Even the Dems are Divided on Transportation

The Democrats in the General Assembly appear to be divided into two main camps over how to finance transportation improvements — and that doesn’t even include Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who appears to be in a camp of his own. On one side is Sen. Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, who wants to increase the state’s 17.5-cent gas tax, and on the other is Del. Ward Armstrong, D-Henry, who says raising gas taxes is a bad idea when the public is already struggling to fill up their tanks.

Saslaw makes an undeniably valid point: A gas tax would capture significant revenue from out-of-state motorists driving through the state. Most of the alternative financing proposals would derive little or no revenue from out-of-staters. The polls may say Virginians don’t want an increase in the gas tax, but Saslaw’s attitude is, more or less, polls be damned. “I don’t run the state on polls,” the Washington Post quotes him as saying, “and if [Del.] Brian [Moran, D-Alexandria] and Ward want to run the state on the polls, that is their problem.”

As Tim Craig with the Post observes, the rift among Democrats gives Republicans political cover in coming out against any effort to raise taxes this year. House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, questioned why Kaine called a special session for next month before locking up support from Democrats for his plan.

Bacon’s bottom line: If you’ve got to raise gas taxes to continue financing a Business As Usual transportation system, gas taxes are the economically rational way to go. They are easy to administer and they raise a lot of money. Most important of all (even though this is never a justification that Saslaw is quoted as using), it is transparent. It confronts automobile drivers with the economic reality of their transportation choices. Raising the gas tax may encourage some motorists on the economic margin to drive less, thus reducing the strain on the transportation system. Collecting revenue from out-of-state motorists is a bonus.

Ward, Moran and various Republicans who want to insulate drivers from economic reality aren’t doing them any real favors. Energy prices may plateau or even dip slightly after their incredible run-up the past years, but the long-term prognosis is grim. Perpetuating the habits and lifestyles of the cheap-energy era simply is unsustainable in the long run — we’ll bankrupt ourselves by trying to do it. All citizens need to start adjusting to the new energy era now. There is no way to avoid the pain. The only question is how long we can prolong the inevitable reckoning, and how much it hurts when the economic judgment day finally arrives.

Of course, as gasoline prices rise, Virginians will drive more hybrids, electric cars and, as new technologies become available, shift to other fuels. The gasoline tax is living on borrowed time. If Saslaw is serious about relying upon the gasoline tax, and not just posturing, he needs to start laying the groundwork for a Vehicle Miles Driven tax to supplant it one day.

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  1. J. Tyler Ballance Avatar
    J. Tyler Ballance

    Proving that even a broken clock is right at least two times each day, Saslaw finally gets one call right.

    The nickel gas tax increase will be barely perceptible at the pump and Virginia will still have lower gas taxes than most other states, so we will get a big benefit from all of the out-of-state drivers passing through.

    The gas tax increase alone will increase projected revenue from the current $919 million to about $1.25 billion annually.

    The impact on the average driver will still only be a cost delta of $15 per year (more for you Hummer/SUV drivers, but then you guys can afford it, otherwise you wouldn’t be driving those gas guzzlers).

    If my Republican Party elects to do nothing but block Governor Kaine’s proposal, then they will be perceived by the People as just obstructionists, with no ideas of their own. If the Republican side keeps pushing privately owned toll roads, we will lose in the next election cycle, and quite possibly certain proponents of tolls will never again be invited back by the citizens to play the General Assembly game.

    It would be far better for everyone, if both sides would get together and pass a combination of gas tax, fee increase on gas guzzlers, and accompany that with a bond package.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    Were in the “plan” are those that divert transportation funds for mass transit targeting developers in TOD corridors to pay for the mass transit the Governor proposes to fund?

    Why aren’t the users of mass transit taxes on the miles they travel on mass transit if you feel the right approach is to change those that drive their own private vehiles for the number of miles they travel?

    How do we deduct the miles a person travels out of state?

    When do we target those that profit/benefit most from taxpayer funds “invested” on transportation?

    Just a few thoughts to consider – that those that benefit most seem to be left of the radar screen for a source of funding.

    In Hampton Roads/Tidewater, the bulk of our proposed $9B MPO plan focuses on $6.5B in new highways to serve the state-owned port. Where is the Container Tax on port frieght to help cover the cost of the port’s $6.5B in new highways?

