't at least one state have to be a donor state?

No. Because Washington doesn't just allocate gas tax revenues. They also send general fund revenues off to transportation projects.

So not only are those sticky-fingered lobbyists not stealing from Georgians to fund highway projects in Yankeeland, but the federal government is actually gifting Georgians (and Utahans) a little extra money on the side. Or to translate that into GOP-speak, "it smacks of socialism."

The idea, of course, is to just let the states take over and use a more locally-focused approach that works best for them. Federalism and all that.

But anyone want to put the odds on whether a state like Georgia would actually raise their own gas tax to compensate? Yeah, I didn't think so.

The real goal is of course, to stop spending money on transportation altogether. But that's okay. It's DOA in the Senate.

Canaan Merchant: Any transportation project is going to try to combine its funding from all levels of government. This bill is just the latest example of trying to come up with a standard across a large country with a very diverse population and large number of situations that require specific and different solutions.

Yonah Freemark of the Transport Politic has considered the question as well. He argues that the basic scheme where the federal government provides funding for construction while states and cities pay for operations and maintenance is backward.

Local governments may benefit from being able to not have to compete against dozens of other projects for federal funding while the federal government can ensure that service doesn't take a dive in lean budget years for localities.

Now that may not be optimal in the end, but it may be beneficial to completely reconsider how and who funds transportation projects across the country.

Budget


DC Council makes major policy changes overnight

Virginia and Maryland changed their gas taxes this year. Both proposals included weeks or months of debate, including public hearings before the legislature. DC made a similar change yesterday. The total time from the first news story about it to final vote? Less than a day.


Photo by Jenn Durfey on Flickr.

In DC's budget process, the mayor releases a proposed budget. Various council committees hold hearings over a period of weeks on their portions of the budget. Committee chairs then schedule markups, and just before the markups, release a draft of what they plan to change.

If the committee approves the changes, they all go to the council chairman, who then tries to assemble them into a budget. Habitually, the chairman releases his own budget late the night before the council is set to vote on the budget. If unexpected changes come up, that gives little time for residents to contact their councilmembers.

When then-Chairman Gray decided to cut streetcar funding in 2010, for instance, most councilmembers found out that morning. In a very short time, we, other blogs, residents using social media, and others were able to spread the word, which drove 1,000 calls to the chairman's office in just 3 hours. Even so, it wasn't in time to stop the Council from cutting the streetcar program. Instead, after lunch, they had to take a separate vote to restore the funding.

At each phase of the process, new ideas come up, and there is less time to react. There's plenty of opportunity to weigh in on the mayor's budget. But committee chairs don't publicly circulate a draft of the changes they're thinking about before any hearing. Most residents found out, for instance, about Mary Cheh's plan to extend the Circulator to the Cathedral, Howard University, and Waterfront Metro, and pay for it with a fare increase, the night before or day of her committee's vote.

Residents still had time to lobby council to reverse changes, as happened when Muriel Bowser suddenly and unexpectedly sliced funding for a Capitol Riverfront development project in favor of Ward 4 projects. After considerable pushback, Mendelson reversed part of that change yesterday.

But any ideas that come from the chairman have virtually no opportunity for public input. For some changes, those which are changes to the law to support the budget rather than the budget itself, the council has to pass its Budget Support Act twice, so the council could change things on its second reading. Still, that's more difficult; members have already voted for something by that time.

This year, Chairman Phil Mendelson's surprise budget changes went beyond just adding or removing funding for programs. He made some significant policy changes, like the gas tax. Other amendments put new requirements on government agencies' ability to execute programs that already exist. We'll talk about some of those next week.

If the Council restructured the gas tax or made other changes in a standalone bill, there would have to be a hearing, a markup, and two votes. But if the chairman slips a change into the budget the night before the budget vote, it means no hearing, no markup, and virtually no time for residents to weigh in.

Chairman Mendelson is very smart, but he can't think of every implication of a policy. The gas tax switch might be a good idea, but that's not the point. Maybe people have arguments against it that I haven't heard, or Mendelson's staff hasn't heard. Even if it's the right choice, it's dangerous to make even a good move so hastily.

There's a reason the legislative process is supposed to take some time. Residents need an opportunity to see the chairman's final proposal, plus any amendments members plan to introduce, more than a few hours before the vote.

And even a day or two still isn't the right amount for changes that go beyond simply deciding how much money to spend on what programs. Changes like the gas tax shift deserve to at least be part of a committee markup; most likely, changes of such significance ought to happen in standalone bills that get their own hearings and real deliberative thought.

Transit


O'Malley announces first projects using new gas tax money

Today, Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley signed the transportation funding bill that passed the legislature this year. The governor also announced a list of projects that would get some of the money, including MARC expansion and studies for the Purple Line and Baltimore Red Line.


Photo by the author.

The tax will start this summer, and will help fund transportation projects across the state. The increased tax was a key part of O'Malley's 2013 legislative agenda, and is expected to generate $800 million more for transportation each year.

After the governor signed the bill, his office released a list of "first round" projects that will get some of the increased revenues. This list totals $1.2 billion, but over the first 6 years, the tax should generate $4.4 billion.

Of the $1.2 billion, $650 million (54%) will go to transit. However, a large portion of that funds studies rather than actual construction. Money will go to MARC to add weekend service on the Penn Line and 2 new weekday roundtrips on the Camden Line, and to purchase new locomotives.

Here is the full list.

