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Traffic: State's chronic problem

October 11, 2009 12:36 am

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Democratic gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds (left) serves in the state Senate. Republican candidate Bob McDonnell (right) is a former attorney general. mcdonnellbob2.jpg.jpg

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BY CHELYEN DAVIS

If special blue-ribbon transportation study panels and political speeches could ease congestion, there would-n't be a traffic problem.

State officials have been talking about how to fix transportation for years. They've had two legislative special sessions and dozens of proposals, but it remains a problem that's not just lingering, but increasing.

As a result, it's now an issue in this year's governor's race. Republican Bob McDonnell has put out a multi-page transportation plan full of specifics, proposing everything but a tax increase. Some of his ideas have been rejected in the past by the legislature.

Democrat Creigh Deeds has avoided committing to a revenue source, saying almost everything is "on the table" and that if elected, he'll form a bipartisan commission to study the issue and craft a bill.

The issue has proved a headache for Deeds especially, whose plan tends to look vague compared with McDonnell's 19-page proposal. At a debate last month in Fairfax, Deeds had difficulty answering questions about whether he'd support raising taxes to pay for transportation.

And despite all the sound and fury over the issue in this campaign, there's no guarantee either man can find a transportation solution that has eluded lawmakers in the past.

THE PROBLEM

Virginia has thousands more cars on the roads than it did 20 years ago. Most of those cars are in the same places--Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads--causing congestion.

Those cars also get better gas mileage than cars of 20 years ago, meaning that their owners buy less gas, thus reducing one source of money for the transportation fund, the gas tax. At the same time, the cost of building more roads for those cars, and maintaining existing ones, has gone up.

THE DEBATE

Most state politicians agree there is some level of problem with transportation funding. But two lengthy special legislative sessions have not produced a long-term solution.

Taxes, tolls, public-private partnerships, land-use tools--all have been on the table at some point as legislators debate whether they need a statewide solution or a regional one, and whether taxes should be raised.

The gas tax is, at least on its face, perhaps the simplest, although also the most controversial, of proposals. It has been levied at a flat 17.5 cents per gallon since 1986, and raising it would provide more revenue and apply to everyone.

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.

OPTIONS

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.

WHERE ARE WE NOW?

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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