Op/Ed: Most equitable way to fund roads is a gas tax increase

I am writing this opinion in response to the Herald Progress’ editorial last week, Jan. 17 praising Governor McDonnell’s Transportation Funding proposal or at least parts of.

Hold on, not so fast! This is a major issue that should be of concern to all Virginians.  Our aging transportation infrastructure is in dire need of an infusion of cash, not only for ongoing maintenance but new construction to handle increased traffic due to our continuing growth.  However, I have not and will not likely support what I believe is an ill-conceived idea that has been presented to this short session of the General Assembly for approval without hardly any time for thorough vetting.

This is an extremely radical change in how we pay for a core function of government. Our transportation infrastructure is vitally important to move people and all of our consumer goods safely and efficiently. Regrettably, politics has gotten in the way; our current user fee system – the fuel tax – is just that, a tax, which, by the way, hasn’t been increased in 27 years. Therein lies the problem; politicians over the years have been unwilling to be up front with their constituents and say, “We need to raise the fuel tax to meet our transportation needs.”  That truthful fact doesn’t get politicians re-elected; it’s unpopular with voters. Consequently, our ability to fund those needs have gone unmet for almost three decades and now we are reaping what we have sown.

The fuel tax is a user fee paid for by those that use the roads the most; i.e. trucking companies, commuters, service vehicles, sales representatives and the like. It’s fair, it’s equitable and it’s efficient to collect at the retail fuel pump as we do currently. I have had zero complaints about this user fee.
The governor’s proposal to give back the 17.5 cents per gallon just on gas tax as a ploy to sway Virginians to pay an additional .8 percent in general sales tax is fraught with problems. There is absolutely no guarantee the consumer will ever get 17.5 cents off of their gas purchase.

First, and foremost, the government cannot and should not be able to dictate to private businesses such as your local gas station(s) what they may be able to charge. Therefore in these troubling economic times my prudent business experience tells me the consumer will see little reduction in gas prices if any, yet you will see a 16 percent tax increase (.8 percent) in most every other product or meal you purchase.  Second, motor annual vehicle registration will also increase $15 each with this plan.  The argument that we have many more alternative vehicles on the road that pay too little in fuel taxes is laughable; those vehicles account for less than 1 percent of total vehicle traffic.  Third, all out-of-state automobiles will get a “free ride” on the backs of Virginia taxpayers and they will be paying no fuel tax on their gas purchases in Virginia, but still using our roads.

We pay when we travel on other state highways.  The Administration says we will make up for their “free ride” on their general sales tax purchases while they are here, provided they purchase anything at all.

Let’s look at that argument: If an out-of-state purchaser buys $60 of goods or meals in Virginia they would pay 48 cents in additional tax under the governor’s plan but if they paid just the current fuel tax rate on a $60 purchase of gas the equivalent of 18.5 gallons at $3.25 per gallon instead they would pay $3.24 in Virginia fuel tax. So who will make up the loss of $2.78 on that same purchase of tax revenue for the out-of-state traveler?  You and I. The Virginia taxpayer will pay for the free ride of the out-of-state traveler.  Out-of-state gas vehicles will pay no fuel tax.

The Wall Street Journal’s editorial last week wrote about Governor McDonnell’s scheme and said this: “It’s especially unfortunate to see McDonnell take this tax turn in the last year of an otherwise successful tenure. Virginia lawmakers would be wise to reject it and think anew, as would transportation planners in other states.”

I proudly represent the Town of Ashland, Hanover and Caroline counties, and all of those local governing bodies plus 19 more local elected jurisdictions have passed formal resolutions of opposition to tolling on I-95 and rightly so.  However, the governor told me directly just last week his intention is to move ahead on I-95 tolling in addition to the general sales tax increase, but I strongly suspect he will use his I-95 tolling threat as a pawn in exchange for lawmakers’ support of this ill-conceived master plan.

Some politicians may endorse this radical plan in the hopes that they will be able to convince voters with this “bait and switch” scheme and tell them this is a good plan for all Virginians.  I will not.

If we do (and I believe we do) need to increase revenue for transportation, then let’s use the current fuel tax, which is fair and the most efficient method to raise transportation revenue for all and those that use the highways the most will pay the most, i.e. like trucking companies who will pay the most for their road usage.

Let’s be transparent, let’s set politics aside and just do it!

 

- Del. John Cox, 55th District

Posted on Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm