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Breakthrough in Virginia

For the first time in two decades, Virginia is on the verge of making a strong commitment to improving its transportation system. The state's next big hurdle will be to spend the money wisely.

Maybe that's thinking too far ahead. After all, what happened on Thursday did not create a new transportation plan for the state. It didn't guarantee more rail cars for Metro or traffic relief on Interstate 66. But it was easily the most significant day in many years for the drivers and transit riders who are vexed by the problems of getting around the Washington suburbs.

As of Jan. 18, 2007, the leaders of Virginia's two main political parties agree that the transportation system is very important and very broken, and that it requires a big fix. Now, it becomes a question of working out the details. That can be done, as long as outriders on either side don't block a deal in the hope of gaining some advantage in the November state elections.

But a money plan doesn't tell you how to spend the money. Transportation spending plans tend to be political documents. There's a little something for this constituency an a little something for that. So everybody's a little bit happy. Until they start driving and riding. Then they have plenty of spare time to think about how the money didn't get spent in ways most likely to bust congestion.

Northern Virginia has plans, like TransAction 2030. The region even has a transportation authority that may finally get some authority if the General Assembly acts.

Virginians have identified two other important elements in making this work: More accountability and efficiency at the Virginia Department of Transportation and more accountability and responsibility for local government in land use planning.

The deal's not done in Richmond, but it's not too early to start thinking through how Virginia can turn a plan into a success. Where would you put the focus now?

By Robert Thomson  |  January 19, 2007; 7:20 AM ET
Categories:  Transportation Politics  
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Next: Maryland vs. Virginia


Congratulations to the WaPo and other tax advocates. You finally browbeat Va. into putting the cart before the horse. The legislature will raise taxes with no real plan on how to use the additional revenue; but they have "demonstrated their committment to address the problem". We could pile Benjamins in the median strip and hold a bonfier for all the WaPo cares. As long as taxes are increased, they are satisfied.

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | January 19, 2007 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Well it looks like many of the important projects to ease congestion won't be completed until after 2020. At that point I will have moved far away from this area because I will have had a "zen" moment and realized that wasting my life sitting in traffic (that is only going to get worse and worse every year) next to pretentious a-holes is just not worth it. Perhaps my grandchildren will be able to drive congestion-free, but I will not. I'm dubious of the whole thing.

Posted by: Steve | January 19, 2007 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Woodbridge, you're welcome to move away from NoVA, along with your cars and kids, who are clearly being raised in a household of ignorance.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 19, 2007 11:19 AM | Report abuse

Please note that this plan dramatically raises taxes on everything BUT voters. The politicians in Richmond aren't fools. They know how to generate money without hurting the people they allow them to keep their jobs. Yeah they're raising DMV licensing fees, but I'd like to see how Virginia is gonig to be able to figure out how to get that money out of the DMV's coffers.

The bottom line is that the posturing that was going on was for good reason. The General Assembly was right in saying that locales are allowing runaway growth which lines the pockets of county and city governments but puts a HUGE burdon on the state to create infrastructure. If NoVa want to continue its runaway growth rate, it should be up to the local governments to allocate revenue to build infrastructure, not the state.

As a resident of Northern Virginia, and a long-time resident of the region, the fault of transportation problems rests squarly on the shoulders of Arlington City, Alexandria City, Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudon Counties. Don't pass the buck on to the state government because you've created a monster...Lets see some smart governing from our Northern Virginia local governments before we decide to raise taxes state-wide to bail-out the stupidity and greed of local politicians who still don't know how to say NO!

Posted by: RM | January 19, 2007 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Believe me, I'd like for Northern Virginia jurisdictions to be responsible for fixing the Northern Virginia transportation mess. In fact, I'd like for them to have the AUTHORITY to do so.

Since Virginia is a Dillon rule state, the localities only have as much power as the state will grant. Blaming the localities for development that they have limited power to stop is a strawman. Since Virginia persists in having a statewide transportation authority, funded by statewide taxes, it's disingenuous to blithely suggest that's the region caused the problem and should find the solution on its own.

