Photo by MSVG on Flickr.

Governor McDonnell’s transportation funding bills (HB2313 and SB 1355) are on the floor of the Virginia House and Senate today and tomorrow. The McDonnell Administration is facing objections on many fronts, but the Republican majority quickly pushed the bills through committee.

Votes to pass the bills must take place before “cross-over” on midnight Tuesday in order for them to survive and cross over to the other chamber.

Many legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, will seek amendments on the floor, but observers believe that the Governor and leadership want to push the bills into a closed-door conference committee where the Republican majority will control crafting the final bill. That means the best opportunity for major amendments is now.

If you are concerned about these bills, you can get the latest from the Coalition for Smarter Growth, contact your elected officials, and monitor @csgstewart and @betterDCregion for a Twitter play-by-play.

Without critical amendments, the bill that ultimately emerges from the conference committee is unlikely to be a good deal for Northern Virginia or other metropolitan areas of the state. The McDonnell administration has squandered much of the $3 billion in borrowed funds the legislature authorized in 2011. The governor spent it on highway projects in rural areas, while neglecting funding for Dulles Rail, Tysons Corner, and Hampton Roads’ top priorities — their bridge-tunnel crossings.

Prominent among the McDonnell Administration’s wasteful projects have been Route 460, the Coalfields Expressway, Charlottesville Bypass and the Outer Beltway. If Virginia continues to pursue these projects it could waste a combined $5.5 billion, but if the legislature makes review and reevaluation of these projects a condition of new funding, there’s still a chance to redeploy the funds to real transportation needs.

Eliminating all taxes on gasoline, the centerpiece of McDonnell’s bill, could make traffic in our metro areas worse, reducing transit use and increasing driving. It cuts the sensible tie between transportation use and funding, forcing Virginians who drive less to subsidize those who drive more, hurting seniors and low-income people, carpoolers, transit users, those who live closer to their jobs.

Switching to the sales tax could also make Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads further subsidize long-distance driving throughout the state. It would also divert state general funds essential for education, health care, public safety and conservation.

Without amendments to ensure the Virginia Department of Transportation sets better priorities, there is no guarantee in these bills to meet the needs of the metro areas or the state’s growing transit needs. There is no guarantee these bills will restore funding for local roads; for the past 2 years, VDOT has zeroed out funding for secondary roads in localities despite record transportation spending.

Fortunately, nearly all of the Democrats and a number of Republicans believe that eliminating all taxes on gasoline is a bad idea. Opposition to the idea also extends from the smart growth community to the Wall Street Journal.

On January 15, a Wall Street Journal editorial argued that McDonnell’s scheme “violates the user-pays principle” of sound public finance:

[It] would mean that a Virginia resident who may not even own a car has to pay more for road repairs when he buys a cell phone, computer or Big Mac. Motorists who benefit most from the roads would pay almost nothing directly to use them… [F]unding transportation through a sales tax “makes roads free,” at least in terms of direct payments, and thus will lead to more driving and more gridlock—the opposite of what McDonnell says he wants to achieve.

Let’s hope the legislature rejects the Governor’s proposal to eliminate the gas tax. We hope the legislature will vote for the following amendments:

  • Include mandatory reevaluation of VDOT’s megaprojects. We could save much of the $5.5 billion to use to address our real transportation needs.
  • Reform the Public Private Transportation Act to ensure greater public oversight.
  • Keep the gas tax. It is an appropriate user fee tying payments to use of Virginia’s roads, and it ensures out of state drivers also contribute. Apply the sales tax to gas at the wholesale level and/or index the gas tax to inflation.
  • Withdraw any increase in the statewide sales tax. A statewide increase will mean the state (VDOT) will just siphon the money from Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
  • Allow a local sales tax for transportation in Northern Virginia that Northern Virginia controls and the same for Hampton Roads. Let our two most congested regions decide what to fix and build.
  • Require 25% of the new funding to go to transit, both urban and rural.
  • Require 15% of the new funding to go to local roads. VDOT has zeroed out money for local roads in order to build unnecessary highways in lightly trafficked areas. If we don’t specify this, then we still won’t get local street funds including pedestrian and bicycle facilities.
  • Keep the $15 vehicle registration fee for intercity passenger rail and public transit funding.

Without these amendments, the legislature should reject the Governor’s bills and new funding for the state transportation agencies.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of where we find nearly $5.5 billion in waste:

  • Route 460: This $1.4 billion proposed new highway between Suffolk and Petersburg costs over $1.1 billion of taxpayer funds, plus tolls. The current Route 460 carries just 11,000 trips per day.
  • Coalfields Expressway: A $2.8 billion new highway is in the least-trafficked area of the state.
  • Charlottesville Bypass: This $243 million project doesn’t solve congestion and saves minimal travel time for commuters.
  • North-South Corridor: This estimated $1 billion piece of an Outer Beltway around DC doesn’t address commuter needs and would add development and traffic in areas without infrastructure.