Another Useless, Irrelevant Debate


Ed Gillespie, Republican candidate for governor, has gotten himself in a political pickle. According to press reports, he has been blasting his Democratic rival Ralph Northam for backing the 2013 transportation tax package as “the largest tax increase in Virginia history.” But as Democrats have been pointing out, Gillespie was gubernatorial campaign chairman for Bob McDonnell, who pushed the bill through the General Assembly with significant Republican support.

The criticisms don’t address the substance of what Gillespie is saying — Northam did back the biggest tax increase in Virginia history. But the pushback raises an obvious question: What would Gillespie have done differently? How would he have proposed to fund Virginia’s pressing transportation needs?

Frankly, both Republicans and Democrats are incoherent on the subject of transportation funding. Both sides base their arguments on three untenable propositions: (1) that building more roads or commuter rail will solve our transportation problems, if only we build enough of the right thing; (2) that someone else should pay; and (3) that current transportation solutions will be relevant in the rapidly approaching era of driverless cars, transportation as a service and Uberization of transportation.

Let’s address these issues point by point.

Building more roads and commuter rail will not address transportation congestion unless local governments allow developers to transform what we commonly call “suburban sprawl” into traffic-eating walkable urbanism. Pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used development built at moderate densities substitutes foot travel for car trips, substitutes short car trips for longer trips, and makes mass transit a attractive to more riders.

While this market-driven transformation is taking place in fits and starts — mainly in Virginia’s urban-core jurisdictions and around Washington Metro stops — it is not taking place nearly fast enough. There will never be enough money to provide congestion-free transportation for sprawling, low-density land use patterns.

The second problem is that everyone wants a better transportation system, but no one wants to pay for it themselves. Having long ago abandoned the idea of a user-pays system, Virginia politicians excel at singling out others to pay. The result is an absurd system in which there is no connection between those who use transportation infrastructure (roads and rail alike), and those who pay for it. Thus, 85-year-old, blue-haired ladies who drive 2,000 miles a year pay sales taxes to subsidize road warriors who drive 20,000 miles, Dulles Toll Road users pay inflated tolls so Silver Line riders can enjoy below-cost fares, and everyone subsidizes tractor-trailers whose taxes don’t come close to covering the wear and tear they cause on roads. The perverse result: When people don’t pay the full cost of their travel decisions, they travel more.

The third problem, approaching insanity, is that Virginia continues to build roads and rail on the assumption that driving and commuting patterns will be the same in 20 years as they are today. But that is a manifestly idiotic assumption. The advent of driverless cars will drive down the cost of taxi-like, bus-like and jitney-like transportation services, making shared ridership services a more attractive option. The rise of subscription-based transportation-as-a-service enterprises will provide an alternative to individual automobile ownership. There is no way to forecast with any certainty how these innovations will affect driving habits and the need to build more highways and commuter rail.

The debates that politicians should be having, but aren’t, are these:

  1. How can we relax zoning codes to encourage land use patterns that put less strain on the transportation system?
  2. How can we reform transportation funding to support a user-pays transportation system?
  3. How should Virginia position itself to take maximum advantage of the fast-approaching driverless/electric/transportation-as-a-service revolution?

None of these conversations are occurring. Ed Gillespie isn’t talking about them — but neither are his critics. The debate is more sterile than a mule with a vasectomy. Virginians should demand better.

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18 responses to “Another Useless, Irrelevant Debate”

  1. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Well deja vu to you too, Bacon. That sophistry looks very familiar and you should recognize this! This is the issue that made me a BR regular.

    The blue haired lady driving 2,000 miles burns what, maybe 80 to 100 gallons of gas? She is paying a very small total annual gasoline tax. The road warrior driving ten times the distance and pays ten times the tax, which as you know I think is a damn near perfect user fee. She also probably pays far less in sales taxes, a portion of which goes to transportation, but most of what she is buying arrived – by road! Again, a user fee. Tolls are user fees, although sure there are some games played at times with cross-subsidization. Just about every transportation funding plan in recent years has relied very heavily on user fees, so your second point is bogus. No one has “abandoned” user pays.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    One of the reasons we’re seeing PolitiFact is blog posts like this one.