    I see a whole lot of targeting for Joe Sixpack – and hardly any targeting for those that plan to get wealthy from the billions in new transportation spending and related development.

    -Reid Greenmun
    VBTA Transportation Chairman

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Tyler – tell me where I have this wrong.

    By your numbers (you must have a good idea of the actual numbers)… the nickel will yield 331 million additional dollars.

    The Gov/VDOT budget shows his vehicle sales tax revenue as covering the $260 (and growing) hole in maintenance.

    I actually agree more with the 5 cent gas tax increase rather than what Kaine has proposed for covering the maintenance deficit.

    but that leaves precious little for anything else.

    but even if we assume the entire 331 million would go for new construction – we all know that what VDOT must do when new revenue is proposed and that is to generate a report that shows what each locality will get for the tax increase.

    99 counties and how many cities divided into $331 million? If I just divide by 100, I get something like 3 million per county.

    Now I now they use a formula but that formula will deliver even less of the 3 million because VDOT will certainly get a cut of it.

    So, you’re gonna have these “no mo tax” R’s going back to their home counties and trying to sell the idea of a nickel increase to get 3 million additional dollars of road funding?

    That’s enough to pave one or two miles of road these days.

    Maybe I’ve screwed up the math….

  4. Anonymous Avatar

    Couple higher taxes with an adequate public facilities law. But that would mean we’d actually see transportation improvements over time. How much money have the developers given Saslaw? He’s carrying their water paid for by drivers.


  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “Currently Virginia only gets back 92 cents for every dollar sent to the federal government. The higher our state gas tax, the lower the likelihood the federal government will equalize what Virginia gets back versus what we already send to Washington.

    While some legislators may want to subsidize transportation projects in recipient states, the vast majority of Virginians might not.”


  6. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    Jim Bacon:

    Very good points, especially the need to look beyond just a boost in gas tax.

    We also need to relower the speed limit and impose an abbuser fee on officers of the law that do not inforce law including the HOV restrictions.

    Right now hybrids running with the traffic flow — 78 to 82 MPH on I-66 unless drivers are riding brakes — are saving no gas and getting by with a special privilage.

    Lowering the speed limit would lower the use of gasoline enough cover the increased price per gallon.

    Lowered gasoline demand would, perhaps, at least slow the rate of gasoline price increase.

    In addition, and he will faint when he sees this, Reid Greenum is right!!

    We need to raising the cost of using shared-vehicle systems.

    But only AFTER putting into effect plans and controls that provide for a Balance of J / H / S / R / A within 1/4 mile of every shared-vehicle station area and AFTER the Regional or Subregional shared-vehicle system operator has certified that there is a Balance between planned station area trip demand and the system capacity.

    With concerted effort that may take three years.

    In the meantime raise the price of parking in the shared-vehicle system station areas.

    Feeding a shared-vehicle system with cars is like feeding candy bars to bears.

    The result is messy and the bears are not happy in the long run.


  7. Groveton Avatar

    Hold the presses!

    I agree with every word written by Jim Bacon in his post. He is exactly right. The proper steps for increased revenue are:

    1. Raise the gas tax.
    2. Implement the vehicle miles driven tax
    3. Implement a broad based usage tax using transponders and relating all driving to the costs of driving on that road at that time.

    At the same time, other taxes need to be eliminated:

    1. The 1/2% sales tax used for transportation.
    2. The personal property taxes that tax cars without regard to the miles that car is driven.

    I am beginning to liek Saslaw. He is irreverent and loud. However, he is also the owner of a number of gas stations. Raising the gas tax cannot be the best thing for owners of gas stations. I may have to suspend my disbelief about Virginia state politicians and assume that Saslaw wants to reaise the gas tax becuase (in the short term) it is the right thing to do.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Groveton? new meds?

    seriously. I’d settle for one or more alternative proposals ..you know the kind written on paper for others to see… kick the tires instead of hand waving and hot air rhetoric.

    Kaine’s plan is soooo kick-the-can-down-the-road so I’d welcome some fresh approaches from the elephant clan…or the donkey clan.

    Kaine had an excellent opportunity to pursue public-private financing of some of the mega projects in HR/TW – an approach with some support but he demurred.