Complaining that NoVa doesn't pay its way for transportation is another strawman, given that for years, the GOP delegates from the rest of the state have barred NoVa from raising additional funds that would be dedicated to NoVa transportation projects. Yes, the region got to vote on additional taxes for transportation a few years ago, and it was defeated. Of course, it failed PRECISELY because people saw there was no guarantee that the funds wouldn't be diverted elsewhere. (Just like the current state tax monies that already come in disproportionately from NoVa and seem to build beautiful new roads in the Richmond area. Driven through there recently?)

For me, it's not about paving everything in sight. There are wise investments that could be made in transit: METRO, bus, VRE, as well as in highways. And doing a better job of developing a network of surface streets could greatly reduce the pressures on existing highways in the region's exurban areas.

One thing that won't work is stopping development. In an era when the economy elsewhere in the nation is hurting, our region's economy continues to grow, thanks in large part to the significant sums being invested in homeland security. The economy is why there's development--despite some of the nation's worst traffic. Since the economy is the driver of development, people keep coming, keep buying affordable houses further out, and keep sitting in traffic for hours of commute. Heaven knows, if development could be stopped, the sorry state of our transportation system should have done it by now.

Posted by: Andrew | January 19, 2007 12:09 PM | Report abuse

The comments by Andrew are the first intelligent comments i have read on this issue. VA is one of the lowest-taxed states in the Union. We raised our state cigarette tax a couple of years ago, to a state tax of 30 CENTS per pack, after it was REDUCED TO 2.5 cents per pack, from the oh-so-high THREE CENTS per pack it had been, back in the 1970s. And that took a very fine Democratic Governor,Warner, to persuade a GOP-dominated Gen Assembly to do so.
The fee increases and tax increases being proposed are very reasonable, and will go a long way in helping improve the quality of life of Virginians. BTW, I commute 30 miles to Mclean, from Manassas, and it takes 60-80 minutes, each way, typically.

Doing nothing, in the name of preserving the current tax structure, is stupid and short-sighted. It may have taken the spectre of the November 2007 elections to get the GOP-dominated Gen Assembly to do something, but at least something is being done, now.

Posted by: Nicholas | January 19, 2007 12:55 PM | Report abuse

Andrew -- A little history -- The DEMOCRATS controlled the state legislature until 1995. They enacted the Dillon Rule. They diverted funds to build the Rt. 29 bypass around Warrenton while roads in Fairfax, Arlinton and Alexandria were ignored. They diverted funds to expand state road 50 across southwest Virginia while 395/95 and the beltway backed up from river to river. Since taking control of the legislature in 1995, REPUBLICANS have funded the Springfield interchange and the Woodrow Wilson bridge projects, moved forward on the Greenway and extended HOV lanes on 95.

Perhaps you would like to go back to the good old days of Democrat control. I am sure the folks in Bristol would appreciate your generosity.

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | January 19, 2007 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Taking proposals from today's Post article:

"Beginning next year, about $250 million would be shifted from other general-fund programs to transportation." This may be one of the sticking points because at the present time there doesn't seem to be information on what will be cut. I HOPE they don't cut higher education, which has been the first thing to get slashed over the past 20 years.

"Diesel fuel taxes and the fees to register heavy trucks would go up, as would the penalties for driving overweight trucks. $50 million"
I'm not sure I like the idea of raising the diesel tax. Raising the gas tax made more sense to me because it brings in more money while also theoretically helping towards a societal goal if it causes people to consider more fuel-efficient vehicles. For that matter, the latest diesel cars are far more fuel-efficient than gas cars (I got 45 mpg driving a diesel VW Passat in Scotland last April), and it may well make sense to tax gasoline more highly to try to encourage the purchase of the diesels. The diesel car might still be more cost-effective even with a higher price per gallon (due to higher mileage), but the average citizen isn't smart enough to understand this and just looks at the raw number of dollars per fillup or dollars per gallon (never mind that if you fill up twice a month instead of four times you may well save money even at a higher price per gallon).

