Northern Virginia’s local governments are sharply divided among themselves — and with the District and Maryland — over a proposed regional sales tax to fund Metro.
The discord was evident Thursday night at a transit policy meeting in Tysons Corner. It was an early sign of how difficult it will be to achieve a regional consensus on how to raise the billions of dollars of additional funds Metro needs in coming years to provide a safe and reliable system.
At a regular meeting of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, county and city officials spoke strongly against a recent recommendation for a uniform, penny-per-dollar tax for Metro. They objected that Northern Virginia — because of its large population and high volume of sales to be taxed — would pay more than the District and Maryland combined.
In addition, a split was evident between transit-friendly inner suburbs — such as Arlington and Falls Church — and the outer suburb of Loudoun over how the burden should be shared within Northern Virginia.
“It’s inevitable, because they’re two different worlds in terms of usage of the Metro,” Fairfax Supervisor John W. Foust (D-Dranesville) said afterward.
The disagreements were especially telling, because they arose shortly after former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood told the commission that his goal in leading a new study of Metro was to broker a regionwide compromise on funding and governance.
It was LaHood’s first meeting with the commission since Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) tapped him to head a panel to report by this fall on how to fix the transit system. The commission is responsible for Northern Virginia’s funding and stewardship of Metro.
In one of the session’s more pointed exchanges, Del. David A. LaRock (R-Loudoun) accused the District’s chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. DeWitt, of trying to stick Northern Virginia with the bill for the District’s fiscal challenges.
DeWitt had just laid out the recent proposal for a regionwide sales tax endorsed by administrative and budget experts of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, or COG.
LaRock, like others on the commission, criticized the plan because it provides that Northern Virginia would contribute 51 percent of the $650 million raised annually by the tax.
By contrast, the District’s share would be 23 percent. The two Maryland counties served by Metro — Montgomery and Prince George’s — would account for 26 percent.
“How is this not Washington, D.C., passing off its financial liabilities to Virginia?” LaRock asked Dewitt.
DeWitt responded that the tax proposal was designed to start a dialogue rather than be a final solution.
“I’m not selling Virginia a bag of goods,” DeWitt said. “This is throwing it out there so we all have facts and can find a solution.”
DeWitt and the COG report said the imbalance between Virginia and the other two jurisdictions could be solved by changing how the tax is administered. That could include refunding some sales tax revenue or other money to Virginia.
Foust suggested making the sales tax a half-cent per dollar in Virginia, while keeping it a full penny in the District and Maryland.
However, the COG panel saw a public relations value in charging everybody in the region the same rate.
Also, any refund to Virginia or a lowering of its tax rate would generate less revenue.
The COG panel reported April 26 that Metro needs an additional $7.5 billion over the next 10 years — beyond what the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government are currently providing — to buy new rail cars, buses and other equipment as well as to keep up with necessary maintenance.
It considered numerous other taxes, such as a property levy, but recommended a uniform sales tax as the simplest, most effective way overall to raise the funds.
The proposal drew the most scorn from Loudoun representatives, who called a regional sales tax “a non-starter” in their jurisdiction.
Loudoun would contribute 10 percent of such a tax, even though the county doesn’t even have a Metro station yet. It is scheduled to get three in 2020, including one at Dulles International Airport, when the second phase of the Silver Line opens.
Loudoun Supervisor Ron A. Meyer (R-Broad Run) said residents in the county’s rural, western section will use Metro seldom if ever.
But David F. Snyder (R), a member of the Falls Church Council, countered that Metro encourages economic development in the inner suburbs that spins off tax revenue that helps the entire state.
“The inner jurisdictions are supporting the schools in rural Loudoun County,” Snyder said.
Seeking a possible solution to the impasse, Sharon Bulova (D), chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, suggested that the counties and cities first agree on what a fair contribution would be for each. Then each jurisdiction would decide for itself what kind of tax or other dedicated funding source to use.
Earlier, LaHood told the commission he was not doing yet another in-depth study of Metro but was focused instead on finding common ground among Virginia, the District and Maryland about how to fix it.
He said major issues to be resolved included funding, the structure of the board of directors and revising the Metro Compact or governing document.
LaHood also was open to proposals to replace the current board of directors with a control board having extraordinary powers to make changes in finances and governance. He pointed to the success of the federal control board that took over the District’s finances in the 1990s.
“The truth is, it worked,” LaHood said.
“It took politics out of the governance and got the District back on track, financially, in terms of a lot of things. I think you all ought to look at that.”