In Virginia, a Plea for Taxes to Fix Traffic

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A COALITION of 17 of the biggest business groups in Northern Virginia, representing thousands of companies and hundreds of thousands of employees, has just issued an extraordinary plea. After a dozen "whereases" and four "be it resolveds," the plea amounts to this: If Virginia does not raise taxes for its badly underfunded and rapidly crumbling transportation system, it won't get fixed -- period.

The group, which calls itself the Northern Virginia Transportation Coalition, includes almost everybody who is anybody in the richest, best-educated and most globally engaged part of the state. These are the people, and the corporations, with the most to lose if Virginia hews to its head-in-the-sand, two-decade-old policy of refusing to tap significant, reliable and dedicated new funds to improve a sclerotic roads network. In a resolution released last week, the group assures Virginia's leaders that without new revenue -- yes, taxes -- the state's economic engine will sputter and die. Translation: Goodbye jobs and growth.

The coalition's resolution does not explicitly endorse the Democratic candidate for governor, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, but it hardly takes a logical leap to read it that way. Showing courage and candor that few candidates possess, Mr. Deeds has called for new taxes to address the state's transportation crisis. His Republican opponent, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, has ruled out new taxes and instead enumerated a laundry list of phony-baloney proposals that will not pay for much in the way of road improvements. According to the resolution, ruling out tax increases is "contrary to [Virginia's] best interests . . . and future economic prosperity."

The coalition recognizes that taxes are not the entire solution to fixing the transportation mess. Using bonds and tolls, shifting funds from other areas of the budget and changing the state's road-funding allocation formula all should play a part. But without taxes, the coalition makes clear, any attempt at improving the region's stultifying traffic will fall badly short. "If you do the math, you really can't come up with a solution without some taxes and fees in there," said Bob Chase, who organized the coalition. "The fiscal and political realities are that you can't get enough money" from existing revenue.

That point is amply illustrated by the resolution, which lays out the eye-popping scale of the state's predicament: unfunded statewide road-building needs exceeding $100 billion over the next 20 years; cuts in the state's construction program of $4 billion in the last two years; the imminent threat that the state, with its transportation spending shrinking, will be unable to tap millions in federal matching funds; $3.7 billion needed to fix structurally deficient bridges; and steep job losses at Virginia's Department of Transportation.

Against that sobering reality, practically every Republican candidate in the state mouths the slogan "No new taxes!" As an electoral strategy in the midst of a recession, the slogan might work. As a formula for easing traffic and assuring Virginia's long-term economic health, it is folly.

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