Once again, as the members of the General Assembly prepare to go to the Session in Richmond, the question arises: Will anything be done about transportation?
Clearly our transportation systems are inadequate, especially in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Our roads are unbelievably congested and both regions have chokepoints like bridges and tunnels. Money for maintenance of roads is in such short supply that over $500 million a year is being transferred from construction to maintenance. And for many, many years public transit has been shortchanged.
The Governor proposed a transportation funding plan during his campaign, based on offshore oil drilling that might occur sometime, tolls on highways that have to get the unlikely approval of the Federal government, and the ill-advised proposal to privatize the ABC stores. Now this transportation plan lies in shambles, though the Governor continues to say he will submit yet another version of ABC privatization in January.
What is clearly needed is a long-term, sustainable source of revenue for transportation and yet, even though the need is immediate, accomplishing that still seems a long way off. There are a number of reasons for that. First of all, a significant number of members, particularly in the House of Delegates, have taken a no-tax pledge. Additionally, many areas of the state really do not have serious transportation problems so it’s hard for rural legislators to realize how significant the problems are in this area.
That’s one reason that regional solutions have been suggested from time to time. Some years ago there were referenda in NoVa and Hampton Roads to approve tax increases for the regions, but both failed. More recently some additional funding was transferred from the General Fund to be used for transportation with, for example, taxes for auto insurance premiums to be used for debt service for transportation bonds. That same bill would have allowed the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to approve some regional taxes but that was ruled to be unconstitutional. Another effort will be made this year to devise a regional plan.
Some people believe that General Fund dollars, rather than transportation-related funds, should be used for transportation, but that puts it in direct competition for funds for K-12 education, our colleges and universities, healthcare and public safety. Most members of the Senate continue to believe that it would be better to adopt new transportation-related sources of revenue, possibly the unpopular gas tax or a sales tax on gasoline, rather than take funds from these core priorities of government.
Others support tolls that certainly can be construed as a user fee. However, some of the tolls that have been suggested are very high and could be counter-productive.
Bond funding has been tapped so that already a significant percentage of VDOT’s annual budget is devoted to debt service, further reducing funding available for current needs.
There is no easy road to a transportation solution (pun intended!). Political will and good will are desperately needed for progress to be made.
Senator Whipple represents the 31st District in the Virginia State Senate. She may be e-mailed at [email protected]