Transportation tax ideas are a tough sell everywhere

February 12, 2013

Travelers like these drivers in Tysons are determined to win relief from congestion, and equally determined not to pay for it. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) proposed some interesting new ideas on transportation financing, but the Virginia General Assembly, which holds some of the shortest legislative sessions in the nation, rarely approves big new ideas the first time legislators see them.

Such grand plans often wind up back in committees for further study, though some more modest version of the ideas may pass. So don’t be surprised to see this year’s assembly follow tradition on the main part of the governor’s transportation plan: eliminating the state gas tax and raising the sales tax as a partial substitute.

In Virginia’s assembly, it’s always hard to predict what’s going to happen. No idea really dies until the end of the annual veto session, following the regular session. Under enough political pressure, an assembly can work with the governor to revive plans that looked stone-cold dead a month earlier.

Still, an idea as big as the gas tax swap rarely has a Lazarus moment. The Associated Press reported Tuesday morning that a Virginia Senate committee rewrote the governor’s plan to increase the gas tax, add a 1 percent fuel sales tax and allow localities to add another 1 percent tax to fuel.

The bill will go to a floor vote and, if it passes, back to the House of Delegates, where its prospects would be dim. The end game is likely to develop from negotiations between the House and Senate.

The Post’s Lori Aratani and Fredrick Kunkle wrote about the governor’s trip Monday to Northern Virginia, where he worked hard on selling his transportation plan. In The State of NoVa, Tom Jackman wrote about the idea, already approved by the Senate and sent to the House, of allowing Northern Virginia localities to impose a 1 percent income tax to generate money for transportation programs.

Based on Virginia’s recent history of transportation politics, it’s unlikely that members of Northern Virginia boards would be willing to impose such a transportation tax on their voters, even if it gets through the General Assembly. In fact, the approval of any significant new revenue source for transportation in Virginia is unlikely.

I’ll stick with the rather sweeping statement I made about this in Monday’s online discussion of local transportation issues.

First and foremost: Any politician who suggests that governments are engaged in solving our congestion problems is blowing smoke.

There is no serious plan in Virginia, Maryland or Congress offered by either Republicans or Democrats to solve our congestion problems. The most we can hope for is that at some point they will find a way to fix the stuff we already have — but we’re not there yet.

Our transportation funding formula is in perfect balance: We are determined to win relief from congestion, and equally determined not to pay for it.

That applies to transit programs as well as road programs. We’re having some fun now talking about the Metro staff’s long-range proposals for new tunnels that would add capacity to the rail system. Some discussions of these Momentum plan proposals could lead a person to think that all we need to decide is exactly where we want that new Georgetown rail station.

This is all just happy talk till somebody steps forward with a financing plan.

In Maryland, it’s proving a lot easier for politicians to endorse projects like the Purple Line and the Corridor Cities Transitway than to come up with the money to build them.

Katherine Shaver reported that Purple Line advocates are worried the thing may never get off the drawing board. Their fears are well-founded. Yes, there’s a federal sugar daddy who might, if we’re lucky, pick up half of what’s now estimated to be a $2 billion price tag. But Marylanders need to show they can cover half the construction cost, or daddy is going to spend his money on a more deserving child.

Contemplating this Sargasso Sea of transportation politics that we’ve sailed into, you might wonder how an earlier generation managed to create a Capital Beltway and a Metrorail system.

We have just as many plans as those folks did. But at that time, there were enough people who thought differently about civic investment to make things happen. Such people came to the practical conclusion that if they were going to get something built for their own benefit, they also had to pay for things they would never even see, let alone use.

That idea is so 20th century.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.
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Mark Berman | February 11, 2013