The Smart (Growth) Crowd Weighs In

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

My smart growth buddies have issued a critique of the compromise transportation-funding deal. Among the highlights in the press release issued jointly today by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council:

Cutting gas taxes by up to one-third reduces the tie between transportation use and funding. “Transportation, unlike our schools, is like an electric utility, yet the primary fee—the gas tax—hasn’t been increased in 27 years. Transit users have been paying increased fares, year after year, yet road users would see a reduction in daily travel costs under the bill, leading to a potential shift from transit to driving, more driving and more congestion.”

The proposal feeds wasteful spending.  “The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is squandering most of the $3 billion in borrowed funds authorized by the General Assembly in 2011 and we can expect more of the same.” Hard-to-justify projects include the Charlottesville Bypass, the Coalfields Expressway and the Route 460 Connector. Another $1.25 billion in funds raised by the tax restructuring will be lavished upon a Northern Virginia Outer Beltway.

The proposal offers no statewide funding for local road needs.  “VDOT has zeroed out funding for local roads over the past few years. Instead, the bill will make Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads increase sales taxes and wholesale gas taxes to pay for local roads. This is a major step toward devolution and passing on the cost of local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”

The compromise pushes all new transit funding — the 0.3 cent addition to the sales tax — into the General Fund, forcing it to compete with schools, health care and other public services.  “Dulles Rail should long ago have been funded through the Transportation Trust Fund. It should not be a bargaining chip to get Northern Virginians to agree to taking General Fund revenues.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I agree with most of this critique — the General Assembly compromise enables a dysfunctional Business As Usual. I do take exception with one point, however. I believe that all modes of transportation should stand on their own two feet, so to speak. I don’t believe in subsidizing rail or mass transit any more than I believe in subsidizing roads. We need to create a level playing field — put each mode on a user-fee basis — and let the most economical mode win.

Would it then be impossible to finance new rail projects? Not necessarily. We could make rail more viable if we could figure out how to tap a portion of the real estate value created by rail projects to help finance the construction. That’s where we need to concentrate our energy, not how to stick non-users with the bill.

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12 responses to “The Smart (Growth) Crowd Weighs In”

  1. unless I do not understand a lion’s share of the gas tax is still levied on fuels just changed from fixed per gallon to a percent on the wholesale level.

    the tax is still embedded in the cost of the fuel.

    the sales tax increase is coming from the general fund but so is the 300 million to pay for METRO and that’s in my view a more equitable way to pay for transit than adding to the fees motorist pay… just my 2 cents.

    and I’m befuddled about their stand on devolution. No single thing would change the current dynamic about linking land-use to transportation than putting the transportation consequences of land-use decisions where it belongs – on the people making the land-use decisions. “Smart Growth” means connecting land-use decisions with transportation consequences.. and yet they bail out of this and I’m not understanding why.

    and I totally agree with Bacons last sentence.

    Why do the Smart Growth folks not insist that development that benefits from mass transit help pay for it instead of expecting people who don’ t benefit from it to pay for it?

    Smart Growth has to be more than a “cause”. It’s got to be a principled and compelling approach to how we develop and that includes two important principles. local responsibility – and equity with regard to who pays for what. It’s ironic that the Smart Growth folks are PERCEIVED to advocate strongly for transparency and accountable for roads but not so much for transit.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    “Another $1.25 billion in funds raised by the tax restructuring will be lavished upon a Northern Virginia Outer Beltway.”.

    Says who?

  3. DJRippert Avatar

    ” … the General Assembly compromise enables a dysfunctional Business As Usual.”.


    Business as usual is a frozen gas tax that lowers every year in terms of purchasing power. An annual tax cut.

  4. So what will NoVa decide is the most important project to first spend their newfound transportation dollars on?

    I bet most folks don’t have a clue except for T’il Hazel and company.

    1. That was decided long ago and the answer lies in “Another $1.25 billion in funds raised by the tax restructuring will be lavished upon a Northern Virginia Outer Beltway.”

  5. Outer Beltway. Info from a Fairfax County DOT engineer. When Tim Kaine’s bill requiring traffic impact analyses was passed and signed into law, a trial 527 TIA was done for a residential development in Loudoun County, south of Dulles and near Route 50. The project was sailing along for approval, but the trail 527 analysis showed the development would be a traffic disaster. The Loudoun County BoS rejected the land use changes.

