Few in the General Assembly or in the voting public deny the fact that Virginia needs more money to solve its transportation needs. There are only four ways to find the dollars: hiking taxes and fees, finding savings from current transportation spending, reshuffling spending priorities, and raising private-sector dollars.
The first option – higher taxes and fees – is a hard sell. Until voters can be persuaded that the last three options have been fully explored, convincing them to raise taxes will be difficult.
But let’s go ahead and settle the transportation gas tax issue. As long as that option is available, legislators aren’t likely to consider the other three — and nothing will get accomplished.
This November will likely see more people voting for president than at any time since 1960. So, let’s add to the ballot a simple question for the voters to decide:
Should gas taxes be raised by six cents per gallon over the next five years, with proceeds to be earmarked for statewide maintenance of roads and bridges?
This ballot question will allow the voters to settle a vexing issue. Perhaps the referendum campaign would raise some important issues the electorate had never fully considered before, including:
- Why hasn’t the state completed a final analysis of the 250-mile, public-private maintenance contract that was finished some years ago?
- If the savings from that single contract amounts to millions of dollars, as many believe is likely, why not contract out all 9,000 miles of primary roads — saving as much as $150 million a year?
- Shouldn’t these maintenance savings be credited toward the “new” monies that are needed?
- If the savings are as significant as some experts predict, why not adapt a similar approach to the 50,000 miles of secondary roads for maintenance outsourcing?
- Why doesn’t Virginia follow the lead of Missouri and contract with the private sector for the repair and maintenance of 800 of our most dangerous bridges in five years without a penny of state funds involved?
- And, of course, why are we talking new taxes at all before a true performance audit is done of the Virginia Department of Transportation to determine if the money being used can be spent more efficiently and on better congestion-relief projects?
Those who favor a gas tax will point to the center-right Tax Foundation, which recently said a gas tax is among the best taxes from an economic point of view for road maintenance and construction. The gas tax is a true user fee – those who drive on our roads pay the tax, pure and simple.
However, we must also consider that a gas tax is regressive, hitting the poor hardest. Also we should acknowledge that, as cars and trucks become more fuel efficient, the gas tax will yield decreasing revenues for the same number of miles driven.
The Tax Foundation also described tolls as another pure user fee. Clearly, they should be a larger part of any major new road plan in Virginia, including the third crossing in Hampton Roads, the expansion of Interstate 81 and the long-sought-after “outer beltway” around Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Tolls can pay for construction and long-term maintenance of those new roads.
If the proposed gas tax hike were earmarked for maintenance, and the revenues were put into a “lock box” where legislators couldn’t filch it, and the Virginia Department of Transportation outsourced maintenance to gain efficiencies, and the priority projects were published before the referendum, voters might be convinced to vote for a tax increase.
Government by referendum is not a good way to run the state. But this gas-tax issue has been hanging around for too long. Let’s get it resolved for at least the next several years. Put it on the ballot this November and let the voters decide.
In the meantime, we should pursue the other three pots in an aggressive and creative manner — find savings from current transportation spending, reprioritize projects to fund those that address traffic congestion most cost effectively, and attract billions of private sector dollars to Virginia.