Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

The Sales Tax Hike That Rose From The Dead

Six years ago, Northern Virginia voters weighed the pain of sitting in traffic against the bite that would result from a half-cent local sales tax increase to pay for transportation improvements. By a clear majority, they said, Thanks, but no thanks.

Now, Gov. Tim Kaine has measured the reality of clogged roads against the message voters sent in 2002. And he's decided that what Northern Virginia needs this time is double the sales tax increase that voters rejected six years ago. Oh, and this time, we won't bother with the messy business of asking voters for their opinion.

The easy part of the transportation funding battle that has dominated Virginia politics for more than a decade is sizing up the situation on the ground. Everyone agrees: The traffic stinks and the state has fallen down on the job of keeping up with surging development.

I called leaders of two of the grass-roots groups that made up the strange coalition that killed the transportation sales tax six years ago, and both agree that Virginia should spend vastly more on making people's commutes easier.

Arthur Purves, president of the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, is a hard-core anti-tax activist who nonetheless believes that Kaine's proposal is a mere "drop in the bucket compared to what's needed."

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, led the No campaign by environmentalists and transit activists in 2002 on the theory that a heavily roads-oriented state effort would only feed more sprawl. He says Virginia still hasn't gotten serious about tying transportation spending to land use; that is, making sure state money is spent to encourage home builders and buyers to stay close to transit and already developed areas.

The good news for Kaine is that the marriage of anti-tax and anti-development forces in 2002 appears to have been a one-shot deal.

The anti-tax crowd is still repelled by proposals like Kaine's, which would jack up statewide taxes on selling your house and buying and registering your car, and boost the sales tax from 5 percent to 6 percent in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads only.

Purves says the money to build roads -- he doesn't care for public transit projects such as Metrorail to Dulles airport -- should come from cutting spending on public education and Medicaid. (Yes, he freely admits that that is an utterly impossible political pipedream. "I love losing battles," he says.)

Schwartz isn't ready to reject Kaine's plan; he hopes any new money can be linked to more transit and local roads and not to big new highways that open up more rural lands for sprawl development.

Purves, in contrast, likes those new roads. "Sprawl is just a derogatory term applied to the American dream," he says. "Sprawl is a car, a house and a yard."

But even as what former Montgomery county executive Doug Duncan used to deride as "the congestion coalition" weakens, Kaine's plan faces fierce and reasonable opposition. Del. David Albo, a Fairfax Republican, says the governor's proposal has a 0.0000 percent chance of prevailing. Albo is right to say that it's time to stop exporting Northern Virginia tax dollars to the vast part of the state that has zero traffic problems.

And it's just as reasonable to argue that all Virginians should pay to ease congestion in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, because the economic engines of those two areas support the rest of the state.

Finally, it's fair to make those who use the roads pay extra to help finance transportation fixes. That means raising the gas tax, not the sales tax, which lands most squarely on those who can least afford it. Gas is so much cheaper in Virginia than in Maryland or the District that I and many others regularly cross the river to buy it. By raising the gas tax for the first time since 1986, Kaine could make a real dent in the congestion problem and still maintain Virginia's price advantage over neighboring jurisdictions.

The governor is traveling the state, arguing that, as he said in Woodbridge on Tuesday night, "There are rules of math, and there's no free lunch." To ease traffic, you have to pay up.

True enough, but the governor's decision to call a special session of the legislature to flog pretty much the same plan that failed in 2002 doesn't begin to solve the problem of how to pay for that lunch.

The political reality is that Kaine's Republican opponents are going to reject anything he proposes. So rather than treat the voters as idiot children who made a mistake in 2002, why not go for a package that gets serious about making developers pay for the cost of new home-building, raises the gas tax to force commuters to pay for their decisions about where to live, and requires all Virginians to pay a fair share for infrastructure in the state's economic power center?

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" athttp://www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

By Marc Fisher |  May 15, 2008; 7:31 AM ET
Previous: The Last Klingle Road Post Ever? | Next: DC's Subterranean Jazz Secret

Comments

Please email us to report offensive comments.



Apparently the Dems aren't too fond of Kaines proposals either, so stop with the Republican bashing.

Posted by: Stick | May 15, 2008 8:01 AM

"...why not go for a package that gets serious about making developers pay for the cost of new home-building..."

HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, oh, thanks, I needed that first laugh of the day. Albo says that there's a 0.000 chance of Kaine's package being approved? I'd say the odds of the state forcing developers to actually give a damn about roads, traffic, schools, and environmental concerns are about as good. Can you imagine the storm of lobbyists that would descend on Richmond?

Posted by: Claudius | May 15, 2008 9:10 AM

I swear it drives me crazy

Its all about holding yourself and elected representatives accountable

If you really think developers should pay more to perform their tade than vote for people that think that way

Upset about tax breaks for oil companies than vote for people who don't support the tax breaks

Don't blame businesses for trying to make a living. If you were in the industry you would be doing the exact same thing Blame yourself for being too dumb to know better when election days comes around

Posted by: whats with the business bashing | May 15, 2008 11:24 AM

Virginia hiked its income taxes not long ago (on Mark Warner's spurious assertions of a crisis) and wound up with a huge surplus. State tax revenue skyrocketed in recent years with the booming economy. Yet even though they've been swimming in all this taxpayer money, the Va. government hasn't found the money to devote to transportation.

