This special edition of the Politics Hour combined local and national politics live from Slim's Diner in Petworth, Northwest D.C.
It’s the “third rail” of Virginia politics: transportation. Everyone agrees that the Commonwealth’s aging road and rail infrastructure needs an upgrade, but figuring out how to pay for it has tripped up popular governors from both political parties. This time around, Gov. Robert McDonnell (R) is endorsing a plan to eliminate the gas tax and raise the state’s sales tax instead. We get an update on his plan and explore its odds for success in Richmond.
- Martin Di Caro Transportation Reporter, WAMU
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, the future of the Boy Scouts of America and whether the organization will soon lift a long-standing ban on gay members and scoutmasters, but first, life in the fast lane of Virginia's bare-knuckle brawls over transportation. For governor after governor in the Commonwealth, the fastest way onto the political highway to hell has been to propose sorely needed new funding streams for Virginia's road and rail networks. Current Governor Bob McDonnell is hoping to succeed where past governors have failed.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd his plan revolves around ditching Virginia's gas tax for a sales tax hike, but a long list of potential roadblocks stand in front of his proposal in Richmond. Joining us to explore how transportation became the third rail of Virginia politics and what the road out of the impasse may look like is Martin Di Caro. He reports on transportation for WAMU 88.5 news. Martin, how's it going?
MR. MARTIN DI CAROAll right, Kojo. I don't know what fast lanes you were talking about. Most people are sitting in traffic around here, but, yes. Excited to be here to talk about this important issue.
NNAMDIWell, it's a parking lot, but it's supposed to be fast lane.
NNAMDIThis is a big week for what's become one of the more divisive issues in all of Virginia politics. The governor's $3 billion transportation plan is about to go before both chambers of the general assembly. You have reported the McDonnell is trying to break what's been one of the longest standing accepted rules of transportation funding. People who use roads should pay for their maintenance with a gas tax. How would you describe the broader approach that Governor McDonnell is taking and what do you see at stake in this debate?
CAROWell, it's a $3 billion plan over five years. By year five he hopes to raise around 800 million additional dollars for Virginia road-building, maintenance and other projects. And what's at stake is, as you mentioned, the fundamental rule in U.S. transportation funding policy. That is, if you use the roads you pay for them in the form of the gas tax. Gas tax federally has not been raised since 1993. It's 18 cents a gallon. Virginia's gas tax hasn't been raised since the mid '80s. It's seventeen and a half cents a gallon.
CAROThe governor's argument is because the gas tax has lost so much of its purchasing power, it never pegged of inflation, has not been increased in 26 years, cost of construction materials going up, fuel efficiency standards rising and will continue to rise, gasoline consumption falling, that in his words or his view, the gas tax is no longer as useful as it used to be. We need to find more stable funding sources in the decades to come.
CARONow, his argument is not then to raise the gas tax, to catch it up with inflation. It's to get rid of it altogether. And some folks don't agree with that. Democrats in Northern Virginia, state legislators, oppose his idea of using the sales tax to fund transportation. That is general fund revenue. Transportation funding does not happen in a vacuum. State has to fund education. It has to fund public safety. So this is really a big issue. This is a crossroads when it comes to Virginia transportation funding.
CAROAre they going to abandon the fundamental rule of using the gas tax to fund transportation and go with the sales tax, raising that 5.8 percent? Or will they come up with some mix in between? The House has yet to take up the governor's plan today. The Senate is scheduled to debate on it tomorrow. We'll have to see what the amendments are. Even members of the governor's own party aren't hot for his idea of eliminating the gas tax.
NNAMDIAre there other states that have used sales tax hikes to fund road and rail infrastructure like this?
CAROI'm not sure, but no state has limited its gas tax. Now, in other countries, say Europe, they don't use the gasoline tax to fund transportation the way we do. However, their gas taxes are much higher than ours. They use them to disincentivize--if there's such a word as that--disincentivize driving. And they use that revenue to fund all other things. Now, we have a much different layout in our country, geographically, culturally. We're much more committed to the automobile so it's not a great comparison. But no state in the country has eliminated it's gasoline tax.
CARONo state in the country has passed a vehicle miles travel tax, which is not new, but it's an emerging idea, more innovative, to fund transportation. Because, Kojo, as you've alluded to, we need lots of money for transportation. And there's two parts to this equation. It's not only that revenue sources need to be enhanced so we'll have the billions of dollars necessary to build roads, maintain roads, build rail lines. Just the silver line itself is a $6 billion project. The other part of the equation is priorities.
CAROAnd there are groups, the Smart Growth community in Virginia, other lawmakers from different parts of the state, who are not sold that the McDonnell administration's priorities are right. And they're hesitant to sign off on giving McDonnell and Secretary Connaughton many more billions of dollars to use if they're going to use them on, say, constructing new highways.
NNAMDII'm glad you brought up this vehicle miles travel tax, the VMT. Explain how it would work.