The idea of taxing diesel will have a disproportionate economic effect on truckers, which seems to be the goal, and that's not necessarily a good thing either if it leads to higher consumer prices. The truckers aren't going to foot the bill and neither are the people whose stuff is being shipped.

All in all, raising the gas tax makes more sense to me. I don't LIKE paying a higher tax, but if the goal is really to make money for transportation funding, the gas tax makes more sense.

"Vehicle registration fees would go up $10. $71 million."

"Motorists with poor driving records would pay higher fines. $61 million"
This is a band-aid measure in that it's a funding source that, in theory, you want to disappear. I wonder if it will cause Virginia to try to ratchet up enforcement of some of the more stupid laws like the asinine 55-mph speed limit on the Beltway. After all, if they write enough tickets, they have more people with "bad driving

"Virginia would dedicate money from the state budget surplus to transportation. $291 million"
What happens when there is no budget surplus?

"The state would contribute $339 million from the state's transportation reserve fund."
Well, DUH!!! WTF do we have a transportation reserve fund for if we're not going to use it? I'm sure some of it is for emergency repairs, like if a hurricane washes out the bridge-tunnels in Hampton Roads, and that's reasonable, but as a general matter I find it objectionable for the Commonwealth to raise money through taxation and then just hang onto it. (Theoretically the best government budget has neither a surplus nor a deficit.
Realistically that's impossible, of course, but it should still be a guiding principle to aim as close to the mark as possible.)

"Virginia would borrow about $1.3 billion in 2008 and an additional $700 million in 2012. The debt would be repaid with money raised from the state insurance premium tax."
I take it that this means that car and house insurance premiums will be going up?

"Northern Virginia would be allowed to raise $383 million in regional taxes and new fees. Local governments that do not approve the regional tax plan would not get money for transportation projects in their area. The money would be spent by the regional transportation authority. Hampton Roads would get permission to raise $209
I'd like to know what form these taxes and "fees" will take. I don't generally object to the real estate tax, high though it may sometimes seem, because you can deduct it on your federal taxes. Even the car tax, odious as it is, is better than, say, a restaurant tax or a higher utility tax, again because all portions based on the
value of the car are deductible (that is, if you live in a jurisdiction with the stupid county sticker, you can't deduct the $25 you pay for the sticker). I think that sometimes the anti-taxation zealots lose track of the big picture in that they focus solely on opposing ALL taxes. Some level of taxation is a necessary evil. The focus needs to be on WHICH taxes are appropriate and on how they ought to be determined. A higher sales tax doesn't really benefit anyone.

I wonder if we might someday see a local income tax similar to what New York City and Yonkers impose. I hope not.

Posted by: Rich | January 19, 2007 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Off topic -
Any updates on the Beltway closures around 210 this weekend?

Posted by: JS | January 19, 2007 2:22 PM | Report abuse

VA could always do what Pennsylvania does... the uber-stupid 'Occupational Privilege Tax' (aka the Privilege of Working Here' fee)... then anyone that lives or works in NoVa would be charged up to $25/year in a flat fee. That might raise some funds without raising too many eyebrows.

Posted by: mcrochip | January 19, 2007 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Of course, Woodbridge, there is much history that can be considered, if you want to go there. But you haven't refuted my point, you've by implication acknowleged it--recent history is that the Virginia GOP is the problem. GOP delegates--much of them from Southside and therefore not affected by NoVa traffic--have stood in the way of fixing NoVa transportation issues for years. Even stood in the way of giving NoVa authority to fix its own problems. (It hasn't stopped them from taking NoVa dollars that go into the state's coffers and directing them elsewhere in the state, though.)

It will be interesting to see--given the "breakthrough" that's being trumpeted--whether this compromise within the Republican leadership of the Virginia legislature is a "my way or no highway" proposal. So thoughtful of them to end their infighting and make a decision, but there are other members of the legislature and a Governor who play a role here--and I'm anxious to hear their voices, too.

Surely, mistakes have been made in transportation decisions by both parties. But I find the recent GOP "fiddle while Rome gets gridlocked because we don't believe in new taxes, even those that don't affect our constituents and we don't care what happens to your constituents" approach of recent years to be far more offensive.

