Taxes For Roads May Face Scrutiny

By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 13, 2007

Local and state officials said this week that they are growing increasingly concerned that efforts to fix problems in the landmark transportation package approved this year could cause the entire plan to unravel when lawmakers return to Richmond in January.

The legislation came under intense scrutiny this summer, largely because of a controversial provision that levies steep fees, in some cases $3,000, on the state's worst driving offenders. Local officials said the package, which took more than two years to negotiate, is crucial because it allows Northern Virginia to raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on roads and transit.

Lawmakers and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who helped push through the legislation, have agreed to at least adjust and possibly repeal the abusive-driving fees, which apply across Virginia and were intended to raise more than $60 million annually for statewide road work.

As the 2008 session approaches, some Northern Virginia politicians worry that overhauling those fees will open up the entire package to review, including its most crucial component for the Washington region. Northern Virginia is to begin collecting the seven new regional taxes and fees starting Jan. 1. They are intended to pour an estimated $300 million annually into the transportation network of Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington counties and Alexandria.

The regional package gives local governments three additional powers: to raise the tax rate on commercial properties and to levy a local vehicle registration fee and impact fees on builders, to cover the cost of roads needed to serve their new houses.

Those measures combined are expected to raise an additional $100 million.

"This was a very, very, very difficult thing to achieve," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who played a key role pushing the legislation through. "I cannot risk having it unwound."

The regional taxes and fees required the cooperation of powerful interest groups representing industries that will be affected by the levies. For example, real estate associations reluctantly endorsed a new grantor's tax, applied to home sales. Similarly, the state automobile dealers signed off on a new registration fee on car purchases.

The fear, officials said this week, is that if part of the transportation package is revised, those interest groups also will seek to change the portions affecting them. The results could be disastrous for road and rail improvements in Northern Virginia, they said.

"House Bill 3202 will be opened up for further review as a result of the constituent revolt about the abuser fees," said Michael L. Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia. "Obviously when that happens, I'd be surprised if that were the only things that changed."

Toalson said he has no plans to push legislation that would change provisions affecting the building industry. "Obviously, if there are bills that are introduced that give us an opportunity to revisit the significant expansion of the road impact fees, we'll be there," he said.

What makes regional officials particularly nervous is that the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which has been charged with collecting the taxes and spending the money on roads and transit, has been busy gearing up for its new task for months.

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