CAROWell, that is the question. How will it work?
CAROThere was a recent survey done by the Metropolitan Council of Governments. They did a study to determine how palatable congestion pricing would be to this area. And they did five study groups, two in Virginia, two in Maryland, one in D.C. And one of the options they gave people, how would you like a vehicle miles travel tax? That means you get in your car, the GPS turns on and you get charged a tax based on the miles you drive. It's innovative. It's somewhat new. It would raise a lot of money for transportation.
CARO86 percent of the study participants said, no.
NNAMDINo GPS on my car.
CAROThere are privacy concerns.
CAROAnd also government overreach concerns. Just the idea that we pay so many taxes for so many things and now, even when I step in my car, the GPS comes on and it's going to track me. How it would work has not been completely figured out yet. Technologically, we're almost there. Institutionally, how would we pay for this? How would we set up the payments through banks? You know, could there people cheating on them, just like they cheat on tolls? And politically, you know, that's a huge obstacle. Convincing people they should do this.
CAROIf we have a minute, the Oregon Department of Transportation, among others, have done studies on vehicle miles travel. Kojo, if you're interested in reading the entire 100-page report I'll send you a PDF and you can read that to sleep tonight.
NNAMDIOf course. I have no life. Give it to me.
CAROSo they did some findings. The report was issued in 2007. Some of their key findings on a vehicle miles travel tax, they did a pilot program in Oregon. They found that it is viable, that you could pay at the pump and that would work, that a mileage fee could be phased in, it could integrate with current systems on transportation funding. It wouldn't be, you know, standalone and that other pricing options would be viable, like zones or roads would be charged more if you take heavier traveled roads then like your local road on the way to the grocery store.
CAROAnd they found that privacy would be protected, that there'd be no specific vehicle point location or trip data stored or transmitted. This is a big, big thing, a big change that would happen.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Martin Di Caro. He reports on transportation for WAMU 88.5. As we go over Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's proposal for road and rail infrastructure in the Commonwealth. Our number is 800-433-8850. Who do you think bears the responsibility of funding for the maintenance of roads at the state level? Do you think a gas tax is fair if it's designed to get contributions from people who use the roads most? 800-433-8850. Martin, another part of McDonnell's plan that's getting a lot of attention is a proposed $100 registration fee for alternative fuel vehicles.
NNAMDIHybrid owners are not happy. Some of them organized a Prius parade last week…
NNAMDI…to protest the idea in Richmond. What's the governor's reasoning for proposing that fee?
CAROWell, his reasoning has raised eyebrows. His argument--to go back to the beginning of our discussion--was because the gas tax has lost 55 percent of its purchasing power based on 1986 figures--that's the last year it was raised--it is no longer a viable, sustainable form of revenue. Therefore, we have some cars who aren't paying any gas taxes at all. So they should then have to pay $100 fee to register their cars every year. Well, if you're getting rid of the entire gas tax altogether or planning to, then why penalize cars that don’t use the gas tax at all? No one's going to paying…
NNAMDIThose driver say no good deed goes unpunished, huh?
CAROYeah, one note, the state diesel tax would remain at 17 cents a gallon of unleaded gasoline would go away. So that was his argument there. Obviously, if you own an electric vehicle you're doing that to save those types of fees. You know, you don't want to pay any gasoline and you get socked with $100 a year you wouldn't be happy.
NNAMDIWhen you talk to people who owns those kinds of cars or when you talk to environmental advocates, how do they feel it's most fair for them to contribute to the maintenance of the roads that those cars drive on?
CAROThat's an excellent question. That really is. And that's a tough question to answer because a lot of those folks think that if you use the roads you should have to pay for the roads. And they'd be happy maybe paying a higher gas tax, but again, if you're driving an electric car you're not paying any gas tax. That's a tough one.
NNAMDIIt is a tough one.
CAROVehicle miles traveled is a possibility and, you know, sales taxes. You know, transportation is funded in so many different ways that there are other areas. Because even the gas tax alone--we should establish this point quickly--only accounts for about a third of Virginia's transportation funding. Even if we do raise the gas tax in Virginia, it is not enough, compared to the needs.
NNAMDIWell, let's see what Nick in Winchester has to say about that. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKHi, Kojo. I've raised this point once before, but I'll try to be brief. Anybody who opposes raising the gasoline tax should be asked what was their income back in the mid 1990s when the gas tax was set. What was the cost of gasoline? What was the percentage of the tax of that gasoline cost? And what could you buy with 17 or 18 cents back then? And finally, when you--sorry.
NNAMDIWell, we'll deal with the first part of it first. Martin Di Caro?
CAROAnd his question was how do you answer people who say we shouldn't raise the gasoline tax?
NNAMDIThink about what you were paying and what you were making in 1990.