    Kaine’s duty, I suppose is to keep us between the lines and avoid a train wreck so the opportunity for leadership falls to those who would offere alternatives.

    That’s my biggest complaint with the pachyderms in Va. – they are opposed but they fail to articulate a forward-looking vision for transportation.

    It’s almost like they’ve got their feet so thoroughly mired that they cant move..

  9. Groveton Avatar

    Larry –

    No new meds. However, I am taking the twice prescribed amount when I know I am going to post on BaconsRebellion.

    The gas tax must be raised. It is the most effective approach for the short term. It penalizes those who drive a lot. It has not been increased in years.

    Develop a vehicle miles driven tax for the mid term. The logistics are more difficult that raising the gas tax but they are hardly insurmountable. This is more fair than the gas tax and achievable in the mid term.

    Implement a broad usage toll scheme. Not a congestion toll, a usage toll. Toll miles driven can be deducted from the vehicle miles driven. If all of you miles are driven on toll roads then you don’t pay any vehicle miles driven tax.

    That’s it. Users pay. Costs can broadly be matched to the toll amount.

    So, what’s wrong with this approach?

    Oh, I know – it doesn’t change fundamental human settlement patterns. Fair enough, although I consider that a separate matter.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    “Right now hybrids running with the traffic flow — 78 to 82 MPH on I-66 unless drivers are riding brakes — are saving no gas and getting by with a special privilage.”


    How do you figure?

    First of all, whill I’ll agree there are drivers on 66 running those speeds, they are the exception rather than the rule. 75, I might agree with.

    Recently I made the trip from Delaplane to Centereville, off peak, and running with the traffic at 65 – 75. The mileage computer showed 51.9 mpg for that trip.

    True enough, I wasn’t saving gas – that I would have done by staying home. But compared to my truck that might only get 15 MPG for that kind of trip……..

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “So, what’s wrong with this approach?”

    it takes political leadership?

    I keep blogging until I’m blue in the face.

    It’s fine to say we need a gas tax increase but how much – and why?

    how much of an increase is needed?

    and what will we do with that money?

    the public is not buying the concept of higher taxes for “more”.

    Even the relatively tolerant folks of NoVa shot down THAT premise in 2002.

    I’m not okay at all with an answer of “more” to “build more”.

    I’d prefer to see specific congestion reduction measures.. one that Reason supports is a target TTI – travel time index that the Texas Transportation Institute came up with.

    Basically, it’s the ratio between the traffic at peak hour and the traffic at non peak hour.

    VDOT would have to make a proposal as to what it would take to achieve a particular TTI index in NoVa – projects and costs…

    and then make the case for how to fund it… tolls, taxes, etc.

    the current process is the problem – no matter how it is funded because it’s predicated on “more” without ever articulating what “more” will buy other than “more” projects.

    That’s the part of toll roads that I buy. i.e. a target level of service of 45mph… not perfect but it’s a start in the right direction.

    You have accountability – the operators.

    Imagine putting VDOT in charge of a road segment where they had to assure a 45mph metric with no caps on cost or imagine you put a cap on the cost and VDOT says it cannot be done for that and you ask them what it would take and the answer is “more”.

    this is our problem.

  12. Anonymous Avatar

    “VDOT would have to make a proposal as to what it would take to achieve a particular TTI index in NoVa – projects and costs…

    and then make the case for how to fund it… tolls, taxes, etc.”

    I can tell you right now,the cheapest way to achieve it would be to move 5000 jobs to each of our ring cities. F’rburg, Dale City, Centreville, Manassas, Independent Hill, Opal, etc.

    But, I don’t spose that’s likely to show up in VDOT’s plans.


  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    you might end up there.. once VDOT does the work to see how TTI would be affected…

    Also, MWCOG is working on various land-use/transportation scenarios where TTI could also be at issue.

    The point is .. you have to be doing the analysis to know not only what works or does not work but for the things that work… how they would rank..and give the most bang for the buck.

    Bob is the one who argues for reform and I would suggest that one kind of reform is to focus on performance … congestion reduction, TTI , timing lights, fixing bottlenecks, etc….

    Performance metrics tell you if you are just turning the crank or is something actually happening as a result of turning the crank.

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