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$4 Gas, The Fourth And Virginia's Long Vacation

While the rest of us are out on the roads over this holiday weekend, stuffing our paychecks into our gas tanks, Virginia's legislators are easing into a two-week vacation from the hard work of defeating every possible solution to the state's transportation mess.

Oh, the lawmakers certainly had their fun last week, as they assembled in Richmond for a special session--at a cost of $20,000 a day, thank you very much--to do something about the state's awful traffic, crumbling infrastructure and endangered construction plans.

So, what did they do? Senate Democrats proposed the first increase in the gas tax in 22 years, and House Republicans made it clear they would kill that right quick. The governor proposed a slew of less dramatic tax and fee increases, and legislators met his offer with yawns and chortles. Republicans proposed to let northern Virginians tax themselves if they really want to, and northern Virginians snarled in the general direction of the state's rural regions.

Are we having fun yet? Will residents settle for the honor of paying $4 for a gallon of gas (coming soon: $5 gas!) while the state's roads clog up worse than ever and the state announces that it is scrapping plans to expand highways and improve intersections because that money must be diverted to cover the soaring cost of basic maintenance?

The failure to take care of transportation infrastructure is a nationwide ailment, and the backlog of vital maintenance tasks is counted in the tens of billions--a pittance compared to our weekly outlay in, say, Iraq, but an insurmountable burden to state governments struggling with a sharply-declining real estate market.

Other states have sought to raise the money they need for roads and transit by making deals with private industry to build for-profit toll roads (Virginia's done that too); diving into Lexus lanes, in which toll rates jump during more congested hours (Virginia's into that as well); and taking advantage of EZPass technology to add more tolls to state roads (watch for more of that here too.)

But the bottom line is that decades-old tax levels can no longer provide the funding necessary to keep up with burgeoning population in Virginia's two main urban regions, the Washington area and Hampton Roads. Not that the rest of the state especially cares: Traffic in most of Virginia is laughably light, and why should folks there want to subsidize people in regions they tend to steer clear of anyway?

The reason should be obvious: Northern Virginia is the economic engine of the state. If its economy falters, the entire state feels the pain. But that's a hard message to send in an election campaign, so you have a legislature full of parochial voices.

Where does that leave us, aside from steaming at the gas pumps? Dick Saslaw, the Senate majority leader from Fairfax, resorts to calling the GOP-controlled House, which rejects his gas tax increase proposal, "the gang of 100." Gov. Tim Kaine compares the recalcitrant House to Dr. Seuss's "Green Eggs and Ham," the story in which Sam-I-am doesn't like that dish in a house, with a mouse, here or there, or, for that matter, anywhere.

The governor is reduced year after year to pleading with legislators ("Try them! Try them!"), and now Kaine says he's prepared to go this same route again in 2009. The man who had intended to be the education governor has instead found himself stuck at the starting gate of a transportation derby that never quite gets going.

What will happen? Nothing but wasted tax dollars this summer--at best, the special session will end with a deal nobody likes, one that saddles northern Virginians with the task of taxing themselves with little or no help from the state government that this region so lavishly subsidizes.

And then it's back to politics: Democrats will say, see, if you just finish the job and give us the House too, we can get past this Republican roadblock and get the construction work underway. Republicans will say, see, we're your only safeguard against those tax-loving Democrats. That appeal has worked for the GOP in the past, but times, conditions and demographics have changed and Democrats are increasingly convinced that one more election cycle is all they need to gain the power to break the transportation stalemate.

It's not quite that easy, however. The real divide in Virginia is neither ideological nor partisan, but rather geographic and cultural. It really is NoVa vs. RoVa (the rest of Virginia.)

And that battle may take some years to play out. In the meantime, there may be other solutions to the $4 gas situation: Former Gov. Jim Gilmore, who is running against former Gov. Mark Warner for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by John Warner, pronounces himself so enamored of drilling for oil in our own country that he's willing to have oil companies come over and drill in his own backyard in suburban Richmond.

Now there's a classic Virginia solution: Next from Richmond, selling the drilling rights to the Beltway, I-95 and the state's other major thoroughfares. Who needs tolls when we can let the oil companies make us money from our own roads?