Posted by: Andrew | January 19, 2007 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Andrew -- Over the past 10 years, (since Republicans have controlled the state legislature), VDOT has completed most of the Fairfax and Prince William county Parkways, opened up an extra lane on 66 during rush hour, widened 66 to Gainsville, and widened Rt 234 from 66 to 95, all in addition to the projects I mentioned in my earlier post. That is some fiddle tune they have been playing! The Legislature also authorized referndum in NOVA to allow us to raise our own sales tax. I voted in favor of the increase but the majority of NOVA residents voted NO! How exactly can we blame that on down state legislators, of either party? The fact is that Virginia is a fiscally conservative state where most voters want to see a believable spending plan that allocates funds effectively before they approve tax increases.

The current plan seems to have some potential on the revenue side but it stll lacks details about how the money will be spent.

Posted by: Woodbridge Va | January 19, 2007 4:09 PM | Report abuse

Yep, lots of projects completed in the last 10 years. Given the planning/execution horizon for those, they mostly were started under Democratic leadership. What NEW projects are now in the pipeline under current leadership?

I do blame the loss of the referendum on those who prepared the ballot measure (Dems and Republicans both). The ballot measure raised taxes without any guarantee that appropriations for NoVa projects would actually increase. You're right that many wanted more proof that these new NoVa dollars would stay in NoVa. That's why it lost. But that nuance was quickly forgotten--and since then we hear over and over again, "see, we let them choose, and they chose against taxes." Got to choose, yes, but what a poor choice it was.

Woodbridge, I wish you well. We're coming from different places geographically and philosophically, but our passion for this issue is certainly similar. However, I'm going to check out here, since the weekend is nigh upon us, and since I'm afraid we're the last two in the room.


Posted by: Andrew | January 19, 2007 4:58 PM | Report abuse

3 words: Dedicated Metro Funding. I don't think that'll fix everything, but I think it would help immensely.

Posted by: Alexandria, VA | January 19, 2007 5:33 PM | Report abuse

I find it very interesting that the posts regarding transportation in Virginia tend to get a much bigger response than the posts regarding transportation in Maryland (other than the ICC of course). I'm curious: is that because Virginia has worse traffic, or because this issue is something that is being so actively debated politically? Has Maryland done a better job in managing traffic than Virginia? Or are Maryland's other main traffic issues (the 270 corridor, Southern Maryland) just not receiving the political attention?

Posted by: Baltimore | January 20, 2007 10:16 AM | Report abuse

Screw dedicated Metro funding. Lets take care of the roads first. Fairfax County currently only gets about 21cents of every tax dollar we send to Richmond back in services or dollars. We have been subsidizing low tax rates in the rest of VA. Time for the rest of Va to pay up. No new taxes, fees etc until the rest of Va pays their fair share. Roads are great in Fauquier or around Richmond. If NOVA member of the VA house and Senate vote for this then they will not be relelected. It is time to seriously conisder secession.

And Metro before VA gives Metro dedicated funding MEtro needs to get its house in order. First out source. There is no need for lazy over paid and underworked union help. And then they need to sell their bus garages in Ballston and South Alrington the land their is worth tens of millions of dollars. And finally the MEtro board needs to redone with seats on it based on which state provides the most funding. And DC gets one non voting seat!

Posted by: Vaherder | January 21, 2007 11:38 AM | Report abuse

Someone brought up the tax on living there. What do you think the county taxes are for? YAY, I live in Fairfax, now I have to pay for it. Even though I don't have residence. I rent, I still have a car and for some reason, it's more now that I'm not in a house with family, hmmmm.

Posted by: SportsAnnouncing | January 22, 2007 9:53 AM | Report abuse

Someone brought up the tax on living there. What do you think the county taxes are for? YAY, I live in Fairfax, now I have to pay for it. Even though I don't have residence. I rent, I still have a car and for some reason, it's more now that I'm not in a house with family, hmmmm.

Posted by: SportsAnnouncing | January 22, 2007 9:53 AM | Report abuse

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