A SPECIAL COMMISSION in Virginia has just paved the way for one of the most important commitments the state could make on its way to the 21st century. Yesterday the group, charged with producing recommendations for an extraordinary session of the legislature on transportation this fall, unanimously endorsed a package of revenue-raising measures that would produce more than a half-billion dollars a year for the next decade. This is a necessary departure from the state's old "pay-as-you go" approach to highways. But it is not a bond-heavy, pay-as-you-go-into-debt plan; it is palatable to some of the state's most cautious legislators.
The chief recommendations, which go now to Gov. Baliles for review and presentation to the General Assembly, include:
A three-quarter-cent increase in the state sales tax, now 4 cents on the dollar. While this includes a tax on food in Virginia -- a levy that already hits the poorest the hardest -- perhaps local governments could use an additional one-quarter cent to offset that impact.
A 4-cent increase in the state gasoline tax, from 15 cents to 19 cents a gallon. While 4 cents may be a penny too much to keep Virginia in competition with neighboring states, this is the most logical user tax for transportation.
A 2-percent increase in the motor vehicle sales and use tax, also known as the titling tax. One modification would allow the value of a trade-in vehicle to be deducted from the purchase price.
Revenue bonds for toll projects and "pledge" bonds that would be repaid from designated revenue sources such as the gasoline tax. These are prudent approaches to supplement the other sources of new revenue.
Another provision has special significance for Northern Virginia as well as other regions of the state that must look to mass transit or other methods for road relief. Fifteen percent of all new transportation revenue would be designated for mass transit, airports and seaports. This could mean, among other things, money to rehabilitate Metrorail equipment in the future.
The commission also recommended the creation of a state transportation board to assume broad authority over financing of roads, airports and seaports -- another big step to coordinate transportation spending throughout the state.
With unanimous support from a diverse set of commission members, this package represents hard political bargaining and a unique compromise. This should be remembered and respected when the legislators convene. There is simply no need for a new round of horse-trading that renews old feuds and shortchanges the state. For now, Virginia's elected officials should breathe a sigh of relief that some heavy-duty work has been done for them. Expeditious action on the package this year could be their most important move in years.