N. Vir­gini­ans nar­rowly back sales tax for Metro

Re­gion­wide levy is most pop­u­lar among 5 fund­ing pro­pos­als, poll finds

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY MARTINE POW­ERS AND EMILY GUSKIN

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.

MATT MC­CLAIN/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

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.

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