Transportation compromise gives municipalities flexibility

By Melissa Quinn

After weeks of politicking, Gov. Bob McDonnell’s highly controversial transportation bill received the General Assembly’s stamp of approval over the weekend.

State legislators approved the historic legislation after both chambers compromised on the bill. McDonnell’s legislation shifts $200 million from the general fund money and eliminates the retail gas tax while letting municipalities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to impose a 1 percent sales tax to be used specifically for transportation projects.

“In general, it’s a positive thing because we have a lot of transportation needs in our area,” said City Councilor Tim Lovain. “This could help with financing of the Potomac Yards Metro or a high capacity transit network. Those projects are expensive and we’re struggling to find the money for it.”

McDonnell’s original bill received criticism from Senate Democrats for doing away with of the gas tax, which brings in substantial revenue and would give out-of-state drivers a tax break.

Sen. Richard Saslaw (D-35) said travelers passing through the commonwealth buy 20 to 30 percent of gas sold, and a repealed gas tax would have made Virginia the only state in the country to do so.

“I think it was high on everyone’s agenda,” Saslaw said. “We’re not going to give the store away and do silly or stupid things so the governor can say, ‘I did something.’”

While McDonnell’s bill does ax the 17.5-cent per gallon retail gas tax, it imposes a 3.5 percent tax on wholesale motor fuels, which keeps revenue in line with inflation. The governor lauded the eventual compromise on the legislation as a step forward for the commonwealth.

“For several decades now transportation loomed as an issue that seemingly could not be solved. Lines were drawn and debates droned on as motorists sat in traffic,” McDonnell said in a statement “[We] have shown a path forward, a path past the old political arguments and endless posturing that threatens the economic prosperity and competitiveness of our state and nation.”

While the new bill represents bipartisan action, Lovain worries giving municipalities the freedom to pursue transportation projects could end up backfiring in Northern Virginia. Though local officials have long sought a regional approach to transportation issues, it hasn’t always worked out to their satisfaction.

“Each [jurisdiction] is now able to act on its own,” he said. “Instead of the whole region thinking together about the highest priority, it is more localities being more parochial and you end up with more local projects instead of regional projects.”

Lovain, though, believes the newfound revenue from a 1 percent rise in sales tax could help fund many projects beyond the Potomac Yards Metro.

“We have a 10-year transportation plan with a lot of good projects in it that are waiting for available funding,” he said.

Those projects include additional bike trails, street improvements and the expansion of the DASH network. But going ahead with a higher sales tax would involve a dialogue with the community, Lovain said.

“It’s a trade off,” he said. “People have to consider if the increase in the sales tax would be worth it. The needs are so great and I’m sure there will be folks in all jurisdictions who want to take a look at it and see if it’s something we want to consider.”

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