“Statewide, people are beginning to feel the pain that we in Northern Virginia have been feeling for more than a decade,” Watts said.
Even those who agreed on the need for more funding disagreed on where to get it. In the General Assembly, Democrats have mostly favored raising taxes to pay for roads, and most Republicans have wanted to use existing revenue. But the issue does not break perfectly along partisan lines. As recently as last year, moderate Republicans joined with Democrats in the evenly split Senate to reject plans to take a greater share of general-fund money to pay for roads.
The rise of the tea party and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist have stiffened opposition, especially among Republicans, to any plan that depends on a major increase in state revenue. But with funds drying up, there’s a sense at the state Capitol that the time has come to solve the problem.
The political landscape has added to that the sense of urgency. The major-party candidates running to succeed McDonnell — former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe (D) and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) — are seen as strongly partisan figures. Some legislators have said they doubt that McAuliffe could move the GOP-dominated House or that tea party favorite Cuccinelli could sway the more moderate Senate. And neither candidate has well-known ideas about transportation funding.
“We don’t know where those two people stand” on transportation, Watkins said.
Sen. Frank M. Ruff Jr. (R-Mecklenburg) considers himself a conservative but has concluded that new revenue will have to be part of the equation.
“If the question is, ‘Do you want to pay more for tax?’ the answer will always be no, but that’s not really the right question,” he said. “The right question is, ‘Do you want to pay more for sales tax or gas tax, or do you want to pay for car repairs and front-end alignments?’ . . . When you start having a bunch of potholes, you can get your car aligned today and then next week and the week after.”
It is harder to find a Democrat, or moderate Senate Republican for that matter, who thinks the time has come to use more general-fund revenue to pay for transportation. Watkins still resists the idea, but he said he might feel differently if the money was used for specific projects, such as extending Metro to Dulles International Airport.
Some Republican lawmakers have balked at McDonnell’s plan, as have Norquist and the conservative-leaning editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. The latter railed against the plan under the headline “Republican Road Folly,” objecting in part because the “gas-tax-for-sales-tax swap violates the user pays principle of sound tax policy.”