By Wyatt Gordon | Greater Greater Washington | March 4, 2020
With the unanimous blessing of the Virginia Senate’s Finance Committee, the creation of a new Central Virginia Transportation Authority is all but a done deal. The projected $170 million the tax hikes are expected to raise will transform the region, but will Greater Richmond use the money to fund smart growth or sprawl?
After the passage of a transportation funding deal for the I-81 corridor last year, Central Virginia felt like the hole in a donut with regions to its east, north, and west all raking in dedicated transportation dollars. To ensure the nine localities which make up Plan RVA—also known as Planning District 15 (Hanover, Ashland, Goochland, Powhatan, Richmond, New Kent, Chesterfield, Henrico, and Charles City)—did not get left behind, Delegate Delores McQuinn introduced HB1541 this session right before the filing deadline.
Central Virginia’s new transportation monies will flow in from increases in two taxes. Residents of the nine localities will pay an additional 0.7% on sales and use taxes and an extra 2.% on the wholesale gas tax. Half of those new dollars will remain in the hands of localities to do with as they see fit. Thirty-five percent will be disbursed under the auspices of a newly created Central Virginia Transportation Authority (CVTA) and its 16 member governing board. The smallest portion of the new funding—just 15%—is allocated to transit.
A transit conundrum
Twenty-five million in dedicated dollars is an exciting prospect for a transit system that has for decades been fully reliant on year by year funding decisions from the localities it serves. The changes outlined in HB1541 will mark the first time the Greater Richmond Transit Company will achieve any level of budget autonomy. However, the bill fails to fully free GRTC from the caprices of the localities. In fact, HB1541 creates a surreal loophole that could tank transit funding for what is already America’s worst-funded public transportation system per capita.
In exchange for the CVTA’s two tax increases, the bill mandates all nine localities continue to spend at least half of what they currently alot for transportation expenditures. The benchmark date to determine their 50% “maintenance of effort” is July 1st, 2020.
By signing off on a date in the future, lawmakers established a loophole through which the County of Henrico or the City of Richmond (the only two localities that currently fund GRTC) could scrap their transit funding altogether in this spring’s budgets and lock themselves in with no obligation to continue locally funding transit at all.
The anticipated $25 million GRTC will receive from their 15% allocation in the CVTA bill isn’t even enough to cover even half of their current budget. If that happened, Richmond’s award-winning, trend-bucking transit system could face service cuts this summer.
Spending on sprawl
What is guaranteed to receive funding out of the CVTA bill is sprawl. The original version of HB1541 included language which only allowed the new regional authority to spend its budget on new road construction. Lacking any mandated provisions for bike, pedestrian, or multimodal infrastructure—let alone maintenance of existing roadways—Delegate McQuinn’s bill could potentially result in 85% of the new funding flowing directly into new highways.
That means as much as $145 million annually could go to build out further sprawl. Chesterfield County, the largest locality in Planning District 15, already has a litany of new highway projects it plans to fund with the new tax dollars. A proposal to extend Powhite Parkway out to US Route 360 is projected to cost a half a billion dollars alone.
In an op-ed in the Virginia Mercury, Stewart Schwartz— Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth—warned lawmakers, “We are not confident that Richmond’s suburban jurisdictions are yet committed to transit-oriented land use and the rural land conservation necessary to reduce traffic and preserve the livability of the region. Instead, with a big infusion of tax dollars for road expansion and accompanying auto-dependent growth, the region could repeat the mistakes of traffic-choked Northern Virginia.”
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