    Traditionally – the GOP in Virginia has accused the Dems of wanting to raise the gas tax. McDonnell himself said this when running for Gov:

    “Creigh Deeds has unequivocally committed himself to higher taxes,” the announcer said. “…His $1 billion tax increase would add 20 cents to a gallon of gas.”

    then he said:

    “McDonnell said he would not raise taxes as governor,” said an article the next day in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “After the debate, he said he would not sign a transportation bill submitted to him by the legislature if it included any tax increase.”

    The Roanoke Times reported, “McDonnell insisted he would not raise taxes.”

    McDonnell emphasized that message by launching a TV commercial on Oct. 2 in which he spoke of the need to improve roads. “My plan: New money for transportation, while protecting education and not raising taxes,” he said.

    I can add more quotes if there is any question here.

    Second – fully one half of gas taxes go for maintenance and operations..not new Construction. The Fed money – about a billion dollars a year cannot be used to add capacity in non-attainment regions – generally the urban areas… and someone please tell me where any NEW road has been built in Va in the last 10 years… almost all the money has been used to improve existing roads.

    Next – Steve – did you know that the sales tax brings in more than the fuel tax in Virginia? here, take a look:

    Motor Fuel Taxes – $868,900
    Motor Vehicle Sales and Use Tax – 976,500 2
    State Sales and Use Tax – 1,023,100 <——– here

    Next – I actually give McDonnell and the Va GA – CREDIT – for revamping the transportation taxes. First – they moved away from tax per gallon to an automatically indexed tax per sale… .. then they diversified the taxes such that if the price of fuel went down – it did not kill them.. they still would get the other two – general sales tax and sales tax on new cars.

    Virginia is actually being looked at as a model for other states and even the Fed gas tax which is still mired in a per gallon model.

    I AGREE with Steve on the grey haired lady- everyone , no matter how much they drive – depends on roads – for virtually everything in their house – including all those Amazon/UPS/Fed-Ex deliveries. Even seniors depend on roads for their mobility getting to/from the Doctor.. and 911 EMS!

    Good luck on trying to get the daily commuters to move from Fredericksburg back to NoVa or down in Hampton to live on the same side of the James they work… etc.. That's why I DO support TOLLS including the ones on Loudoun… who DO NEED to pay for the infrastructure needed to support their commute…

    Finally – Smart Scale has dramatically changed the way we fund roads. It's actually based on real metrics for things like safety and travel time and connectivity.. rather than the old political game … Smart Scale has totally freaked out those who were counting on the traditional old ways of getting roads built to serve development.

    But the bottom line is – just as with METRO – you have to have enough money to fund transportation because if you don't it will devolve into dysfunctional crisis mode … Peter robbing Paul .. type processes.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, I suggest you review the Metro Washington’s CLRP. There are lots of projects in the District, Maryland and Virginia that add capacity to existing roads. Each addition, when evaluated as a part of the entire CLRP, must be consistent with the Region’s efforts to improve air quality.

      I do agree that moving transportation funding from gas taxes and other auto-related fees to a broader base makes good sense. The viability of the gas tax in any state to provide long-term, sustainable funding for transportation is lacking. Cars are becoming much more fuel efficient and the fuel mix is changing. Some sales tax support for transportation makes sense.

      But we also need to move taxation to include value capture. Transportation infrastructure construction creates great increases in the value of nearby real estate. Some of that increase needs to pay for the capital costs of the infrastructure that creates the value.

      And Jim you’re inhaling. Adding density increases traffic congestion. Come look at Tysons. Look at the Inner Loop of the Beltway heading to Maryland. The added growth in Tysons and the added Beltway Express Lanes capacity exceeds the limited capacity of the American Legion Bridge and the Maryland Inner Loop to the I-270 Spur. Traffic backs up virtually to Tysons day and evening.

      And to boot, the traffic is spilling over to local streets. McLean area residents literally cannot back out of their driveways.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        @TMT – it depends on how you define “adding capacity”.. it does not mean.. adding lanes per se – unless doing so actually causes an increase in overall emissions.. In some cases – adding a lane can decrease emissions if it moves traffic that would otherwise “sit”. They use determine..

        But one of the reasons you don’t see more free and unrestricted lanes to Loudoun or Fredericksburg or the beltway is because of non-attainment and emissions.

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          VDOT is going to widen Route 7 between the DTR and Reston Parkway and between the DTR and Route 123 and also between Route 123 and I-495. These projects will be done to address growing traffic volumes and, as you correctly note, to keep traffic moving better instead of just sitting there.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            what the “capacity” policy is essentially is that no new roads or lanes will be built that will cause more driving to occur unless there is a compensating savings on air emissions.

