by James A. Bacon
Addressing a friendly audience this afternoon at the Commonwealth Transportation Board, Governor Bob McDonnell plugged his transportation financing plan, arguing that it was “economically sound, politically viable” and will “fix the problem.”
“Our problem is a math problem,” the governor said. “Revenues are on a downward path and the cost of asphalt is on an upward path.” Within a few years, $500 million a year will be diverted from the state’s construction fund to pay for maintenance.
“I’ve used every asset I can find” that the General Assembly has made available to him, McDonnell said. He has audited VDOT four times. He has issued bonds. He has tapped the General Fund budget surplus. He has leveraged state dollars through tolled Public Private Transportation projects. Now the options are exhausted and the state needs new revenue.
McDonnell has proposed a five-point plan: (1) scrapping the motor fuels tax (except on diesel) and boosting the sales tax by 0.8%, a revenue source that will increase as the economy grows; (2) diverting 0.25% of existing sales tax revenue from the General Fund to transportation; (3) charging an extra $15 per year for vehicle registrations; and (4) charging alternative-fuel vehicles $100 per year, and (5) collecting taxes on online sales.
As people shift to more fuel-efficient automobiles and alternate-fuel vehicles, the governor said, the gasoline tax is not a viable long-term revenue source. “Relying on the state gas tax will only make the funding situation worse because the gas tax buying power has greatly depleted over the years. Switching to the state sales tax is the reasonable and logical solution to fund projects.”
Underlining the governor’s remarks, John Lawson, chief financial officer of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) told the CTB that his five-year revenue forecast had become significantly more pessimistic over the past year. Compared to last year’s five year forecast (2013-2018), the amount of revenue available to VDOT over the next five years (2014-2019) is $766 million less. State revenue is expected to decline $218 million while federal revenue will plummet $548 million. Those numbers do not take into account added revenues from the governor’s tax plan, which, in enacted, would raise an estimated $1.8 billion over the same period.
Between direct funding reductions and a delay to bond issues, that means the state will have $700 million less to spend on new roads, bridges and highways than expected. Even previous to Lawson’s revelation, the McDonnell administration had been saying that the state would run out of state construction funding within four to five years.
Touting the sales tax component of his plan as a first for the country, McDonnell said. The sales tax “is predictable, it’s reliable and it grows.”
A wide array of business and labor groups have endorsed McDonnell’s plan, as have key Republican legislators. Democrats have been relatively quiet, although some have expressed concerns about the idea of siphoning money from the General Fund, which would come at the expense of schools, health care and other priorities. Conservatives have expressed suspicion of anything resembling a tax increase. Free-market advocates have argued that the shift away from the user-pays gas tax would subsidize driving. And smart growth advocates have slammed the bill for that reason and others.
Before approving another $1.8 billion in spending over the next five years, said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, in response to the governor’s remarks, the General Assembly should take a close look at how McDonnell is spending the $3 billion it authorized for to borrow. The U.S. 460 Connector between Suffolk and Petersburg, costing more than $1 billion in public dollars, has a very low cost-benefit ratio compared to projects going begging in other parts of the state, he said. What assurance is there, he asked, that new tax revenues won’t be similarly wasted?