Supervisors asking state to raise taxes, and rob ROVA to fund transportation in NOVA

How will Prince William get new roads, commuter rail services, and maybe even a ferry up the Potomac River – even though the Virginia Department of Transportation is almost broke?

The county’s draft 2010 legislative agenda requests the General Assembly to “secure new transportation funding to bolster existing highway and transit revenue sources.”  The draft legislative agenda also says “Prince William County does not suppport diverting existing General Fund revenue streams to transportation.”

That leaves two options: raise taxes, and divert transportation revenues to Northern Virginia (NOVA) and away from the Rest of Virginia (ROVA).

The most obvious solution, championed by the Washington Post and the developers who buy all the ads in that paper, is to raise taxes. Our local supervisors typically chant to their constituents that they are opposed to new taxes, or to increasing existing taxes – but when those same supervisors ask for the General Assembly to raise taxes, what should we think?

Local supervisors are hoping that the residents of Prince William will blame state officials for increasing taxes. County voters may be unsophisticated, and might be fooled by this game.  Still, it’s hard to believe that 140 savvy state senators and delegates in the General Assembly – who will be running for office in 2011 – will be willing to raise raise taxes and take all the political heat.  Legislators are likely to share the blame, so voters know which local officials requested tax increases by the state.

It’s also hard to believe the 2010-11 General Assembly will go along with the “rob Peter (ROVA) to pay Paul (NOVA)” request.  There will still be lots of legislators from non-urban regions of the state in the General Assembly, for at least two more years.

However, legislative districts will be redrawn after the 2010 Census.  State Senators and Delegates will elected from new districts in November, 2011; representation from the rural areas will be lower, reflecting the population shifts in the last decade.

If the additional legislators from NOVA cut a deal with legislators from Hampton Roads, political power might shift enough for the 2012-13 General Assembly to pull tax dollars away from Southwestern Virginia, Southside, the Shenandoah Valley, Tidewater above the York River, and the Piedmont.  It’s possible that rural legislators will see the handwriting on the wall, and cut a transportation funding reallocation deal in 2010-2011 before the redistricting is implemented.

Of course, if the VDOT cornucopia  is empty, then reallocation solves nothing.   New taxes will be needed – just what the Prince William County supervisors are requesting.

The time is ripe for new thinking to accompany requests for new taxes.   Let’s start with “reduce the need for new roads, by building new centers of development next to existing transit infrastructure, before we raise taxes to subsidize more dumb growth.”

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