Roads Bill Would Slight Rural Areas, Leaders Fear
Sunday, March 18, 2007
RICHMOND -- As lawmakers move toward allowing taxpayers in comparatively affluent Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to fix their own roads, people in the rest of the state are getting anxious they won't be sharing in the riches.
In the transportation package approved last month and awaiting action by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), lawmakers allowed elected officials in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads the option of increasing local taxes and fees to pump an additional $600 million into roads and transit projects. Those areas have the state's worst traffic congestion.
But a growing number of local leaders elsewhere say their communities are being left behind. Some of them say they fear Northern Virginia could hoard more of its wealth, a bleak scenario for rural communities that rely on the state's economic engine.
"Once you begin to partition the state into regions, one really is not looking out for the common welfare and the common good," said C. Nelson Harris, the mayor of Roanoke. "The Balkanization of the state does not serve the best interest of Virginia as a whole."
Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who helped write the transportation bill, responded, "When they talk about Balkanization, what they are really saying is they want to take our money."
If Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads -- and their revenues -- were stripped from the state, Virginia would be one of the nation's poorest. With them, rural communities such as Harrisonburg and Danville can say they are part of one of the nation's wealthiest.
Recent election results show the economic gap has fueled some resentment and lack of understanding, especially between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state. The differences have been pronounced on tax increases.
Republicans in the House of Delegates -- most of whom represent rural areas -- have spent the past five years fighting efforts to raise revenue for transportation needs in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. But after losing several statewide and local elections in vote-rich Northern Virginia, the Republican leadership in the General Assembly this year brokered a transportation deal.
If Kaine signs the bill, Arlington, Alexandria, Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun could raise taxes on commercial real estate, hotel rooms, rental cars and home sales. The proposal could generate $400 million to build roads and mass transit in Northern Virginia. The Hampton Roads plan, which allows officials there to raise another set of taxes, could raise $200 million for them.
Most residents who live outside those areas won't be asked to pay much to fund transportation improvements. The statewide portion of the plan includes raising vehicle registration fees, fining bad drivers and borrowing $2.5 billion.
The Richmond area and rural regions won't get much from the plan, splitting $150 million to $300 million a year, according to state officials.
"We don't see a lot in the plan for central Virginia," said Malvern "Rudy" Butler, a member of the Goochland County Board of Supervisors. "There is no money for rural roads."