By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
Butler and other local officials from across the state have made their feelings known to Kaine, who last week completed a series of meetings to solicit reactions to the Republican transportation plan.
After a recent meeting, Kaine raised concerns that the state could split into "haves and some have-nots."
Kaine, who has until March 26 to suggest amendments to the plan, is vowing to make changes to help address the needs of rural Virginia.
Even so, some political scientists wonder whether the regional tax districts in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads are a good idea in a state already divided over cultural and social issues, such as gun control, gay marriage and abortion rights.
"It's a slippery slope," said Sean T. O'Brien, executive director of the Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership at the University of Virginia. "First it's roads, then maybe schools, then maybe something else. There are enough people in Northern Virginia who want to have more autonomy and more authority who might see this as the first step of gaining that."
Taxpayers in Northern Virginia are known as "donors," meaning they give more money to the state then they receive back in services. The region has about 25 percent of Virginia's population, but its taxes fund about 40 percent of the state budget. For every dollar a Northern Virginian sends to Richmond, only 66 cents returns to the region in services, Albo said.
The rest of Northern Virginia's money flows elsewhere in the state to fund schools, social services and roads.
"As long as they depend on Northern Virginia, they should be grateful we have found a way to solve our own problem," said Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax).
Davis, Albo and other Northern Virginia Republicans met in 2005 to discuss how to raise revenue to relieve traffic. The group concluded that their rural GOP colleagues, who controlled a large bloc of votes in the House of Delegates, would never agree to raise taxes.
"I said, 'Look guys, it is never going to happen,' " Albo said. "The rest of Virginia is never going to send us the money."
The only option, Albo said, was to create a regional tax district -- a concept that isn't new. The General Assembly has added a 2 percent surcharge to gasoline in Northern Virginia to help pay for Metro.
But Harris, Roanoke's mayor, wonders what incentive Northern Virginia lawmakers will have to help his region in the future if they are allowed to solve traffic problems on their own. Government, he said, should fund services for the common good.
"That is why you keep all the money on the table from everyone across the state," Harris said. "This just puts the state on a trajectory that . . . leads to policymakers who are really not looking out for the commonwealth. You will have an even greater divide between the haves and have-nots."
Davis replied: "I would say to the rest of the commonwealth, how much more do you want to pay for our roads?"