Bad way to fund highways

Published 12:56 pm Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s surprise proposal to scrap Virginia’s gasoline tax and raise the general sales tax appears to be dead on arrival in the General Assembly.

For good reason.

From this vantage point, the plan does nothing but shift a chunk of the burden of maintaining and improving the commonwealth’s highways from out-of-state motorists to Virginians.

It’s no wonder, when this newspaper polled a few citizens about McDonnell’s plan, that a Murfreesboro, N.C., woman loved the idea.

As will the millions of motorists from other states who traverse Virginia on I-95, stopping only for … gas. Unless they buy a coke or hamburger, those motorists will contribute nothing to fixing Virginia highways.

Meantime, a Virginia senior citizen on a fixed income who rarely drives will pay more for essential goods and services.

It makes no sense.

As taxes go, a use tax, with proceeds dedicated to a related expense, is arguably the fairest.

Sales taxes are regressive by nature, in that they tax the poor at the same rate as the rich. That’s less of a problem with a gasoline sales tax, however, because poor people drive less than rich people, own fewer vehicles, and consume less fuel.

The solution to Virginia’s highway crisis doesn’t require radical change, such as what McDonnell proposes.

The right mechanism, a gas tax, is in place to fix existing highways and build new ones when needed. The crisis has been caused by Virginia lawmakers’ refusal to make inflationary adjustments of that tax in recent decades to track, for example, the cost of a barrel of oil.

If nothing else, perhaps McDonnell’s plan will finally get lawmakers focused on fixing Virginia’s highway problem. A debate about the governor’s illogical plan hopefully will remind them of what is logical: raising the gas tax a few cents and letting motorists – both Virginians and non-Virginians – pay for the roads they travel.

Steve Stewart is publisher of The Tidewater News. His email address is