By Marc Fisher |  July 2, 2008; 8:19 AM ET
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Comments

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And you forgot to add if you are a Republican and running for state wide office you must home school you spawn.
I am an independent and have voted for the best candidate party affiliation is not a concern but if the VA Republican party continues down this road I just vote Dem except for the US Congress 11th district.
I refuse to vote for that crooked punk Connolly. There has never been a politican in VA that accepted more favors and took more graft than Connolly.

Since it is almost impossible to secede from VA maybe becoming part of WVA is not a bad idea if they ban home schooling!

Posted by: Anonymous | July 2, 2008 8:30 AM

The problem is not with "decades-old tax levels." The problem is that our government blew through tax revenues during the good years.

Posted by: ViennaDad | July 2, 2008 9:06 AM

Obviously, since you don't actually live here, Marc, you can buy into the concept of "state's awful traffic, crumbling infrastructure" but the reality is the issues are here and the Tidewater areas. So it's a regional problem. Besides an increased gas tax in just those two areas will also probably snag the lions share of the out-of-staters and get them to pay for it as well. That's where the bulk of the money, no matter what the scheme anybody proposes, will be raised anyway.

Posted by: Stick | July 2, 2008 9:54 AM

Like many people, I drive throughout the metro area including DC, Md. and Va. Of the three jurisdictions, DC has the worst trafic managment, Md the second worst and Va. the best. Yet the WaPo constantly focuses its attacks on Va. Why don't they ever run stories about how Md. throws money and problems and Rt. 270 is still a glorified parking lot? Has anyone looked at the condition of 295 through DC lately? I've driven better roads in thrid world countries.

But somehow, Va which completed the mixing bowl project, parkways in Fairfax, PWC and Loudon, widened Rt 123, and 234 repaved a good piece of 95 put in more new interchanges than I can keep track of and has a traffic managment system that allows me to get from Woodbridge to Capital hill in under an hour is somehow negligent because we are not raising taxes to pay for streetcars on Columbia Pike?????

We have a congestion problem in Va. but if throwing money at it were the solution, it would have been fixed long ago. The real agenda here is DC, Md and WaPo looking at the Virginia suburbs as a cash cow to pay for metro projects that will have minimal impact in Va inside the beltway and none outside the beltway. Thank you but we will keep our taxes low and keep building cross county connectors outside the beltway.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | July 2, 2008 9:55 AM

Woodbridge, the Loudoun County Parkway is far from complete. It's bits and pieces right now. There is MAJOR work to be done here. Route 50 and Route 7 are both overwhelmed at rush hour.

You somehow got a Wegmans down there -- take all that tax money you're saving and go spend to help the economy!

Posted by: Spectator2 | July 2, 2008 10:00 AM

Technically, the Fairfax Parkway isn't even complete.

What I don't totally understand is where all the gas tax money currently goes. Is it not going toward roads? I find it odd that Tennessee, argueable one of the more broke states in the south, with no income tax, schools that are crumbling, etc, has some of the best roads east of the Mississippi. Why? 100% of gas tax revenue goes to roads. Its too the point that some years it seems like that are just repaving I-40 to spend money.

Posted by: Former Virginian | July 2, 2008 10:43 AM

Spectator2 -- I agree more need to be done. Traffic managment is, unfortunately, a never ending challange. My point is we are doing a better job than the WaPo gives us credit for.

Actually, what we really need to relieve congestion is for Md to end its obstruction regarding an outer beltway or by pass at Rt 301. Va has been ready to go on any number of cross river solutions and Md blocks them because they disapprove of our lifestyle.

What is the fascination with Wegmans? Our county supervisors were gushing over this but I've always found the best values at Shoppers Food Warehouse and I have a commissary card.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | July 2, 2008 10:49 AM

Woodbridge: I agree that VA has done a lot of good roadwork. I've lived here for 16 years and seen many major projects -- the current project to replace all lights on heavily traveled route 28 from Centreville to Route 7 with cloverleafs is one such example.

I also agree that we need a Potomac crossing between the Beltway and Route 15. White's Ferry really doesn't do the trick.

But forget Maryland -- I've lived there too and I know that state stinks (LOL). The intransigence of rural VA legislators is ridiculous. In the not too distant future they will be outvoted. Those farmers may think they are helping their constituents but the time will come when they will be reduced to begging for crumbs.

Posted by: Spectator2 | July 2, 2008 10:56 AM

The "Loudoun County Parkway" has a built in speed-trap where the speed drops to 25MPH with ZERO warning in advance for about a 1000 foot section. (45 to 25 - INSTANT reckless driving in the good ole' Commonshaft) right after the Farmwell/Waxpool traffic light.

No road with a 25 mph speed limit should be deemed a "parkway."

Posted by: "Parkway"... riiiight | July 2, 2008 11:02 AM

"let northern Virginians tax themselves"

I live in McLean and have no problem with that idea. In Utah, where I used to live, counties are allowed to impose local sales taxes. Utah is hardly a hotbed of liberalism.

Posted by: wiredog | July 2, 2008 12:33 PM

The political gridlock is apropos for a state that is so fundamentally different between regions. As a firm believer in limited-government due to it's inherent inefficiency caused by graft, I find that the stalemate is a good thing because the government isn't actually actively making things worse at the moment.

No amount of money spent after the fact will ever alleviate the congestion caused by political corruption and poor management during the zoning/planning stage. How much does that old wives' tale say that "an ounce of prevention" is worth? When the developers can buy off the local politicians and are not responsible for any infrastructural improvements necessitated by their developments, it's no wonder why NoVA is sitting in gridlock. The region has no one to blame but its leaders.

It's funny that you mention the improvements on 28. It's just shifted the congestion to other secondary and tertiary roads. Look at how much worse the traffic West-bound on Rt. 7 is now. Another example is the idiotic light on Waxpool by Wegman's (the ONLY way in/out of a massive commercial center since the construction project). A flyover empyting immediately into a stoplight has got to be the dumbest thing in the world and they need look no more than 10 miles away for a case-study -- the Rt 7. flyover onto the Bypass in Leesburg dumping immediately into the light at Sycolin Rd. With "solutions" like these, I'm glad the government isn't doing anything, because all it is capable of doing is making things worse.

Posted by: Leesburger | July 2, 2008 12:40 PM

Once again the same voice joining others thinking that we can tax ourselves out of a problem. What happened to dedicated road funding in the 90's? What happened to the 150% plus increase in real estate taxes under the Hanley/Connolly regimes? The solution is responsible spending priorities, not taxing. Don't even talk to me about taxes and fees until a thorough review of spending is undertaken.

Posted by: Ace | July 2, 2008 2:42 PM

The solution is simple - Northern Virginia should secede from the Commonwealth of Virginia, as West Virginia did years ago, and become a new state. We would then have more money than we knew what to do with.

We can argue about how to define the new state - probably to include Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William and maybe Fauquier and Stafford counties, plus the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church and Fairfax - but the bottom line is this would likely be the wealthiest state in the union with more than enough money to pay for needed roads, transit, other public improvements and everything else the Commonwealth of shortchanges us on. When the citizens of NOVA understand that for decades they have supported the rest of the state, with a gigantic net loss on their contribution - we get back nickles for every dollar we send to Richmond - support for becoming a new state should be easy to find. Even the threat of secession might be enough to get the rural legislators in Richmond to wake up. But if a detailed economic analysis were done of the many advantages of becoming a new state, my guess is that most NOVA residents would not be satisfied with using it as a threat and would enthusiastically support statehood for NOVA in a heartbeat.

Posted by: Patriot Games | July 2, 2008 3:57 PM

The proposal to allow Northern Virginia to pay to fix it's own congestion is the best option out there. This is a crisis we have brought upon ourselves by allowing out of control sprawl. Sure it has brought us some extra tax revenue to blow but who cares about that when sprawl is killing the quality of life?

Posted by: Joe | July 2, 2008 4:16 PM

Patriot Games -- let me see if I have this right. The people who moved to Stafford, PWC and Loudon to get away from Arlington and Alexandria are now ging to join them in a new state????

BTW, the vast majority of highway funding is federal and allocated to the states based on their miles of interstate, so how exactly is giving up the milage of I-81, I-64, I-95 outside your new state etc going to increase funding for transportation?

Every state with an urban rural divide has these types of tensions along with the usual cries for succession. I've heard similar suggestions for New York, Chicago, Phila etc. The "wealthy" cities are going to showup those "poor" rural hicks by taking their money and leaving. It's not going to happen. Get over it.

Posted by: Woodbridge VA | July 2, 2008 4:21 PM

Instead of letting us Northern Virginians tax ourselves while still subsidizing the rest, let us annex ourselves from the stodgy mindset of the rest of Virginia. Just like West Virginia, we should have North Virginia.

It doesn't matter. Partisan politics and inflammatory BS is what rules government these days, and unfortunately people more more concerned about who is to blame than who is to provide a solution.

Posted by: Craig | July 2, 2008 6:58 PM

And yet we keep voting the incumbents back into office year after year. They're riding the political gravy train and we're stuck in the mud. I say we start by having a referendum to eliminate their per-diem for extra sessions AND give the Governor carte-blanche to call them back to Richmond if they don't do their job. Then we start throwing out ALL incumbents.

Posted by: Todd Skiles | July 2, 2008 8:20 PM

Todd Skiles: not a bad idea, but you don't want to be saying it too loud.

Bill Clinton isn't busy right now and his friends might arrange one of those "Arkansas Accidents".

Posted by: DC Voter | July 3, 2008 7:19 AM

Marc Fisher, most Virginia Democrats and many moderate Republicans can't seem to get it through their thick heads that adding roads in northern Virginia without reining in northern Virginia's developers will only add to the sprawling, ugly mess that is northern Viriginia. And Republicans in northern Virginia must learn to divorce themselves from the developer lobby not only for the sake of what's left of the land of northern Virginia but for the sake of future politics. As northern Virgina sprawls, the Republicans lose.

Posted by: D Leaberry | July 3, 2008 9:22 AM

Leesburger said it. Our local county politicians took gifts under the table from developers in exchange for being let off the hook with infrastructure development/improvements. We all end up paying for it, the costs will never end. And now Connolly wants to be in Congress? He would fit right in no doubt about it, but who in their right mind would vote for him? Unless he is bussing in the illegals from PWC and handing out 5 dollar bills to vote for him, ala Boss Tweed and the Irish right off the boat.

Posted by: BiffGriff | July 3, 2008 10:58 AM

Woodbridge,

You and I generally agree, but I hardly consider the Fairfax and Loudon County Parkways anything to brag about.

These roads, with their sharp curves designed to slow down the speed of traffic and their traffic lights as close as 1/8 mile apart, barely do anything to help traffic congestion. For that purpose, they are practically useless. They should have been built as expressway-type parkways - like 66 in Arlington.

You got it a bit wrong about Maryland's vs. Virginia's priorities.

Maryland is going ahead with the Intercounty Connector (ICC) highway, having overcome unreasonable opponents, many of whom came over from Virginia and pretended to to "concerned Maryland residents opposed to the ICC".

Regarding your comment about getting fleeced to pay for "metro projects that will have minimal impact" on traffic congestion, it is Virginia that is pushing for the $5.4 billion Silver Line developers' boondoggle to Dulles even though studies have shown it will have minimum impact on traffic and will carry only about 16,000 riders/day. That's a capital cost of $337,500/rider. Not to mention the perpetual operating subsidies to cover running the thing and defraying its estimated $125 million annual deficit.

Posted by: cefer66 | July 3, 2008 1:01 PM

1) Take metro.
2) Car pool.

Posted by: ArlingtonNoob | July 3, 2008 2:01 PM

Virginia traffic is not as bad as DC and Maryland. Choke points on I-95 south (Duke Street & HOV - I-95 merge), I-95 north (entering DC), I-66 lanes going from three to two, and on parts of the Beltway (before I-66 and entering Maryland) comprises of most of VA's traffic nightmares. Other roads have a heavy load, but nothing like DC and MD. Even with this said, road maintenance and future road maintenance is currently dependent on what happens in Richmond. For that matter, Northern Virginia should become its own state. Place the NOVA state capital in FFX, LC, Alex, Falls Church, or PW and let's see how Richmond and RoVA survives.

