Fairfax appeals to state lawmakers for transportation funding

December 23, 2012

Despite an all-out offensive by Fairfax County, there appears to be little chance that Richmond will allocate new money this year to solve one of the region’s biggest problems: traffic.

That was the takeaway at a joint meeting earlier this month between Fairfax supervisors and the county’s General Assembly delegation.

Fairfax’s message to Richmond was that over the past decade or so, the state has allowed transportation funding across Virginia to fall to the point of crisis and something must be done during the upcoming legislative session.

The answer from the dozen-plus legislators who were present? We agree with you, but don’t hold your breath — our general fund is stretched thin, and the political will to raise taxes isn’t there.

“I’m very pessimistic,” Del. Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said last week. “We need to get real, but not everyone is willing to do that.”

There is no question that the funding shortage is dire. Virginia is so desperate for road money that for years it has been dipping into its new-construction fund just to perform basic maintenance on existing roads — and even that money may soon run out. Fairfax, like many places, has been compensating with local money, but county officials say it isn’t enough.

Over the next 10 years, Fairfax estimates its transportation needs at $8 billion. It has identified only $5 billion in funding, leaving a $3 billion gap — or $300 million per year.

The only solution, Fairfax says, is new state revenue, such as sales or gas tax increases. The state’s gas tax hasn’t been raised in 26 years.

A big part of the problem, said Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee), is “an extreme element in the General Assembly that blocks anything that even smells like a tax increase.”

“They won’t even sit down and talk about solutions,” he said.

“The biggest roadblock is the House of Delegates,” Surovell said. “And it’s not the Democrats.”

Some Republicans see it the same way.

Del. David Albo (R-Springfield) said the only way a tax increase might pass is if it can be argued that it doesn’t amount to higher taxes for Virginia voters. Possibilities would be a new hotel tax or a gas tax increase that is offset for Virginia residents through an income tax reduction.

On top of general anti-tax sentiment, many legislators from rural areas aren’t interested in solving the infrastructure problems of more populated parts of the state, McKay said.

For months, Fairfax supervisors have been working to try to change the dynamics that they think are stalling progress, namely by joining forces with their counterparts in Hampton Roads, the other area of the state that is especially affected by traffic and the funding shortage.

“We’ve tended to be pitted against one another” over transportation money, McKay said. “We’re finally banding together to say that we’re not going to accept this.”

State officials recently announced a $1.4 billion deal to build a highway in southeastern Virginia, which elicited criticism from those who say the state’s scarce transportation resources should be spent in more heavily traveled corridors

Earlier this month, local officials throughout the state’s urban crescent — the more populated stretch that runs from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads — signed onto a letter to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) and other state leaders, urging them to take action.

“Business as usual is no longer acceptable,” it read. “The solution requires broad new transportation revenue enhancements.”

Along with the growing scope of the problem — some say it is reaching a point that even rural areas are beginning to see effects — Fairfax officials hope the pressure is enough to make a difference.

But few are overly optimistic.

“It’s going to take a grand bargain,” Albo said.

He said he is working on legislation that he thinks all sides might agree to. It would increase the gas tax but reduce income taxes, effectively only raising taxes on drivers passing through the state. To make up for the general fund money that would be lost with the income tax reduction, Albo’s legislation would include corporate income tax changes that would raise taxes for out-of-state entities that make money in Virginia, he said.

The result: more money for state roads but no tax increases for Virginia residents and businesses.

“I don’t know why any rational Republican would mind raising taxes on people who don’t vote for them,” Albo said. He worries that the complexity of the idea could hurt its chances.

If a solution isn’t found soon, Virginia’s budget problems will worsen because the traffic and aging infrastructure will harm the state’s economy, Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said at the state-county meeting.

Bulova said inaction will amount to “additional taxes on our residents, families and businesses through diminished quality of life, higher fuel costs, higher vehicle maintenance costs and a loss of economic opportunities.”

Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.

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