Now they say "This time we're serious; this time we're actually going to spend your money on transportation." And we're supposed to believe them?

Posted by: Tom T. | May 15, 2008 11:33 AM

Just because developers will be asked to chip-in to pay for some of the externalities that their business creates doesn't equate with being anti-business.

I don't see why I, as a citizen with no real estate interests, should be forced to pay extra in time (due to congestion) and money (increased taxes for roads) just because a developer wants to build 15,000 townhouses in the boondocks.

The developers could choose to pursue projects that have a minimal infrastructure costs or decide to foot the bill for the infrastructure themselves. It's a simple choice and very consistent with free market economics.

Posted by: Adam Smith | May 15, 2008 12:33 PM

The developers are supplying the service of more housing because there is demand for it.

If you want to get upset get upset at all of the NIMBYs who don't want any more development which 1. dries up prices for everyone else 2. creates sprawl because thats the only place building can occur

Posted by: supply and demand | May 15, 2008 1:16 PM

"Alexandria, Va.: Marc! Can you PLEASE tell me what Gas Station the Marylanders and DC'ers are flocking to in NoVA that has the cheaper gas prices?

Marc Fisher: Gosh, there are so many of them. Former Governor and Senator George Allen was a big fan of the Sheetz on Rt. 29 in Fauquier County. I like the Pentagon-subsidized station in Pentagon City. But there are a great many at a good 30 cents a gallon discount over Maryland and the District."


Mark, are you really using the Pentagon City gas station without getting hassled? As I understand it, it's for military personnel only, and every time I've pulled in to use it, I've been told to take a hike because I don't have military ID. Haven't been there in a few years though.

Posted by: former pentagon city resident | May 15, 2008 2:13 PM

"Alexandria, Va.: Marc! Can you PLEASE tell me what Gas Station the Marylanders and DC'ers are flocking to in NoVA that has the cheaper gas prices?

Marc Fisher: Gosh, there are so many of them. Former Governor and Senator George Allen was a big fan of the Sheetz on Rt. 29 in Fauquier County. I like the Pentagon-subsidized station in Pentagon City. But there are a great many at a good 30 cents a gallon discount over Maryland and the District."


Mark, are you really using the Pentagon City gas station without getting hassled? As I understand it, it's for military personnel only, and every time I've pulled in to use it, I've been told to take a hike because I don't have military ID. Haven't been there in a few years though.

Posted by: former pentagon city resident | May 15, 2008 2:13 PM

Unless developers are severely restricted, the cycle will continue until norther Virginia extends to Richmond and Charlottesville. Further building of roads will only encourage more development.

Posted by: D Leaberry | May 15, 2008 4:06 PM

You gotta love Arthur Purves. Want's more roads, doesn't like mass transit projects, and wants to pay for everything with cuts in education and Medicare. Then he claims "sprawl" is just a derogitory term activists use for the american dream. Yeah, if that dream is sitting in traffic whilst communting 2 hours each way to work and paying for $5 gallon gas! I can't believe anyone even listens to this idiot.

Posted by: Gman | May 16, 2008 10:24 AM

Too little, too late, and several dollars short. I doesn't matter what decision is made once the damage is done.

Anyone who's lived through the an eternity of major public works projects like the construction of I66, 7100, the Wilson Bridge, the Mixing Bowl, overpasses on Rt 28, ad infinitum will realize that reactionary construction to fix congestion due to inadequate infrastructure planning will always be more costly both in time and money than doing something right the first time. These projects just shift the congestion to different places (different primary roads, or the secondary and tertiary roads) because they don't holistically address the problem.

A perfect example is the congestion alleviated by the overpasses on Rt 28 has just shifted north to the intersection of Rt 28 and Rt 7 West by Dulles Town Center. While 28 used to be a parking lot and Rt 7 West was manageable, now Rt 7 West is the parking lot and 28 is manageable. But then again, there's always the Dulles Greenway at what will be $10 a day in a year or two. If the county and state had properly scaled the infrastructure 10-15 years ago when they were building Ashburn, Cascades and all the new developments by Leesburg, we would be in a different place. Now there is little hope of ever fixing it.

Posted by: Leesburger | May 16, 2008 3:01 PM

If no transportation package passes, Kaine should show some guts and publicly endorse northern Virginia's secession from the state. "Sprawl and congestion will reach ridiculous heights, northern Virginia, unless you finally disassociate yourself from these backward southerners running the Assembly. Take your tax base out of the Virginia equation, and this state essentially reverts to being South Carolina."

True, it would start a firestorm, but

1) Kaine can't run for re-election;
2) He's not a serious candidate to become Obama's running mate;
3) It'd be nice to finally see a politician tell the truth.

Posted by: Vincent | May 17, 2008 10:30 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 

© 2010 The Washington Post Company