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Congested roads: Virginia's persistent problem

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Date published: 10/11/2009


But even gas-tax proposals have run into kinks--how to raise it, how to distribute it and how to get around the dilemma that many legislators won't vote for it.

Those opponents argue that the gas tax is regressive since it hits poor people just as hard as rich folks, and that it's a diminishing source of revenue that would cost too much--getting $1 billion in new revenue out of the gas tax would require more than doubling it.


So what other options are there?

One idea is to let Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads take care of themselves through regional authorities, formed and run by localities, in charge of their own transportation projects and funding.

One version of that died in a referendum, and a later version enacted in 2007 was ruled unconstitutional.

That was part of House Bill 3202, a 2007 effort by Republicans to craft a transportation package without raising big taxes like the gas tax. It was put together, in part, by McDonnell, then attorney general, and included the regional authorities, extra fees on "abusive drivers," bonds and expanded land-use tools for localities to help curb future congestion.

HB 3202 wasn't terribly popular with proponents of a statewide solution, but it passed--Deeds was among those who voted for it--and Gov. Tim Kaine signed it.

The court ruling that took out the regional authorities stripped it of much of its revenue, however, and the legislature itself killed the abuser fees after public outrage.

Lawmakers tried again the next year, when Kaine called them into a special session in the summer of 2008. He proposed several taxes and fees; he didn't propose a gas-tax increase, but Senate Democrats did and Deeds voted for it. Both proposals failed to pass, and the session didn't produce much of anything but angst.


Which brings us to now--transportation still needs more money, and virtually every proposal to get it has failed.

Lingering roadblocks include the fact that money in the transportation trust fund can technically be taken for other uses. That makes people wary of raising taxes, if they can't guarantee to their constituents that those taxes will be used for transportation.

There's also the issue of the transportation funding formula, under which revenues are redistributed to localities for road improvements. The formula was created back when the powerful lawmakers were from rural areas-- and when more of Virginia was rural--so now Northern Virginia is a "donor" region, sending more money to Richmond than it gets back.

This is one reason regional solutions have been popular; urban lawmakers want to guarantee that if their constituents pay more, they get more, without having to send the extra money through the distribution formula.

For the record, Deeds says he'd consider revising the formula for new revenues, although not existing ones; McDonnell says he's not advocating changing the formula, that he'd like to find other ways to help the donor regions by going around the distribution formula.

Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028
Email: cdavis@freelancestar.com

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