Time for equity in transportation funding

Published 9:59 am Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Here we go again.

Just 10 years after Hampton Roads voters overwhelmingly defeated a referendum calling for a regional sales tax to help fund transportation projects in the area, Virginia Beach Delegate Christopher P. Stolle has filed legislation that would put the question before voters once more.

Stolle’s legislation, HB 1450, would set up a referendum next fall on the question of whether Hampton Roads voters want to increase the region’s sales tax by a penny, with proceeds earmarked for “regional transportation projects.”

Stolle apparently believes — and there are others around the region who seem to agree — that in the decade since Hampton Roads rejected the idea by nearly a two-to-one margin, the region’s transportation system has deteriorated to the point that voters will embrace the notion of paying for their own traffic solutions while the rest of the commonwealth sits on its hands.

There were two big problems with the referendum that was presented to voters in 2002, and Stolle’s bill addresses only one of them, the possibility that the money raised by the extra, regional sales tax could be used for purposes other than alleviating Hampton Roads’ transportation problems.

Voters were rightly concerned they would be writing a blank check that members of the General Assembly could then use for any purpose they deemed politically expedient.

The new bill ostensibly solves that problem by stipulating the money must be used for transportation projects within this region.

But officials estimate that the new tax would generate less than $200 million a year, a fraction of the billions of dollars needed to address the road problems in Hampton Roads.

And there is no guarantee that a state legislature unwilling to recognize the statewide benefits of solving Hampton Roads’ transportation problems would keep its hands out of the lockbox of money raised by the new tax.

The next state revenue shortfall or “vital” Northern Virginia road could wipe it out with a simple vote of the General Assembly.

That fact reveals the other, even greater, problem with the last referendum and with Stolle’s current proposed legislation: Both would require the people of Hampton Roads to solve a problem on their own that affects the entire commonwealth. Traffic and deteriorating roads in this region hurt the economy throughout Virginia, not just in Hampton Roads. Therefore the responsibility for solving those issues should be borne by all of the states’ citizens.

Mayors of cities throughout Virginia’s “Urban Crescent,” from Hampton Roads to Richmond and Petersburg to Northern Virginia, recognize the need for shared sacrifice to solve the seemingly intractable transportation problems in those communities.

They recognize the fact that the economic viability of these regions is absolutely vital to that of the commonwealth as a whole.

And they have called on the General Assembly to develop a new, statewide funding source for transportation funding that would enable the state’s true economic engines to function at their peak.

Hampton Roads will soon be saddled with bridge and tunnel tolls that will unfairly encumber its residents. Piling on an extra regional sales tax would only compound the inequity.

Res Spears is managing editor of the Suffolk News-Herald and a former staff reporter and editor of The Tidewater News. He can be reached at res.spears@suffolknewsherald.com.