From the ashes of a failed effort to increase the sales tax in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads comes another attempt to raise money for the commonwealth’s crumbling highway network.
Heading into another election season, Sen. Marty Williams, R-Newport News, has said that the state should consider raising the gasoline tax by 5 cents to cover maintenance costs, which are gobbling up an increasing amount of Virginia’s transportation budget.
Williams, the chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, faces an immediate uphill battle against a taxaphobic General Assembly. This is especially true considering what happened this spring to his counterpart in charge of the House Transportation Committee. Williams said last week that a 5-cent increase could be phased in over time and would raise about $240 million each year for highway maintenance.
With an increasing inventory of roads and bridges, simple tasks such as highway repairs, paving, pothole filling and grass cutting are taking up a larger portion of the overall state highway budget. Virginia’s current six-year plan (which is scaled back due to a cash shortage) includes around $407 million that is diverted for maintenance. Williams said the extra money from the gasoline tax would keep more construction money in place.
Before saying that Williams’ plan for a nickel increase in the gas tax is dead on arrival, we should note that such a tax makes a little more sense than a sales tax increase. A gas tax charges those who use the roads.
Williams’ idea, however, should not get the green light without a few strings attached. One of these conditions, of which Williams approves, is a state constitutional amendment that prohibits lawmakers from raiding the Transportation Trust Fund. There should also be a push to reapportion the commonwealth’s transportation districts, which are based on long outdated population numbers.
If there has been one constant over the past two decades – during good times and bad – it is the fact that the commonwealth barely has enough money to build roads. Taking care of existing roads is becoming even tougher.
The majority of lawmakers facing election this year don’t even want to address a solution to our road problems if it includes the “T” word. And while Marty Williams’ idea for raising the gasoline tax has about as much chance of passing as the Mixing Bowl coming in under budget, at least he’s offering a solution.
Solutions using real numbers without smoke and mirrors is tough to come by in Richmond these days.