Transit projects:

  • $100 million for MARC enhancements, including Penn Line weekend service, 2 new Camden Line weekday roundtrips, and new locomotives.
  • $280 million for final design for the Purple Line.
  • $170 million for final design for the Red Line in Baltimore.
  • $100 million for final design for the Corridor Cities Transitway in Montgomery County.
Road projects:
  • $125 million for construction of an interchange between I-270 and Watkins Mill Road in Montgomery County.
  • $100 million for construction of an interchange at Kerby Hill Road and Indian Head Highway in Prince George's.
  • $49 million for widening US 29 to three lanes from Seneca Drive to MD 175 in Howard County.
  • $82 million for construction of an interchange on US 15 at Monocacy Boulevard in Frederick.
  • $20 million for design of a new Thomas Johnson Bridge between Calvert and St. Mary's counties.
  • $60 million for reconstruction of in interchange at I-695 and Leeds Avenue in Baltimore County.
  • $44 million for BRAC-related construction near Aberdeen Proving Ground.
  • $54 million for construction of a new interchage on US 301 at MD 304 on the Eastern Shore.

Budget


Driving still a historical bargain after Maryland gas tax hike

There is much hand-wringing over the proposed Maryland gas sales tax, but when you adjust for inflation and look at the costs to drivers per mile, the taxes the government collects on gas will still remain very near their historical low.


Photo by johnwilliamsphd on Flickr.

We charge a gas tax, ostensibly to pay for transportation, that you pay based on how much driving you do. But because of increased fuel efficiency in cars and an unwillingness to tie the tax to inflation, the tax is not consistent per mile of driving every year.

In fact, after an initial increase in the gasoline tax's first years in Maryland, the tax was consistently above $0.03 per mile (all values in 2009 dollars) for 50 years. In the 1970's however, rapid increases in fuel efficiency and inflation rates cut that in half by 1981. It would never go above $0.025 again. This year, the tax is lower than it's been in 90 years: $0.01233.

But wait, there's more to this bargain: the federal gas tax this year is below a penny per mile for only the 8th time in history.

The proposed tax increase could "add 20 cents" to a gallon of gas, but that wouldn't even double the tax per mile of driving. In 2016, the year the tax would fully phase in, the tax per mile would be only $0.02113. This would be the highest rate since 1978, but well below the historic high of $0.04684 per mile. And also below the historic average of $0.02759. (Note: After publishing, numbers in this paragraph were modified to address a transcription error)

The chart below combines the Maryland state gas tax per year, the inflation rate according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and average US fleet efficiency per year from M. Sivak and B. Schoettle.

For future years it assumes a worst-case tax increase, expected inflation, and fuel efficiency increasing each year at the same pace as the preceding 10 years. The final assumption is likely a conservative estimate due to new CAFE standards set to go in effect by 2017. Furthermore, the tax would look even cheaper, compared to historic averages, for those who drive cars as opposed to light trucks because the fuel efficiency of cars has increased faster.


Maryland gas tax over time. Graphs by the author.

The federal tax is far below its average as well.


Federal gas tax over time.

So while the increase in the gasoline tax might seem large per gallon, the tax drivers pay per mile is still an incredible bargain compared to what drivers paid as recently as the 1990's. Claims that Maryland is "pricing middle-class families, and certainly the working-class poor, out of" the state are clearly overblown.

Budget


O'Malley unveils transportation funding plan

Yesterday, Maryland governor Martin O'Malley released his proposal to restructure Maryland's gas taxes to raise $3.4 billion for transportation over 5 years. The plan is superficially similar to the recent Virginia transportation funding bill, but improves upon it in several ways.


The Purple Line won't happen without more money. Image from Maryland MTA.

Maryland needs new revenue this year. Without it, the Purple Line, the Corridor Cities Transitway, and the Baltimore Red Line could all stop moving forward.

The key to the bill is a new 2% wholesale tax on gasoline. Wholesale taxes differ from normal gas taxes in that the gas distributor pays them rather than the consumer. The distributor then usually passes the tax along to consumers via higher prices.

The plan partially offsets this wholesale tax by reducing the normal gas tax, from 23.5¢ per gallon to 18.5¢ per gallon. But the plan would also index the new lower gas tax to inflation, so it would increase slightly each year.

Taken together, overall tax revenue from gas would go up by about 2¢ per gallon as soon as the bill takes effect. In 2014 the 2% wholesale tax will increase to 4%, increasing gas tax revenue by another 9¢

Maryland's bill versus Virginia's bill

Both bills reduce the normal gas tax but add new wholesale gas taxes. But while Virginia plans to reduce its total gas tax and subsidize highway building with revenue from other sources, Maryland's proposal sticks to the principle of transportation user fees.

Unlike Virginia's bill, Maryland's does not include new fees on hybrid car owners, increases to the sales tax, nor any taxes on land or hotel visits.

Like Virginia's bill, Maryland's specifies that if Congress allows states to raise internet sales taxes, Maryland will do so, and will allocate some of it to transportation. If Congress doesn't allow an internet sales tax by 2015 then Maryland's wholesale gas tax will increase from 4% to 6%.

One thing Maryland's proposed bill does that Virginia's does not is to index transit fares on MTA buses and trains to inflation. That will put more burden on transit riders, but will also provide MTA with a more predictable budget.

Since Maryland cannot impose rules on WMATA without agreement from DC and Virginia, WMATA fares will not be indexed to inflation.

Smart Growth advocates are generally more supportive of O'Malley's proposal than the Virginia bill. Montgomery County councilmember Hans Riemer says the bill "appears to be a very strong plan and just what Maryland needs to get big infrastructure projects going."

The bill will undoubtedly face stiff opposition from Maryland Republicans, so its passage is no sure thing. But O'Malley's proposal is co-sponsored by Senate President Mike Miller and House Speaker Michael Busch, so it is clearly a serious initiative with a real chance of becoming law.

Cross-posted at BeyondDC.

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.

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