My Legacy: Digesting a legislative sausage

A wise observer once commented that crafting legislation was “similar to sausage making” ― throw in an item here, others there, cobble the disparate inputs together and enact them into law. To finance curing Virginia’s traffic woes, our legislature has produced just such a transportation tax package. Here’s the background.
The state gas tax, 17.5 cents per gallon, dates back to 1986. Since then inflation has reduced a dollar’s purchasing power by 54 percent. Add vehicles needing less fuel per mile, and Virginia runs out of dollars for roads. Our legislators could have raised the gas tax, and indexed it for inflation. But past efforts all failed because of voter opposition.

The (perhaps) good news is that Governor McDonnell proposed, and the legislature worked over and voted for a complex mixture of tax changes to provide more money for transportation. The bill now on the governor’s desk:
• Repeals the present gas tax at the pump, partly replacing it with wholesale taxes on gasoline (3.5 percent) and diesel fuel (6 percent).
• Increases in the state sales tax from 5 percent to 5.3 percent, except in Northern Virginia and around Hampton Roads; there the sales tax becomes 6 percent, because their roads are more congested.
• Adds $100 to the annual registration of alternate fuel and hybrid cars, plus a few other incidental changes.
In total the bill is expected to raise an extra $3 billion over five years. This total is not assured. The federal government must pass a Market Place Equity bill; differing sales taxes by region may violate the Virginia Constitution; $100 on alternate fuel cars is being challenged.
But the prime concern is how the new money will be spent. Here the skeptical observer may smell a rat in the tax sausage.
Beyond road repair, Northern Virginia’s priority is relieving east-west commuter traffic congestion on roads such as routes 7 and 66. Lurking in the wings is an old proposal for an Outer Beltway, running north-south between I-95 in Prince William County and Route 7 in Loudoun, sited just east of Route 15. Now designated a “Corridor of Statewide Significance” by VDOT, many studies have questioned its utility.
It would open now rural areas to development, so is favored by builders and land speculators, significant political contributors to county and state office-holders. Such development would increase the east-west commuter log jam, not alleviate it; raise local property taxes and use up much of the new money from the extra sales tax imposed on Northern Virginians.

The numbers are significant: Over five years, around $3 billion in new funds, about half from the added sales tax in NoVA. The Outer Beltway is estimated at $1 billion. You do the math.
If that new sales tax money is not used first for projects essential to Northern Virginians like road maintenance and reduction of east-west traffic delays, the legislature has re-introduced “taxation without representation,” presumably defeated centuries ago.
The least local citizens should demand is an objective analysis of the pros and cons of an Outer Beltway, and since their sales tax money is involved, a controlling say in whether and when it should be built.

Bruce Smart is a retired businessman with additional experience in government and the management of non-profit institutions. He is currently a member of the Virginia Governor’s Commission on Climate Change. Smart lives in Upperville. Email at sbsems@hotmail.com