Earlier this week, I published data compiled by the Richmond Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization illuminating the vast disparities in regional transportation funding — not just in absolute dollars, but on a dollars-per capita basis. In FY 2012 and FY 2013, Northern Virginia got the lion’s share of state transportation spending, putting an end to the canard that the region was sending far more transportation tax dollars to Richmond than it was getting back in return — for those two years at least. (See “Rethinking the Black Hole of Richmond.”)
Of course, those numbers did not come close to ending the argument. While it might be true that NoVa was getting a disproportionate share of transportation dollars based on population, it could be argued that the picture would look different if we considered how much NoVa residents were paying in transportation-related taxes.
Now comes data compiled by a Bacon’s Rebellion reader who goes by the pseudonym Hokie. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech with a concentration in transportation and infrastructure systems and now works in Hampton Roads.
There is no publicly available data on how much each locality contributes in motor fuels taxes, but the Virginia Department of Transportation does report the number of Vehicle Miles Traveled for each locality. On the assumption that there is a strong correlation between how much people drive, how many gallons of gasoline they purchase and how much they pay in the motor fuels tax, Hokie used VMT as a proxy for the fuel tax.
The disparity between taxes paid and money received is even more acute than the numbers I reported previously. On a per-capita basis, Northern Virginia received about 4.4 times as much transportation spending as Richmond. On a VMT-per-capita basis, NoVa received literally 10 times more money than Richmond. The disparity doubled because residents of the Richmond transportation district drive twice as many miles on an average yearly basis!
Two caveats: First, the state and federal motor fuels tax accounts for only half of Virginia’s transportation tax revenues. The state also funds transportation through tolls, the sales tax, auto sales tax and vehicle license fees, among other sources. Northern Virginians are more likely to pay their proportionate share, if not more than their share, of those taxes. Second, spending patterns will vary regionally from year to year, depending upon which mega-projects are getting funded and where. These two years happened to reflect heavy spending in NoVa, and are not necessarily representative of earlier years, or years to come.
What the numbers should do, however, is put an end to the pandering of NoVa politicians on the campaign stump that they’ll “go to Richmond and fight for NoVa’s fair share of transportation dollars.” In the past two years at a minimum, they got a lot more than their “fair share,” whether measured by population or Vehicle Miles Traveled.
Indeed, we can expect other regions, Richmond and Lynchburg in particular, to begin mobilizing to get their “fair share.”
A debate over who is subsidizing whom on a regional basis could turn into a fractious and unproductive free-for-all. But it could prove beneficial if it spurred Virginia to move to a more explicitly “user pays” funding system that encouraged regions to build only economically justifiable projects that can support themselves financially instead of looking for “someone else” to pay the tab.
Note: See Hokie’s full spreadsheet here. He presents additional data, comparing VMT with and without Interstate mileage, and comparing dollar disparities based on an “ideal funding” scenario.