January 18, 2013

Does Virginia’s governor still represent Virginia, or is Robert F. McDonnell looking toward higher office? This month, McDonnell (R) proposed a transportation funding plan that would provide a windfall to drivers in other states who pass through Virginia while dumping more burdens on Virginians, especially residents of Northern Virginia.

McDonnell’s transportation funding plan, if you can call it one, would eliminate the gas tax and make it up, plus a little more, with a sales-tax hike on just about everything except driving. Instead of the common-sense idea that the more people use transportation, the more they should pay for it, McDonnell would do the opposite.

The biggest windfall would go to anyone who drives through the state without stopping. Going from Maryland to the Carolinas and beyond? Enjoy the state’s roads and bridges for free. Through-drivers, who add to traffic congestion and the wear and tear of the roads, would directly contribute to state coffers only if they happen to stop for a burger along the way.

Unlike the District, Maryland and most other jurisdictions, Virginia’s sales tax even includes groceries. That means if you buy grapes, ginger or Goldfish crackers, McDonnell would have you pay for roads. But he would have non-Virginians driving 370 miles from Tennessee to Maryland on the state’s highways pay zero state gas tax. And Virginia’s gas taxes are already lower, adjusted for inflation, than they have been at any time in the state’s history.

Plus, McDonnell wants to levy a $100 annual fee on alternative-fuel vehicles. Such vehicles consume less gasoline, and thus their owners pay less in gas taxes. They also help people get around without polluting the air, which is something Virginia should encourage, not penalize. But McDonnell wants to charge these car owners more than everyone else for road maintenance. What could possibly justify this crazy idea? McDonnell offers a convoluted explanation about offsetting the federal gas taxes that alternative-fuel vehicle owners don’t pay. More likely, it’s an example of a politician wanting lower taxes on his base and higher ones on people who tend not to vote for him. Slate’s Dave Weigel called the plan “a reducto ad absurdum of hippie bashing.”

Other elements of the plan include hiking the vehicle tax and counting on a faint hope that Congress will let Virginia impose sales taxes on residents’ online purchases. The Post editorial board called the revenue from all these ideas “paltry” for raising less than a third of what the state needs.

Plus, if McDonnell’s plan becomes law, more people who live in Maryland will drive into Virginia to buy gas. That will make traffic in Northern Virginia worse, and for what? The state won’t even get any tax revenue out of it.

Many Virginia residents, from Arlington to Hampton Roads to rural towns, increasingly want to live closer to their jobs and families so they don’t have to drive so much. Many of them pay a premium in housing costs to have shorter commutes. We should thank them, because they leave space on the roads for those who can’t do the same. McDonnell apparently thinks this is a bad thing, because under his proposal anyone who does this would pay as much as a long-distance commuter in sales taxes yet save nothing in Virginia gas taxes.

In a clear effort to try to win over skeptical Northern Virginia legislators, McDonnell included a provision that the first $300 million from the increased sales tax would go to the Silver Line, a.k.a. Dulles Rail. But that’s like a purse snatcher coming back after robbing you and offering some of the cash in your wallet in exchange for your car keys.

The state should have been chipping in far more — about $500 million — for the Dulles rail line from the start. It’s not like McDonnell can’t come up with the money; he borrowed $3 billion from Virginians’ children and grandchildren to build new roads, some of which almost everyone agrees simply aren’t necessary, such as a new highway in Hampton Roads right next to an existing one that isn’t crowded. Meanwhile, he has repeatedly withheld support for the Silver Line to punish Northern Virginia for not doing things his way or to wheedle legislators into giving him more power over Metro and other transportation decisions.

McDonnell has been very clever at making many Northern Virginians think he’s running the state well while stabbing them in the back. Now, he’s stabbing all Virginians in the back and Northern Virginia a second time. The General Assembly should laugh this idea right out of the room.

The writer is the editor of the blog Greater Greater Washington.