This may sound strange to thousands of Washingtonians who pay highway tolls in Northern Virginia, but there is a serious move in Virginia state politics to take the unthinkable step of raising the gasoline tax to generate $773 million for highway repair and maintenance — and avoid placing new tolls on other highways.
Let’s hope it gets attention.
The proposal from State Sen. John Watkins, a Republican from Powhatan, would raise gas taxes by eliminating an exemption for gasoline from the 5 percent state sales tax.
The state’s 17.5 cent per gallon tax would stay in place, but the new sales tax would reflect the ups and downs of the gasoline market pricing. The current effect, news accounts say, would be an increase of about 14 cents per gallon, raising the state’s tax share of one gallon to $31.5 cents.
Virginia’s gas tax is one of the country’s lowest. It hasn’t been changed since 1986 and isn’t adjusted to account for inflation. It is one reason why the state is always short of maintenance funds, but the General Assembly and governor’s office are packed with people to whom raising taxes is anathema.
Watkins says the state has a $1 billion hole in its highway maintenance budget right now. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell has been trying to fill that hole and generate more funds by putting up booths near Emporia and slapping tolls on Interstate 95, a critically important north-south roadway. There has been talk of putting tolls on east-west Interstate 64, as well.
Reaction against new tolls has been powerful. Protest signs large and small have appeared on highways in eastern and central Virginia. A huge electronic billboard flashes a “No Tolls” message along I-95 in the middle of Richmond.
One problem with raising gasoline taxes, even in a way as indirect as Watkins’, would be the impact on low-income people. Watkins seeks to address that in his proposal by suggesting $518 million in income tax breaks at the lowest levels, but he would keep the current rate of 5.75 percent for those making more than $17,000 a year.
Washingtonians may find these machinations odd since they pay plenty of tolls already and have just been introduced to the new HOT express lane tolls on parts of I-495.
Watkins’ proposal, however, represents progress. Virginia’s leaders cannot go decade after decade not facing the realities of their state’s basic needs, such as transportation and schools.