The Smart (Growth) Crowd Weighs In

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.

Photo courtesy of Bacon’s Rebellion

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