            So the region has an air pollution “budget” cap… below that cap – they can manage.. even add new lanes or even new roads – as long as it does not exceed the cap.

            Realistically that means not adding new roads that will induce more driving..

            so , for instance, you’ll see new lanes on the beltway – but those lanes are primarily designed to increase people per car AND to generate tolls that will be used to pay for transit – to move more people with less SOLO-driven cars.

            There are other ways to reduce pollution also.. converting buses to propane and trains to electricity…shut down or limit fossil-fuel emitting sources.. etc…

            how do they “know” how much pollution and if it is increasing or decreasing?


          2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

            Before a project can be added to the CLRP and be eligible for federal funding in the D.C. area, the project must be evaluated for its impact on air quality.

            The TPB website contains the following: “Transportation – Air Quality Conformity

            “Transportation planning in the region is heavily influenced by air quality planning, which like financial constraint, is a federal requirement. Once the Financially Constrained Long-Range Transportation Plan (CLRP) is drafted, it is tested to ensure that the projects in the plan, when considered collectively, contribute to the air quality improvement goals embodied in the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. A series of tests are performed with computer models that predict how much air pollution will be generated over the next 25 years by facilities in the plan, and how much the air will be improved by cleaner gasoline standards and many other factors.

            “If the CLRP is found by the TPB to meet regional air quality goals, federal agencies certify that the plan is “in conformity.” In other words, the TPB ensures that the CLRP “conforms” to air quality improvement goals. A conformity determination lasts three years – the life of the CLRP itself. If the TPB encounters difficulty in meeting conformity – or expects to – it may choose to adopt Transportation Emission Reduction Measures (TERMs), such as ridesharing and telecommuting programs, improved transit and bicycling facilities, clean fuel vehicle programs or other possible actions. This information is documented in an Air Quality Conformity Determination report.”

            A newly proposed project has to be evaluated to ensure the results are not adversely affected.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Well, the gas tax revenue is a bit depressed because much of it now is a percentage and the prices are down. Those who advocated for a percentage basis, expecting ever rising prices, guessed wrong.

    The really good news on that transportation revenue spreadsheet is you no longer see the monthly transfer of cash from the construction and operating fund into the maintenance fund. That huge maintenance drain is gone for now.

    As to the political games, well, Larry, I remember 1985, when it was the Republican who advocated for a small gas tax hike, was quickly attacked by Democrats, and the Democrat won. Then the Democrat, one G. Baliles, went on to pass a major transportation tax (with bipartisan votes) which everybody said was needed. Challenged later on his broken promise not to raise taxes, however, Baliles defended himself with “I only said it once!” (And we at the state party promptly compiled a video proving he’d said it often – today it would be on YouTube but no YouTube then, just the boob tube.)

    So nothing new with this latest round of games….A whole lot of people worked very hard on the 2013 bill and I suspect if Gillespie didn’t understand that before, he does now.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: low gas prices… The fuel tax has a “floor” .. If the price hits a low end threshold.. the percent essentially goes up to maintain a “floor” level of revenues:

    as far as the back and forth…. for the last few decades.. the GOP has accused the Dems of wanting to raise the gas tax… that’s exactly what Mcdonnell did to Creigh Deeds.. Can you tell me which Republican actually campaigned on raising the gas tax? I seriously do not ever remember .. and yes I was around in 1985.. who was it? how about a link?

    As far back as I can remember the Dems have always been accused of “Wanting” to increase the gas tax. Now you’re saying a GOP candidate ran on a promise to raise the gas tax?

    I’ve looked .. can’t find one..

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    Here’s the “floor”: ” No matter how cheap gas gets, it will be taxed as if the price is $3.11 a gallon.”

    ” Two years ago, when Virginia lawmakers passed HB2313, a landmark bill that overhauled how the state raises money for transportation, gasoline prices were hovering around $3.30 per gallon. While few would have predicted that prices would fall below $2 per gallon, the General Assembly, to its credit, built a tax-rate floor into the legislation. So, no matter how low gas goes, the 5.1 percent state tax is based on a statewide average wholesale price of $3.11 per gallon, which is less than the fixed gasoline tax that the new rate replaced.”