CAROIf you were to just adjust gasoline tax in Virginia, the state tax of 17 cents a gallon to today's dollars you would double it to 34 cents. So and to reverse a little bit more, you asked me about folks, you know, what would they pay if they're not paying gasoline--well, tolls is another option. We're seeing different types of dynamic tolling systems in Virginia. But to stress this one more time, transportation funding does not happen in a vacuum. And we have to fund other things, education, public safety. And you can only tax and toll people so much, too.
CAROThere's also political realities at work here. Can't raise tolls on every single road. That's just not practical.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Nick. Here is Sam in Fairfax, Va. Sam, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SAMHi, Kojo. I just wanted to call in and remind some people of some things that perhaps haven't been discussed as much about the plan. First of all, it's not just electric vehicles that would be charged $100 a year, it's all hybrid.
NNAMDIAll alternate fuel, yes.
SAMRight. So, you know, if anybody has a Prius or another hybrid vehicle you'll be charged $100 a year on top of the federal gas taxes and everything else.
CAROAnd the increased sales tax to 5.8 percent.
SAMYeah, and that's my second point, which is if anybody's going out there and they're buying a Kit Kat bar or a box of cereal, you're going to have to see the prices on that going up nearly 1 percent, you know, .8 percent under the governor's plan. So, you know, let's be clear this is a tax increase and, you know, it's taking money away from education and everything else that we typically use the sales tax for.
CAROThat's right. It is general fund revenue. This reminds of the argument being made right now about the Silver Line. Why should people who drive cars on the Dulles toll road subsidize a transit line? Well, folks are asking why should I go buy a carton of eggs and milk and have to pay for roads that I may--well, we're all in this together would be one possible argument to that question. And we need the money from somewhere, right?
NNAMDIBut this is worth a little background. How did Virginia's politics, when it comes to transportation, become so explosive? Why did this issue become the one that riddled everyone from Mark Warner to Tim Cain and now Bob McDonnell?
CAROWell, there are some geographic splits here. Northern Virginia has felt for a long time it doesn't get enough for the amount it contributes to the state's economy and for the horrific congestion that we have up here. The Smart Grove community in Virginia is extremely unhappy with the McDonnell Administration for emphasizing road building in the southern parts of the state, like Route 460. A lot of people believe that's a waste of $5 billion.
CAROYou have the Coalfield's Expressway, Charlottesville, Bypass, the outer beltway, all these roads, in total about $5 billion. And if you're from the school of thought that expanding highways is not the way out of this you're looking at those roads, 460, Coalfield's Expressway, Charlottesville Bypass, and you're looking at a waste of money. Now the McDonnell Administration secretary can counter that by saying, we're dealing with real time real problems here. By keeping roads narrow we're going to prevent congestion. If you look at Route 66, by keeping that road narrow that is not prevented congestion.
CAROSo you have a battle going on between highways or different land use policies, emphasis on transit.
NNAMDIIt would be fine if this battle could just go on forever but what's the sense of urgency here? When is the state likely to run out of the money it does have to fund its transportation system?
CAROThe governor has said that by, I believe it's 2018, the maintenance fund -- there'll be such a need for maintenance that the money for road building would go dry. Virginia is a maintenance-first state meaning every year maintenance gets priority. And right now money that's supposed to be going toward construction, about $500 million a year, give or take, gets transferred to the maintenance budget. And the governor's argument is within a few years that's going to go dry.
CAROSo we need to be able to make up for those transfers and his plan on paper would do that by raising by year five an additional $800 million per year.
NNAMDILet's talk the politics, because there are a lot of moving parts here politically. One of them being the willingness or lack thereof of Democrats to vote on anything the governor puts forward. Especially since the political mood enrichment has soured since Republicans moved forward with the plan to redraw the voting lines and increase their advantage in the State Senate. At this point, what sense do you have for whether Democrats will be willing to go along with any of McDonnell's proposals?
CAROWell, as you mentioned, Kojo, Democrats have threatened to basically not play ball on anything unless that proposal to, as they would say, gerrymander the districts goes away. I'll be able to answer that question better for you at the end of the week because the House is going to take -- supposed to take up the governor's plan today. The Senate's supposed to take it up tomorrow. We'll see who's willing to negotiate, who's willing to offer certain amendments. But, yeah, Democrats are not happy about that.
CAROThere are other political realities here and the governor, in my conversations with him one on one at press availabilities after his events recently, has downplayed that problem. He has said, when it comes time to finally vote by the end of the session, each and every lawmaker will have to face his constituents and say I either voted for transportation funding or I didn't. I don't know if that view -- his view is going to pertain when it comes to what happens on the floor of the house in Senate.
NNAMDIWe will see what happens. And Martin Di Caro will be there and here to report on it. Martin, thank you so much for joining us.
CAROKojo, love it.
NNAMDIMartin Di Caro reports on transportation for WAMU 88.5. We're going to take a short break. When we come back the future of the Boy Scouts of America and whether the organization will soon life a long-standing ban on gay members and leaders. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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