A small price to pay

Northern Virginia residents have a choice to make Nov. 5.

Voters from Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park along with voters throughout Northern Virginia will decide on that day whether to raise the region’s sales tax by a half penny to pay for a long overdue list of road and rail projects. This is a better alternative than anything offered out of Richmond the past two decades with regard to improving our overburdened transportation infrastructure.

This is probably the only chance for Northern Virginia residents to have such a direct say in the future of transportation policy and, considering the floundering finances of the Commonwealth, is the only choice for progress. That’s why voters should vote “Yes” on the Northern Virginia sales tax referendum.

With the state transportation budget backlogged with projects that should have been completed years ago, the sales tax referendum represents a chance for Northern Virginians to exercise a degree of autonomy in paying for some of the region’s most basic of transportation needs. Approving a half penny increase in the sales tax will cost taxpayers an extra 50 cents on each $100 purchase or an extra $5 on every $1,000 spent not including medicine and food bought at the grocery store.

In return, Northern Virginia will have an opportunity to secure bonds to raise $5 billion in extra transportation money over the next two decades. These bonds are supported by the extra sales tax on purchases within Northern Virginia. Best of all, the money will stay here in Northern Virginia and go toward projects, including improvements to Interstate 66 and the Beltway, U.S. 28, extension of the Va. 234 bypass and needed improvements to U.S. 1 here in Prince William County. The bonds will also help purchase new rail cars for the Virginia Railway Express as well as more commuter buses.

Money raised to pay for these transportation projects will also allow other local projects to be moved up on the state’s road building plan. The sales tax money represents extra money and not a replacement of current federal and state revenue streams.

Opponents say that voting “No” on the referendum will force lawmakers to do their job in fixing Northern Virginia’s transportation problems. We have yet to see any realistic plan to accomplish this and we don’t foresee members of the General Assembly from Northern Virginia or elsewhere providing any significant shift of funds toward our region’s transportation gridlock.

Failure to address our transportation problems will only accelerate the region’s congestion, regardless of efforts to increase car pooling, telecommuting or other attempts at traffic reduction. Increased gridlock will boost the amount of pollution hovering over Northern Virginia thus hindering efforts to comply with the Federal Clean Air Act. Northern Virginia will always experience high traffic volumes for two reasons it’s located along a major east coast corridor and it’s a major economic and government center supplying millions of jobs. Cars and trucks spending hours at a time crawling along our highways only make our pollution problems worse.

Failing to approve the sales tax referendum will keep the status quo. But further solutions to our transportation gridlock will be much more harsh toward the taxpayer. Voters shouldn’t be fooled by calls from some lawmakers to “tighten our fiscal belts” through “common sense” budget cuts which would allow the government to scrape together enough money to solve Northern Virginia’s gridlock. The state is already running a budget shortfall approaching $2 billion. State services are being slashed and college tuitions are increasing. These measures failed to wipe out even half the projected shortfall.

Should the sales tax referendum fail, then other solutions will almost certainly include some other sort of tax increase whether local, regional or statewide.

A voter initiative to raise the sales tax should not have been the first option. Lawmakers in Richmond, who have presided over the demise of Northern Virginia transportation, should have made this decision themselves.

Beyond that, however, it’s time for Northern Virginians to make the tough choice, because we know the 140 lawmakers in Richmond will not.

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