Silver Line to Dulles not important to most Virginians, Post poll finds

May 10, 2012

Metro’s multibillion-dollar planned extension to Dulles International Airport could be a tough sell in Virginia.

As state and local officials debate the future of one of the nation’s largest public infrastructure projects, a large majority of Virginians do not consider the $3 billion second phase of the Silver Line project a priority, according to a poll by The Washington Post.

And fewer Virginians say that increasing spending for transportation is as important as five years ago, even as the state faces dwindling resources and escalating needs, the poll found.

Poll respondents say they would prefer to reduce spending on other government services over raising taxes, increasing tolls or selling the naming rights to roads and bridges to pay for transportation projects.

Funding for transportation loomed large in this year’s General Assembly session, which went into overtime so lawmakers could approve a state budget and will conclude two months late, on Monday.

Democrats held up the $85 billion budget for six weeks in part to secure hundreds of millions of additional dollars for Dulles rail, but they were unsuccessful. Democrats and Republicans helped kill efforts to increase the gas tax and divert sales tax from services to transportation.

That has left Virginia without a significant source of new revenue this year for what has long been considered one of the state’s most vexing problems.

Jon Billings, a Republican from Clarksville in Southside Virginia, said state spending on transportation is already wasteful, and that the Dulles rail project would only add to that.

“They need to save as much money as they can, any way they can,” said Billings, 32, a commercial refrigeration repair technician. “You go down the road, you go through a work zone, and you’ve got 18 people there, most of them standing on the side of the road, having a conversation, and one guy patching the pothole. . . . They could do away with the rest.”

Not surprisingly, the poll found a huge disparity between those who live in Northern Virginia, one of the nation’s most congested regions, and those in other parts of the state, including rural areas.

Statewide, 32 percent of those surveyed describe the Silver Line extension as extremely or very important, compared with 64 percent who say it is not.

In the Washington suburbs, including Fairfax and Arlington counties and Alexandria, 67 percent say the project is important, with 41 percent calling it extremely important. But in the remaining parts of the state it’s 25 percent.

The effort in the legislature to secure an additional $300 million for Dulles rail was led by Northern Virginia Democrats concerned about the escalating tolls in the region that would pay for the second phase of the Silver Line. The equally divided Senate killed the proposal after Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) said he would not spend more than $150 million.

The timetable

The first phase of the $6 billion Silver Line is under construction from Falls Church to Reston and is expected to open in late 2013. Construction on the second part of the project, which will run to Dulles and into Loudoun County, is expected to start in January.

Libby Mills, an independent voter from Virginia Beach who leans Republican, said she favors Dulles rail, even though she’s generally not a fan of government spending.

Mills, 56, manager of clinical engineering at two hospitals, said she does not want to pay for rail or other transportation projects with higher taxes because it would be unfair to people who do not use the road or rail projects. Instead, she prefers raising tolls or finding savings elsewhere.

“I could live with not having so many beautiful bushes and trees along the highways. If it improves our infrastructure, it’s something to consider,” she said. “The amount of traffic is crazy, so something has to be done.”

Road woes

Transportation experts and state officials say Virginia needs more than $1 billion each year to pay for road construction and maintenance. Construction dollars are expected to dry up next year, and the state’s Transportation Department has declared 27,000 lane miles of secondary roads substandard.

Forty-six percent of Virginians say increasing transportation spending is extremely or very important, down from 54 percent in 2007. In Northern Virginia, which includes counties west to Rappahannock County, 52 percent say it is highly important, down from 65 percent in 2007.

Last year, the General Assembly signed off on McDonnell’s plan to borrow nearly $3 billion for construction over three years — the largest infusion of funds into the cash-strapped transportation coffers in more than two decades.

But this year, lawmakers were unable to agree on any solution other than McDonnell’s proposal to sell the naming rights of roads and bridges, which he says could bring in as much as $20 million annually.

Virginians, like legislators, do not agree on one solution. Fifteen percent want to sell the naming rights to roads and bridges to pay for transportation costs. Twenty-nine percent support paying for transportation by cutting spending, and 11 percent back increasing gas taxes or tolls.

The gas tax

The state has not increased its 17.5-cent gas tax since 1986. And poll respondents of all political persuasions agree it should not be raised now in times of escalating gas prices and continuing economic troubles.

However, majorities of Northern Virginians, college graduates and Democrats said they would favor a 5-cent increase. Those who support former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) in his bid for the U.S. Senate favor an increase by a margin of 55 percent to 44 percent. Backers of Kaine’s likely rival, Republican George Allen, oppose it, 62 percent to 34 percent.

Virginia Beach resident Philip Read, 45, who said he probably will vote for Kaine, said state officials keep pouring money into projects in other parts of the state, like Charlottesville and Staunton, when they should worry about the more congested areas. Read, who lost his public relations job when his company closed, was born in Northern Virginia and has spent most of his life in Hampton Roads, the state’s two most populous areas.

“Taxes are going to have to be raised; maybe the gas tax,” he said.

The Virginia poll was conducted by telephone April 28 to May 2 among a random sample of 1,101 adults, including 964 registered voters and users of both conventional and cellular phones. Results from the full survey have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Polling director Jon Cohen, polling analyst Scott Clement and staff writers Ben Pershing and Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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