Virginia’s Political Class and the Chaos of Road Funding

Virginia politician
Virginia politician

The General Assembly is reconvening today to consider a number of issues, most prominently budgetary ones. There are two pieces of the situation that I understand with some clarity. First, the commonwealth is facing a revenue shortfall of some $1.55 billion in the current biennium. Second, Congress failed to pass an Internet tax that the masterminds of McDonnell-era transportation tax “reform” were counting on to fund Virginia’s roads, highways and rail to the tune of $1 billion over five years. The rest of it is an indecipherable mess that will leave voters utterly confused about what is going on, with no idea of whom to hold accountable or why.

Michael Martz, the Times-Dispatch’s go-to guy for explaining topics of mind-numbing complexity, gave it his honest try in the newspaper today, but the result is an incoherent mess. I don’t blame Martz for the incoherence — I blame the legislature and its Rube Goldberg approach to budgeting. Adding to the sense of urgency, a failure to act could threaten $100 million in bonds to be issued by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.

This is what you get when you try to “fix” transportation funding by abandoning all logic and principle — such as the old “user pays” system in which pay to build and maintain roads in proportion to which you use them — and substituting a system of subsidies and cross subsidies so that no one is really sure who’s paying for what. This is the environment in which politicians thrive because it allows them to engage in horse trading, deal making and the collection of chits. But the invariable result is episodic chaos — not to mention the overuse of roads that comes from severing the connection between using and paying for them.


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10 responses to “Virginia’s Political Class and the Chaos of Road Funding”

  1. Les Schreiber Avatar
    Les Schreiber

    What ever happened to the gas tax. With crude falling, a small rise in the gas tax is called for to fund the roads the cars drive on.

  2. Well Virginia moved away from primarily taxing fuel some time ago. Right now – 2/3 of Virginia funding comes from the general sales tax and sales tax on autos. Only 1/3 of the funding comes from fuel taxes.

    Unless I am messed up .. I thought the CURRENT fuel tax was 3.5% of purchase price and that it would go to 5.1% if the internet tax fell through.

    so.. we essentially abandoned a pure fuel tax – some time ago.

    but it’s also simpler that perceived because the way the funding shakes out – the Virginia taxes pay for maintenance and operations and the Fed tax pays for new construction.

    so that’s also why this requires immediate action – because this is money that pays for maintenance and operations and without it – we’re going to see roads not repaired and snow not plowed.

    but how come you blame the “General Assembly”.

    This is a prime example of how REPUBLICANS govern… they talk the talk about simple taxes and transparency/accountability – they talk their heads off about it especially at elections – but when they are actually in charge – this is what they do.

    Admit it Jim Bacon – … this is an example of Republican Governance!

    1. What’s to admit, Larry? I fought McDonnell’s tax “reform” plan tooth and nail. I did more than *anyone* else to explain why it was bad legislation. I accused Republicans of abandoning all reason and principle when voting for it. What else do you want?

  3. McDonnell did what he had to do to get the needed funding. Was it a “kludge” worthy of Rube Goldberg? Yes. Was there an alternative that would have passed the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond? I doubt it.

    Democrat Tim Kaine (as well as just about every other governor in recent memory) tried and failed to address the funding shortfall.

    The problem was never with Bob McDonnell. It was with a General assembly that wouldn’t raise the gas tax (measured in cents / gallon) for 26 years. More and more “workarounds” were passed but they never made up for the frozen gas tax.

    But even more than the inept General Assembly, Virginia’s transportation problems are a function of Virginia’s utterly ridiculous adherence to a strong implementation of Dillon’s Rule. Legislators in rural Southwest Virginia are asked to vote on transportation funding in urban NoVa while legislators in NoVa are asked to vote on agricultural issues in Southwest Virginia.

    The regions of Virginia have become less similar to each other over time. Yet our state government continues to try to apply a one size fits all approach to the state. With each passing year this bad approach provides even worse results than was the case the year before.

    The transportation problem is simple – the rural areas of the state don’t want to pay for more roads because their de-populating areas don’t need more roads. The areas in the so-called urban crescent want more funding for roads because their populations are growing and they need more roads. The only answer to this logjam is a Rube Goldberg approach that will appease each side just enough to pass. Would a Vehicle Miles Tax been a better idea? Damn right. It would have been a better idea that never passed the General Assembly. How about just raising the gas tax? That would have been better than what we have. Yes and it wouldn’t have passed the General Assembly either.

