Yet Another Tax Increase Proposal

Del. Delores McQuinn. Photo credit:

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, has submitted a bill, HB 1541, that would raise taxes in Central Virginia by 2.1% on wholesale fuels (about 7.6 cents per gallon of gasoline) and 0.7% on the sales and use tax to fund regional transportation projects.

The taxes would raise an estimated $168 million a year. Fifty percent would be returned to the localities for projects that would “improve local mobility,” including roads, sidewalks, trails, mobility services, or transit; 35% would go to a Central Virginia Transportation Authority; and 15% would be dedicated to mass transit in Planning District 15.

McQuinn said the dedicated funding is critical to improving access to public transportation, especially for low-income residents who have no other way to get to jobs or amenities in the region, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Said she in a meeting with leaders from four localities in the region: “Transportation has become to me almost a civil rights issue.”

A civil rights issue? Wow! I always thought of “civil rights” as ensuring that all Americans enjoyed the same constitutional and legal protections. Now, it seems, the concept of civil rights has expanded to the idea of redistributing income from motorists and consumers, many of them low-income themselves, to trendy priorities favored by urban white elites under the guise of helping minorities and the poor.

First, let us note that lower-income people like owning cars. When they live in areas not served by mass transit (rural counties, many suburban counties), they must own a car to get around. Even when they live in areas served by buses or bus rapid transit, poor people often prefer to own cars. Cars are faster, more flexible, and reach a much wider range of destinations than mass transit systems. Whenever poor people have the option of switching from buses to cars, they do so.

Is there really a Civil Rights-magnitude transportation crisis in Virginia? Only 20% of adults living in poverty in 2016 reported they had no access to a vehicle, reports Governing magazine. The percentage was down two percentage points from a decade previously. Transit officials were disapproving of the car-ownership trend, however — not because it was bad for the poor people, but because it was bad for the mass transit organizations.

Second, let us note that mass transit ridership is down in most American metros, despite significant investments in bus and rail. Does indiscriminately investing more in mass transit really make sense?

The localities with Planning District 15 that McQuinn proposes taxing include one urbanized locality, the City of Richmond; three semi-urbanized counties (Henrico, Chesterfield, and Hanover); and four exurban counties (Goochland, Powhatan, New Kent and Charles City). Mass transit is not a remotely economical proposition for much of the population residing in the planning district. In other words, McQuinn proposes to tax people in outlying neighborhoods for the purported benefit of residents of the urban core. I say “purported” because I’m not convinced that more dollars for mass transit will make a meaningful difference to most poor people even in the urban core.

This tax-and-spend scheme strikes me as nothing but a geographic redistribution of wealth designed to benefit McQuinn’s urban constituents — without any assurance that her constituents actually will benefit.

The Richmond region does need to develop a viable mass transit system. But extending mass transit to low-density neighborhoods and commercial districts not designed for pedestrians does nobody any good. Mass transit systems need to grow organically as neighborhoods and transportation corridors increase in density. You can’t force-feed transit. Attempts to do so have proven universally costly.

If McQuinn’s underlying goal is to improve poor peoples’ access to jobs, there may be ways to accomplish that objective more economically. Can we get more people to ride bicycles? If bikes are good enough for young professionals, they should be good enough for poor people, too. Can we encourage poor people to car pool? Once upon a time, carpooling was good enough for the middle class. Why not poor people, too? Can we incentivize Uber, Lyft and like companies to provide van services? Can we zone more mixed-use development that creates a mix of jobs, housing, and amenities in close proximity?

Perhaps such alternative measures should become “almost a civil rights issue,” too.