Posted by: Andrea | July 3, 2008 3:53 PM

"1) Take metro.
2) Car pool."

Anything but just simply build a d@mn road, huh?

"Take Metro/car pool" is a great plan for those who can do it; not everyone (read: MOST people) can.

That reality seems to be lost on most of the narrowly-focused people on these blogs who simplistically chant "take Metro/car pool/move closer to work" as a mantra to every traffic problem.

We need more than slogans and "alternatives". We need SOLUTIONS.

Have you got any ideas?

Posted by: ceefer66 | July 3, 2008 4:30 PM

Facts: From 2002 through 2010, the Virginia Budget will have increased by 60%. We suffered a huge tax increase in 2003 for "Commitments" as the then Governor characterized them. Our property/sales/telcom/other asst. taxes have increased.

And there is no money for roads? And now with gas prices at over $4 /gallon, the "statesmen" in the State Senate want to increase gas taxes?

No thanks..let's reorder our priorities. Impose some fiscal restraint on other parts of the 35 Billion annual budget (families have to do the same with their budgets), and lets get the roads done

Posted by: Mt. Vernon | July 3, 2008 6:02 PM

One more note...Folks it is not a question of whether or not we are paying enough taxes. I wish the Wa. Post would report about the run-away spending in Virginia.

When the politicians tell you there is no money for roads in Northern Virginia, we have a lot of unmet needs, that times are tight (yada, yada, etc, etc.), and that we need new gas taxes, please consider the following:

Virginia State Operating Budgets:

1997 $17,131,110,511
1998 $17,620,703,141
1999 $19,962,082,932
2000 $21,368,967,256
2001 $23,322,749,017
2002 $23,483,212,825
2003 $24,982,910,876
2004 $26,379,372,090
2005 $29,257,674,193
2006 $31,991,449,302
2007 $35,094,639,443
2008 $35,964,936,700
2009 $37,614,936,445
2010 $38,799,340,643

http://dpb.virginia.gov/budget/vabud/vabud.cfm

On February 12, 2008, Governor Kaine released a document reflecting "Budget Reductions to the General Assembly for Fiscal Years 2008, 2009 and 2010" The Introduction states that the national economy has been showing signs of a broadening slowdown which has "adversely affected revenue collections" (for you unsophisticates, that's tax collections). Our "courageous" Governor has taken steps to address "revenue shortfalls" of $339.3 million, $520.1 million, and $532.2 million in fiscal years 2008, 2009, and 2010, respectively.

It is interesting to note that the Governor reports in his February 12th document that the original 2008 budget of $35.9+ billion included a withdrawl of $261.1 million from Virginia's Revenue Stabilization Fund (correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that is commonly known as the "rainy day fund"). With the FY 2008 additional revenue shortfall reported in the February 12th document, the Governor wants to withdraw an additional $162.4 million. This would result in a total withdrawl of $423.5 million from the rainy day fund in FY 2008 alone.

The facts speak for themselves. Under the 8 years of Mark Warner and Timothy Kaine leadership, the operating budget of Virginia has grown from $23.4 billion in 2002, the last Gilmore budget, to $38.7 billion, in 2010. That represents a whopping $15.3 billion annual increase or a 65% increase in state spending on an annual basis in 2010 compared to 2002! And I am not even talking about the increased spending and taxation in Fairfax County!

Posted by: Mt. Vernon | July 3, 2008 6:20 PM

"Patriot Games -- let me see if I have this right. The people who moved to Stafford, PWC and Loudon to get away from Arlington and Alexandria are now ging to join them in a new state????"
___________________

That's your trouble, Woodbridge VA -- the concept of "getting away." You can't continually run away from urbanization, the ethnic melting pot, etc. You're going to have to come to terms with it, like it or not. (I didn't come to Prince William to "get away" from Arlington or Alexandria; I came because it's near where I work and housing costs are slightly cheaper than elsewhere in the metro Washington area.) And if those backward southerners in the rest of the state can't give us a fair shake, we SHOULD secede and form the state of North Virginia.

Oh, and by the way, it's spelled "Loudoun." I'm only pointing it out because I noticed you incorrectly spelled it that way in this thread twice.

Posted by: Vincent | July 4, 2008 1:34 PM

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