    If you think about this – VDOT cannot effectively plan and program road projects if it cannot predict how much funding will be available… so the “floor” is intended to provide that assurance… otherwise.. VDOT would have to cut/delay already-approved projects.

    Unfortunately neither of the two regional supplemental gas taxes for NoVa and Hampton got such a “floor” … and neither does the VRE gas tax.

    Please also note that while Loudoun pays tolls for METRO – the rest of NoVa plus Prince WIlliam, Stafford, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania pay a 2.1% gas tax in addition to the state and fed tax and that money funds the VRE commuter rail.

    1. We should floor the local tax too, and give NOVA and Hampton Roads power to increase it. We have very low gaso tax and I think that is one area where at least regional areas should be allowed to increase . Part of my rationale is to be competitive with MD and DC gaso taxes which are higher. I believe NoVA can increase gaso tax and maybe not see the impact at the pump due to gasoline market proprietary pricing strategies.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        I agree.. you need the floor.. inconceivable to me that they did not include it originally…

        I would go along with increasing the gas tax like I would for other taxes like the meals tax – referenda.

        1. I agree totally. The meals tax is another way to share the tax burden with people who are travelling thru NoVA. Instead we seem to shield visitors in favor of putting the tax burden 100% on NoVA’s residents.

    2. P.S.-
      This gets into my feeling that the state uses taxes to punish NoVA (for being democrats or transplants or whatever) , instead of being smart giving NoVA a chance to have a smarter and more logical tax base system. This gets into my feeling that our business friendliness is not what it appears on the CNBC survey if you look at NOVA for example.

      Another gripe I have that was on the news recently is how VDOT has abandoned NOVA when it comes to mowing of the highway medians, maintenance etc. Burke used to be a nicer looking community until VDOT decided NOVA no longer deserves to have the medians mowed, trees cut. It is now unsightly and highly unsafe due to reduced visibility and reduced pedestrian space on the sidewalks due to over grown trees and weeds. In short dysfunctional.

      Again this all fits into my “punishment of NOVA” thesis. And that hurts our state business prospects and quality of life. And I do not expect any gov candidate to fix the bifurcation/divisiveness issue we have.

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        So where are our state senators and delegates from Fairfax County? Don’t they have the ability to cause VDOT problems in Richmond? We enable much of the anti-NoVA sentiment in Richmond by the passivity of our legislatures, many of whom are probably more concerned about illegal aliens.

        The biggest local transportation problems are the refusal of Maryland to address the lack of capacity on the American Legion Bridge and the Maryland Inner Loop to the I-270 Spur and the continued failure of WMATA to get its hands around cost controls and project management. Raising taxes in Virginia won’t fix those problems.

        1. djrippert Avatar

          Our state senators and delegates from NoVa suck out loud. Most of them operate in deep, deep la la land. They pontificate about things that mean little to their constituents while steadfastly ignoring issues that directly challenge the quality of life of those who vote for them. There are exceptions. Chap Petersen trying to cap the Clown Show’s company and industry specific tax break giveaways for life. Scott Surovell advocating for a Virginia governor being able to serve two consecutive terms.

          Unfortunately, for every Petersen or Surovell there’s several deep space probes like Kathleen Murphy. One of Murphy’s latest “ah ha moments” has been a campaign against predatory practices of for-profit colleges. Never mind continuing traffic problems, increasing gang recruitment, a jump in homicides fueled by narcotics related problems and declining public school ratings in Fairfax County …. no, the big issue for Murphy’s constituents is predatory for-profit colleges. Interestingly, predatory not for profit colleges charging fortunes for useless degrees don’t seem to bother Murphy.

          One can only imagine Kathleen Murphy orbiting the Earth somewhere between Jupiter and Saturn squinting in an attempt to see what’s happening in her little patch of Fairfax County.

          Beep …. beep …. beep …

        2. I always blame Maryland too for the traffic on the Beltway, my wife will tell you in the car I always say that.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    I think the localities have the responsibility of mowing their medians to be honest…

    as far as Md is concerned.. geeze TMT – we just got finished talking about air quality conformity – guy… how you going to do that ?

    and as usual – until you tell me how much money WMATA should have in funding… and admit that starving it for funding causes bad problems … then the argument is essentially that no matter the money WMATA is still “bad”.

    I’m not convinced the critics actually want WMATA to succeed or else they’d make their case by comparing WMATA to other transit systems to prove that it spends more .. then I believe you.. until then… no dice.

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