Jeffrey C. McKay is chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a member of Virginia’s Transit Capital Project Revenue Advisory Board and a Fairfax County supervisor.
It’s no secret that the presence of Metro and the Virginia Railway Express has fueled economic development in Northern Virginia, generating millions in property tax revenue for the counties and cities that subsidize these rail systems. What hasn’t been understood until now is the economic value the two systems bring to Virginia.
The additional 85,000 households and 130,500 jobs that Metro and VRE make possible in Northern Virginia generate more than $600 million each year in sales and income tax revenues that flow into the state’s general fund.
A recent analysis by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission shows that for every dollar the commonwealth invests in Metro and VRE, it receives about $2.50. Most stock traders would jump at the prospect of such a return. While $600 million represents just 3 percent to 4 percent of the state's general fund revenue, it is significant. That amount covers annual general fund expenditures for Virginia's state colleges and universities, about $316 million, and state police, roughly $266 million.
As the commonwealth grapples with its role in funding these two rail systems, it must recognize that it is not just Northern Virginia but also the entire state that reaps the benefits. Adequate funding of transit, and rail in particular, is essential but, historically in the commonwealth, not guaranteed. Revenue from Northern Virginia's 2.1 percent gas tax, much of which is earmarked for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, is anything but stable. Over the past three years, as fuel prices plummeted and revenue dropped, state lawmakers refused a simple fix to stem the loss. Further exacerbating the funding equation is the expiration of state transportation bonds. Starting in fiscal 2019, the amount available to fund transit maintenance and improvements will drop by more than 40 percent.
Closing that gap is the job of the General Assembly, which recently received a report from an appointed panel, of which I am a member, providing options for shoring up transit funding in Virginia. Legislators must go further, however, as Metro needs more than $15 billion over the next 10 years and VRE requires at least $2.1 billion over five years to ensure the safety of their passengers and reliability of their service. Identifying and securing dedicated funding for these rail systems is an imperative. Failure to do so could kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Metrorail and VRE, the backbone of our transit network, moving more than 290,000 people on an average weekday in Northern Virginia . But these rail systems do more than provide transportation. They provide workers access to jobs and businesses access to employees and customers, all of whom pay taxes, be they income or sales.
The costs associated with world-class rail service are undeniably high, but so is the return. Lack of investment in Metro and VRE puts more than the commonwealth’s finances at risk. It risks frustrating commuters, alienating tourists, tarnishing our business-friendly reputation and diminishing our quality of life. While Metro and VRE may operate in Northern Virginia, they benefit the entire state. It is time for Virginia’s legislators to come together and find sufficient and permanent revenue that can be dedicated to transit. So much is riding on it.
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