By Marc Fisher
Thursday, May 15, 2008
Six years ago, Northern Virginia voters weighed the pain of sitting in traffic against the bite that would result from a half-cent local sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements. By a clear majority, they said, Thanks, but no thanks.
Now, Gov. Tim Kaine has measured the reality of clogged roads against the message voters sent in 2002. And he's decided that what Northern Virginia needs this time is double the sales tax increase that voters rejected six years ago. Oh, and this time, we won't bother with the messy business of asking voters for their opinion.
The easy part of the transportation funding battle that has dominated Virginia politics for more than a decade is sizing up the situation on the ground. Everyone agrees: The traffic stinks and the state has fallen down on the job of keeping up with surging development.
I called leaders of two of the grass-roots groups that made up the strange coalition that killed the transportation sales tax six years ago, and both agree that Virginia should spend vastly more on making people's commutes easier.
Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, is a hard-core anti-tax activist who nonetheless believes that Kaine's proposal is a mere "drop in the bucket compared to what's needed."
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, led the No campaign by environmentalists and transit activists in 2002 on the theory that a heavily roads-oriented state effort would only feed more sprawl. He says Virginia still hasn't gotten serious about tying transportation spending to land use; that is, making sure state money is spent to encourage home builders and buyers to stay close to transit and already developed areas.
The good news for Kaine is that the marriage of anti-tax and anti-development forces in 2002 appears to have been a one-shot deal.
The anti-tax crowd is still repelled by proposals like Kaine's, which would jack up statewide taxes on selling your house and buying and registering your car, and boost the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads only.
Purves says the money to build roads -- he doesn't care for public transit projects such as Metrorail to Dulles airport -- should come from cutting spending on public education and Medicaid. (Yes, he freely admits that that is an utterly impossible political pipedream. "I love losing battles," he says.)
Schwartz isn't ready to reject Kaine's plan; he hopes any new money can be linked to more transit and local roads and not to big new highways that open up more rural lands for sprawl development.
Purves, in contrast, likes those new roads. "Sprawl is just a derogatory term applied to the American dream," he says. "Sprawl is a car, a house and a yard."
But even as what former Montgomery county executive Doug Duncan used to deride as "the congestion coalition" weakens, Kaine's plan faces fierce and reasonable opposition. Del. David Albo, a Fairfax Republican, says the governor's proposal has a 0.0000 percent chance of prevailing. Albo is right to say that it's time to stop exporting Northern Virginia tax dollars to the vast part of the state that has zero traffic problems.
And it's just as reasonable to argue that all Virginians should pay to ease congestion in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, because the economic engines of those two areas support the rest of the state.
Finally, it's fair to make those who use the roads pay extra to help finance transportation fixes. That means raising the gas tax, not the sales tax, which lands most squarely on those who can least afford it. Gas is so much cheaper in Virginia than in Maryland or the District that I and many others regularly cross the river to buy it. By raising the gas tax for the first time since 1986, Kaine could make a real dent in the congestion problem and still maintain Virginia's price advantage over neighboring jurisdictions.
The governor is traveling the state, arguing that, as he said in Woodbridge on Tuesday night, "There are rules of math, and there's no free lunch." To ease traffic, you have to pay up.
True enough, but the governor's decision to call a special session of the legislature to flog pretty much the same plan that failed in 2002 doesn't begin to solve the problem of how to pay for that lunch.
The political reality is that Kaine's Republican opponents are going to reject anything he proposes. So rather than treat the voters as idiot children who made a mistake in 2002, why not go for a package that gets serious about making developers pay for the cost of new home-building, raises the gas tax to force commuters to pay for their decisions about where to live, and requires all Virginians to pay a fair share for infrastructure in the state's economic power center?
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