For years, Virginia residents have demanded Gov. Bob McDonnell create a comprehensive transportation funding plan that will safeguard the economic future of our region. Now it seems we should have been more careful what we wished for.
The only thing worse than having no plan to fund transportation is having one that is doomed to fail. McDonnell’s controversial plan will start to deteriorate just as he exits office, leaving the next governor with a political morass that will make the snarls of Northern Virginia rush-hour traffic seem like smooth sailing.
McDonnell’s plan is full of gimmicks that pander to the anti-tax elements of his party at the expense of providing a firm financial foundation on which to build the state’s transportation infrastructure. Getting rid of the gas tax is a mistake. Right now, the gas tax makes sure that all drivers share the costs of our roads and bridges.
Without the gas tax, out-of-state commuters, tourists, and commercial drivers could drive on our roads for hundreds of miles each year without contributing a single cent to repair the streets and highways they are helping to wear out—even if they fill up every single day. Will the revenue generated through the sales tax these drivers will pay on coffee be enough to keep our infrastructure in good repair? How many road trip snacks will out-of-state drivers need to buy to fund the new road construction needed throughout the state? Out-of-state drivers are responsible for 30 percent of the traffic on our roads.
Eliminating the gas tax will destroy any parity that now exists in how Virginians and out-of-state drivers split the costs to maintain the roads everyone uses.
McDonnell proposes to make up the lost revenue with an increased sales tax, as well as a new tax on online purchases. The increased sales tax will mean ordinary Virginia families will pay more at the grocery store no matter how much they drive, while drivers from Maryland, North Carolina, and the District can fill up here at a discount. The new tax on Internet purchases doesn’t even exist yet – the Governor is relying on an act of Congress to give him the authority to try to collect that money. The new tax on Internet purchases doesn’t even exist yet, and must be enacted by Congress.
Governor McDonnell is betting Congress will go out of its way to pass a law just to help him out, and it’s a bet with very long odds.
Virginia needs a stable source of revenue to fund a transportation system that can support the commerce this governor, and those to come, will want to attract to the state. Instead, McDonnell has offered a slate of slick tricks that just move numbers around the state balance sheet. When these gimmicks come up short, state leaders will need to raid the General Fund to make up the difference. Rather than choosing which priority to sacrifice later, we can create a viable transportation funding plan now.
If successful, McDonnell’s plan would choke off one certain source of revenue and hang the future of Virginia’s roads and bridges on sources that are much less reliable, including one that does not exist yet. Virginia’s roads will wear out long before our politicians run out of excuses. I can only hope Senate Democrats will see through McDonnell’s latest stunt, resist his attempts to intimidate them into passing his doomed plan, and redouble their efforts to deliver a sustainable solution to our transportation crisis.
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