    Blaming McDonnell is ridiculous. He took the only path available given the misshapen and Medieval structure of governance in Virginia.

    1. Actually Bob McDonnell ran on a platform of telling voters that Creigh Deeds was going to raise the gas tax and he would not.

      The Dems, have said for years that the gas tax needed to be increased and the GOP has, for years, run against the Dems saying they would not raise the gas tax.

      My point is that the GOP keeps telling voters that they know how to govern responsibly and that for years, that tax increases are not needed and that the Dems are fiscally irresponsible for not living within their means and advocating tax increases.

      The other problem the GOP has – is with revisionist history on issues like this.

      this is a fundamental tenet of governance. Being honest with voters about the need for taxes.

      there is no way to sugar-coat this. The GOP never misses a chance to say that we need to lower taxes not increase them – and live within our means.

      That puts them in a corner on gas taxes and so instead of being honest and truthful about it -the play these convoluted games.

      Remember who it was that tried to increase regional taxes for NoVa and who it was that got it killed … also….

      1. Larry:

        Agree with Deeds saying he’d increase taxes and losing the election while McDonnell said he wouldn’t, won and then did increase taxes. A replay of the Mark Warner campaign.

        Nobody in NoVa is going to raise taxes on themselves hoping that The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond will be fair and honest. NoVa raises taxes on itself and Richmond will cut back on funding for roads in NoVa from the taxes that everybody pays – including NoVa. Richmond cannot be trusted and we don’t trust Richmond (meaning the General Assembly, not the city).

        We need Richmond out of NoVa and, if Richmond (the area, not the General Assembly) had any sense they would realize they need the General Assembly out of their local and regional business as well.

        1. I’ve not seen transportation funding for NoVa cut back.. perhaps you can show it.

          otherwise it’s just more conspiracy mongering… and excuses …

          and where in the world does that put you with regard to increasing taxes for transportation – on fuel.

          If I believe you – NoVa should be OPPOSED to doing that because they will end up with the rest of Va getting the tax money.

          NoVa, by far, without a question, has more transportation infrastructure than any other place in Va… you guys are chock-a-block with roads .. there is hardly a place you can go where there are not roads – everywhere.

          how can you say you are getting cheated on road money.

          go to the NOVA Transportation Alliance website and tell me where they say your area is getting shorted on transportation money.

        2. Don – if what you say is true – the NoVa should be voting Republican.. to oppose taxes because they will just take more money away from NoVa.


  4. I’ve got solar cells on my roof and expect that my next car will be a plug-in hybrid. Gas tax increase will not get me to pay my fair share for roads! To soak me appropriately, I suggest that the answer is the little white box glued to the windshield: most roads should be tolled through EZPass.

    One of the better things our reviled former gov tried to do was to put a tax on alternative-fuel vehicles to pay for roads. That’s a fight I’m sorry he lost, unusually he was on the side of the angels there.

    The economic argument against tolls was always the deadweight cost of toll takers and drivers losing time waiting in line to pay; EZPass solves that. And I don’t know a better way to encourage car pools.

    1. Dave Shultz and I are on the same wavelength.

      the first thing we HAVE to pay for – all of us – even those who don’t drive but use products and services that are delivered over roads – is maintenance and operations.

      From that perspective – we can justify some or most of that money coming from the general sales tax..

      I am totally fine with the EZ-Pass and am more than willing for it to be the payment of choice for new roads and as Dave says – now that toll booths are gone – there is no real good reason not to toll new roads.

      I’d like to see MORE HOT LANES in urbanized areas which use tolls to manage congestion and people get to choose what level of service they actually want.

      people hate tolls but not as much as gas taxes (in polls) but the problem is most people have no clue what the gas tax cost actually is since it’s now thoroughly embedded/submerged in the purchase price. The problem is the EZ Pass – is physically very visible and the cost is separate and specifically felt.

      But I believe Dave is entirely correct – not just for the future but even right now because here is how we get revenues right now:

      FY15 – estimates of revenues from sources:

      Motor Fuel Taxes $718,700
      Motor Vehicle Sales and Use Tax $909,600
      State (general) Sales and Use Tax $886,800
      Federal gas tax to Va $902,510

      in 2012 – the numbers looked like this

      Motor Fuel Taxes $832,900
      Motor Vehicle Sales and Use Tax 554,600
      State Sales and Use Tax 504,800

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