A casual observer of newspaper headlines would think that Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) amendments to the Virginia General Assembly’s Metro bill would cost our constituents money.
But as Republican leaders in local government, we know the reality is much different. For more than a year, we’ve been working with county and state officials of both parties on solutions to provide Metro the dedicated funding source for capital we know it needs. Decades of neglect finally caught up to the system, and the bill has come due. In Virginia, that means that local governments must pay most of the tab.
It’s most certainly true that Metro needs governance reforms and cost containment. Under General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld, much progress has been made. On the regional boards and commissions on which we serve, we have played leading roles in developing detailed guidance on reforms, some of which have been adopted in bills that came forward in Virginia and Maryland.
On funding, this appeared to be the year that Metro would finally break through. The stakes finally became too high. Riders have legitimate concerns about safety, exacerbated by the lack of investment.
Yet even with those concerns, Metro moves hundreds of thousands of commuters every day, powering our economy. Failing to act puts our economic competitiveness at risk. And indeed, the Virginia General Assembly responded. But, unfortunately, the reflexive ideology of some members of our own party led the General Assembly to pass a bill that was worse than nothing at all. While it contained a small amount of new funding from the state, the bulk of the new money for Metro came from raiding the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), the major source of funding for transportation projects in Northern Virginia. With then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s (R) 2013 transportation bill, new revenue became available to localities through NVTA to finally fund badly needed road projects. Already, these funds have made a big difference, from funding the final piece of Loudoun County Parkway to widening Route 1 in Prince William County and expanding Route 28 in Fairfax County.
Now, just as NVTA is preparing to make hundreds of millions of dollars in additional investments to help fix some of the most notoriously congested roads in our region, the General Assembly has come forward with a formula for Metro that literally will take roads off the map and threaten our successful, regional approach.
The governor, following the model of the Virginia Senate, has proposed a different and much better way to fund Metro. To be clear, it is still our position that given the great disparity between the amount that Northern Virginians provide Richmond and the paltry amount we get back, the commonwealth should be the one coming up with most, if not all, of the money needed. But the politics of the legislature — at least for now — make that impossible.
So instead, the governor’s amendments propose to allow NVTA to keep about 87 percent of its funding that would have been cut by the Metro legislation available for key transportation projects by raising the transit occupancy tax (“TOT” or hotel tax) by 1 percent and imposing an additional 0.05 per $100 on real estate sales (grantor’s tax). The TOT funding would be paid by visitors to our region, many of whom would likely take advantage of our Metro system to see the nation’s capital. The modest increase in the grantor’s tax would be paid for by those selling their homes, some of whom are leaving the area.
These provisions would save our constituents money, because the alternative to them means less funding for vital road projects. The only way to make that up is for us — local elected officials — to spend local tax dollars from already stretched property taxes to fund those same projects.
Therefore, our Republican colleagues in the General Assembly should not be afraid to vote for these “tax increases.” If they don’t, all they will be accomplishing is passing the buck — quite literally — to our residents in the form of higher property taxes. The bill is now due, but raiding money that has been already allocated for congestion relief is not the answer.
Matt Letourneau, a member of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, is chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments Board of Directors. Marty Nohe, a member of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, is chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. John Cook, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, is chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission Governance Committee.