Vir­ginia’s dilemma: Roads or rail?

The Progress-Index - - OPINION -

Along with Mary­land and the District of Columbia, Vir­ginia took a ma­jor step this year to­ward restoring Metro to a sus­tain­able fi­nan­cial po­si­tion

- and, in the process, as­sur­ing the re­gion’s long-term pros­per­ity. By pass­ing a mea­sure to boost the state’s sub­sidy for the tran­sit sys­tem by $154 mil­lion an­nu­ally, law­mak­ers in Rich­mond, Vir­ginia, where the leg­is­la­ture is nar­rowly con­trolled by Repub­li­cans, rec­og­nized that halt­ing Metro’s death spi­ral is not a ges­ture of char­ity; it’s a ques­tion of eco­nomic sur­vival.

Still, the good news from the com­mon­wealth was tem­pered by the fact that the fund­ing for­mula ap­proved by the Gen­eral Assem­bly mainly would pay for the Metro bill by goug­ing fund­ing for road and other trans­porta­tion pro­jects in north­ern Vir­ginia. Roughly two-thirds of the new dol­lars for the tran­sit sys­tem would be di­verted from ex­ist­ing trans­porta­tion blue­prints in the re­gion; the rest would come from state funds, as well as a tax on whole­sale gas that would add just 30 cents, at most, to the cost of a 15-gal­lon fill-up at the gas sta­tion.

That two-thirds chunk trans­lates into a $100 mil­lion an­nual hit to lo­cal and re­gional trans­porta­tion fund­ing - an act of rob­bing Peter to pay Paul that would leave grid­locked in­ter­sec­tions im­pass­able, clogged com­muter ar­ter­ies a mess and bike lanes un­built. Pan­icked lo­cal of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing some Repub­li­cans in Fair­fax, Prince Wil­liam, Loudoun and Ar­ling­ton coun­ties, as well as in Alexan­dria, warned that roads they’d hoped to im­prove in the next few years might now have to wait as long as a decade.

Gov. Ralph Northam, D, has of­fered amend­ments to the leg­is­la­tion that would mod­estly in­crease taxes on ho­tels and home sales, rais­ing about $30 mil­lion for Metro and thereby lim­it­ing by the same amount the cuts to other trans­porta­tion pro­jects in the re­gion. The gover­nor’s pro­pos­als are bal­anced and sen­si­ble. The ques­tion is whether Repub­li­can law­mak­ers, who hold the nar­row­est pos­si­ble ma­jori­ties in the state Sen­ate and House of Del­e­gates, will go along with them.

They should. Much or most of the new rev­enue would be raised from out-of-town­ers - tourists and busi­ness trav­el­ers at ho­tels, whose $500 bill would go up by $5 un­der Northam’s plan. Un­der Northam’s pro­posal, mean­while, the tax paid by the seller of a $700,000 home would in­crease by $350, to $1,400.

Sim­i­lar mea­sures were con­sid­ered dur­ing the leg­is­la­ture’s reg­u­lar ses­sion, which ended last month, but re­jected by GOP law­mak­ers. Down­state leg­is­la­tors were not much con­cerned about the fine print of the Metro bill; their con­stituents wouldn’t be af­fected. But most de­ferred to Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fair­fax County, who is among the last GOP state law­mak­ers rep­re­sent­ing north­ern Vir­ginia and who re­fused to go along with the new taxes.

Now, lo­cal of­fi­cials from north­ern Vir­ginia, in­clud­ing several prominent Repub­li­cans, are press­ing for the leg­is­la­ture to back Northam’s amend­ments. Their po­si­tion is sim­ple and log­i­cal: Vir­gini­ans must pay for the trans­porta­tion they use. Re­fus­ing to do so means suf­fer­ing the con­se­quences.

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