N. Virginians narrowly back sales tax for Metro
Regionwide levy is most popular among 5 funding proposals, poll finds
A slim majority of Northern Virginians support a regionwide sales tax to boost Metro funding, giving it the most support of five proposals to improve the transit agency’s long-term financial problems, a new Washington Post-Schar School poll finds.
Northern Virginia residents give mixed or negative reviews to other proposals asked about in the poll, including increased funding from regional governments, service cuts, and special taxes on businesses and homes near Metro stations.
The Post-Schar School poll finds 53 percent of Northern Virginians support a regional sales tax to fund Metro, while 40 percent oppose it. Those results mirror a Washington Post-University of Maryland survey in March, which found that 50 percent of respondents living in Maryland’s D.C. suburbs supported a regional sales tax, while 47 percent opposed the idea. Support was lukewarm among Prince George’s County residents at 44 percent, but was 55 percent in Montgomery County.
The Virginia results, combined with those from Maryland, offer an increasingly clear indication that many residents are willing to pay more to support Metro, but local leaders advocating the regional sales tax for Metro still face an uphill battle.
State lawmakers would have to give localities the authority to tax themselves, and in some cases, the sales tax would have to be approved by voters in local ballot measures. Similar efforts recently have not had much success. In November, Fairfax County voters rejected a 4 percent tax on restaurant and prepared meals; the bulk of the revenue would have gone to support public schools. The referendum failed 54 percent to 46 percent.
Loudoun County Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (RDulles) said such a measure would be a tough sell in Northern Virginia, especially in jurisdictions where Metro coverage is limited and residents are less reliant on public transit.
“To expect a county like that to adopt a sales tax ordinance for Metro is just not going to happen. It’s not viable,” said Letourneau, who also is vice chairman of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Although proponents of the regional sales tax say it is the simplest option for raising extra money for Metro and equitably spreading the burden, Letourneau said some supportive politicians — particularly those outside Northern Virginia — underestimate the complexities involved.
“That’s what we’re kind of overlooking,” Letourneau said. “We skipped right through all these solution sets, and we haven’t quite educated everyone about the issues and the problems that are involved with each one.”
That idea was reinforced Thursday at a Virginia Senate Finance Committee meeting, where several lawmakers said they are pushing for legislators in Virginia, the District and Maryland to pursue separate plans to provide more money for Metro, rather than to collectively agree to one regional tax.
Notably, the Post-Schar poll finds that support for a regional sales tax stands at an identical 53 percent among residents of the close-in D.C. suburbs such as Fairfax County, and the exurban counties including Loudoun, Prince William and Fauquier.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has not said whether he supports a regional sales tax for Metro. He is waiting to hear the recommendations of a panel he convened — headed by former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood — to study’s Metro’s financial and governance problems. The panel’s report is due this fall; Virginians will elect a new governor in November.
Statewide, 57 percent of Virginians are in favor a sales tax to support Metro, and 30 percent oppose it. Support for the regional sales tax is slightly higher outside Northern Virginia (59 percent) than inside (53 percent).
In Northern Virginia, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are more supportive of the tax (60 percent for and 33 percent against) than Republican-leaning residents, who are split 47 percent in support, 47 opposed.
And younger residents are more supportive of the idea than their older counterparts; 57 percent of Northern Virginians under 40 express support for the plan compared with 44 percent of those 65 or older. But in all age groups, the idea enjoys at least slightly more support than disapproval.
Less than a majority of Northern Virginians support each of the other revenue options posed in the survey: 45 percent support raising additional funds from the District, Maryland and Virginia through program cuts or tax increases, 42 percent support increasing fares, and 34 percent support creating an additional tax on property near Metro stations.
Service cuts — reducing the frequency of Metro trains and buses — were roundly rejected across nearly all demographic and regional groups in Northern Virginia.
Three-quarters of residents in Virginia’s immediate D.C. suburbs oppose the idea, with 62 percent of residents in the exurbs also saying no to reductions in service.
Yet, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has said repeatedly in recent weeks that if the region fails to provide a new revenue source for the financially ailing system, dramatic reductions in service will be his only option to balance the budget in coming years.
Unsurprisingly, Metro’s reputation has taken a major hit in this poll, amid system shutdowns and delays during the year-long SafeTrack maintenance program. The project, aimed at making up for decades of neglect, is scheduled to end in June.
Just over 4 in 10 Northern Virginians (43 percent) rate Metrorail as “excellent” or “good,” while 45 percent rate it negatively. Ratings have fallen sharply from 2013, 2010 and 2005, when large majorities of Northern Virginia residents rated Metrorail much higher: Seven in 10, or more, gave the system positive ratings back then. Just 14 percent rated Metro negatively four years ago. Now, more than three times as many rate it negatively.
Despite Metro’s faltering reputation in the region, some residents say they’re hopeful that an infusion of more money will help improve the condition of the system. That’s true for Javier Aguila, 21, a community college student living in Springfield. He said he would be willing to pay an extra 1 percent sales tax — although he hardly uses Metro. The few times that he has been on the system recently, he said, he has seen some of the shiny new 7000series cars that are becoming a fixture on the rails. He wants to see more of those with the hope that they improve reliability for riders, and he would be willing to help pay for it.
“If it’s going to help out the community in a significant way, I don’t think it should be a big deal,” Aguila said. “If it’s helping things get better, then why not?”
Chandu Ketkar, 55, a software security consultant from McLean, Va., said he would consider supporting a sales tax — as long as it was limited to the immediate Washington region and did not affect the taxes of people who live far afield in Virginia.
He also is not categorically opposed to a new tax for properties close to Metro stations, although he worries that it might unfairly burden those who live close to stations but do not use the transit system. That option would let frequent users who perhaps drive to stations as part of their commute off the hook because they would not be paying their fair share, as he sees it.
“I don’t live right next to Metro,” said Ketkar, who estimates that he rides Metro about once a month. “But I can certainly see myself paying some taxes to have a Metro that is not broken.”
More than anything, Ketkar said, he just wants something that will help improve the ailing system. His children ride Metro into the District, and he sometimes worries for their safety. He said he has been encouraged by SafeTrack and is hopeful that the agency’s new management is achieving improvements.
Still, Ketkar remains disappointed with the system. He travels internationally for work and says it is frustrating to see the D.C. transit system fall so far short of the kinds of transit infrastructure that is standard in Europe and Asia.
“If you look at Tokyo, Osaka, Hong Kong, Shenzhen — you see how good systems can run,” he said. “I think Washington can do better.”
The Post-Schar School was conducted May 9-14 among a random sample of Virginia adults reached on cellular and landline phones. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points among the sample of 574 Northern Virginia residents. Scott Clement contributed to this report.
A poll conducted this month finds that reducing Metrorail service to help close a budget gap is the least popular of five proposed ways of addressing Metro’s financial distress.