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Promises, Promises, Promises…

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Way back in 1968, Richard Nixon got to the White House by promising America that he had a way to end the war in Vietnam. His “way” was to fight the war for seven more years. In 2009 Bob McDonnell got to the Virginia statehouse, in part, by promising that he had some wonderful “transportation plan” he would show us after he was elected. Instead, what we got was simply the usual borrow-and-spend, short-term GOP answer to a long-range, serious problem. His “plan” turned out to be nothing more than to sell a bunch of bonds, pray that the federal government won’t cut future funds to the states for transportation, and saddle Virginia taxpayers with hundreds of millions of dollars in debt service through 2035.

Since I really don’t see how any solutions to the transportation mess we have are emanating from the toxic politics now in Richmond, I decided to try to think of a few myself. First, let’s not even start with some idea that raising the gasoline tax will provide all needed future revenue. Yes, the state gas tax needs to be adjusted to account for its loss in real value due to inflation over the years, but that tax has its own problems. Greater fuel efficiency, the rising cost of gasoline, and greater use of hybrid and electric vehicles will – hopefully – reduce the amount of gas we buy. So, let’s think outside of the “gas tax box” this time.

Since 2006, Oregon has experimented with a small trial system to collect transportation revenue based on a user fee calculated on miles driven. That prototype employs volunteers having GPS equipment in their cars, something that smacks a little too much of “big brother” for my tastes. However, in Virginia there would be an easy way to calculate mileage driven by vehicles in the state, using the annual inspection system already in place.

Wouldn’t it be very easy to incorporate a reading of each vehicle’s odometer into the procedures of vehicle inspection? All the state would need is a central data base through the DMV of past odometer readings. At each inspection station, the vehicle mileage would be sent by computer to the DMV, which could then bill the vehicle owner for road use. If the fee were 1/4 cent per mile, the typical 12,000 miles driven annually would result in a fee of $25. A higher 1/2 cent would mean a fee of $50.

Other ways to mitigate the crisis in transportation in the state could include registration fees based on the weight of a vehicle, a change in the state constitution to allow localities to institute a 1% local option sales tax for transportation if approved by a voter referendum, indexing the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees to a formula that includes the cost of living and state population increases, and dedicating a definite percentage of all transportation funds to mass transit.

If I can think of these ways to address the need for greater transportation funding, why can’t the 140 people we send to Richmond and that meek little man who now sits in the governor’s mansion put their minds to ways to get the revenue? Political posturing about “no tax increases” won’t do anything but make matters worse. Are we going to continue to ignore the fact that congestion in northern Virginia is the worst in the nation if we look at time wasted in traffic delays?

McDonnell, as usual, says that we have to do something, but all he has offered so far is debt that is too little and too late. Letting the children and grandchildren pay can’t solve this crisis.