    The NS Corridor of Significance, aka the Outer Beltway, is designed to get taxpayer funding so that the next 527 TIA for the project will show mitigation. And, better yet in the eyes of Mr. Hazel and company, on the backs of taxpayers.

    The Corridor was not included in the CTB’s original list of transportation corridors of significance. However, it was later lobbied into the list.

    Now everyone who believes we will see real traffic improvement as a result of the higher taxes (which I don’t totally oppose), hold your breath until traffic improves.

    The system is corrupt. Until the system is fixed and money is spent to deliver the highest ROIs to taxpayers, we won’t see much improvement at all.

    1. You left out that it was lobbied for and pushed through the CTB by one of their own, Gary Garczynski (National Assoc. of Homebuilders).

      You should also note that Connaughton is already robbing other projects of funding (I66/Rt.15 Interchange) and pushing their dates back to amass funds for the Bi-County Parkway.

      Many in the Commonwealth may be unaware of Connaughton’s duplicitous nature or entrenched connections to Hazel and the like, but those of who lived through his “reign” as PWC Chairman are all too aware and had hoped we had seen the last of him when he resigned from his seat.

      1. Mom, I’m going to start working on a major piece soon about the outer beltway (north-south corridor, whatever). Regarding the short-changing of info for a I-66 bpass, specifically what questions should I be asking?

        1. Not sure I understand the question but if you are referencing the I66/Rt.15 Interchange project, what had been fast-tracked as it purportedly had already been funded by the Guv, has suddenly been pushed back and rumors here locally are that funding for that and other projects are to be pillaged to make the parkway a reality. One needs look no further than the pittance originally dedicated in the Guv’s initial transportation package to see that funding for it hadn’t been well thought out or was still a work in progress, thus, SB1313 and some of the provisions of the Conference Report. Long and short, question number one should be how are you going to fund it? If they say HOT lanes, cry BS, you can’t put HOT lanes on a proposed four line divided road unless every third vehicle is to be a trooper to address the attendant road rage that would go with that design.

  6. MOM. You are correct about Gary Garczynski, from what I’ve heard. Groups, like the McLean Citizens Association, have been lobbying legislators not to provide funding for the Outer Beltway. The MCA prefers the money be spent on Tysons transportation.

    1. And the NVTA, local Chambers and most developers would prefer the money be spent on the bi-county parkway. Too bad nobody else feels that way.

  7. Post submitted by Randy Salz:

    A few relatively unknown but, I think, crucial facts. Nationwide, according to the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study in 2010, American governments at all levels subsidize driving at a $144.5 billion annual rate while subsidizing transit at $39.5 billion. That same study found that 27 percent of transit trips in 2004 were made by people with family incomes below $15,000, 55 percent came from family incomes of $15,000 to $50,000, and over $50,000 families made 17 percent of transit trips.

    The Amalgamated Transit Union said that over 5,000 drivers lost their jobs in 2009 and a Transportation for America study titled “Stranded at the Station” reported that some cities used stimulus money that year to purchase busses that they couldn’t put drivers in. And warehoused the busses!

    Metro magazine, the journal of transit, released a survey a year ago which found that 71 percent of transit services added fuel surcharges in 2011 and 56 percent raised fares.

    When a very conservative organization called the National Defense Council Foundation analyzed the externalities of gasoline consumption (not including global warming nor the costs of the Iraqi War) in 2006 it found that we should be paying $10.06 per gallon MORE in federal gasoline tax.

    America’s DAILY cost of ensuring the Strait of Hormuz doesn’t close is estimated at $19.6 million as we keep two carrier task forces (one of which will retire at sequester) in or near the Persian Gulf. That’s – again – every single day.

    America’s “Panel Study of Income Dynamics” found in 2000 that female-headed households consume 30 percent less gasoline than households headed by a man. Non-white households consume 11.6 percent less auto fuel than white households.

    There is no “level playing field” in all of this. Even after three wars in oil fields, 9/11, the Deepwater Horizon Spill, and the hottest years on record with the most erratic climate events on record, America today – especially with programs like electric car subsidies – is robbing the poor to subsidize the rich.

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