This Toll, Tolls for You
Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s successful effort to open the rest stops on I–95 was a very good idea. His current effort to open tollbooths on I–95 is not.
McDonnell obviously faces a dilemma: Virginia desperately needs road improvements and faces a backlog of maintenance expenses. Yet the General Assembly refuses to increase funding, much like other GOP–controlled legislatures across the country who are trying to deal with years of Democrat overspending.
McDonnell’s situation reminds me of a high school booster club president trying to buy desperately needed new uniforms. Bake sales are over–regulated. Car washes face competition from pee–wee teams. And the parents refuse to pony up additional contributions. So the wet t–shirt contest is looking better and better. The governor justifies his wet t–shirt contest that charges a toll on a road that’s already paid for by calling it a “user fee.” But this toll is simply a tax on your destination.
Goods shipped North to Prince William County via I–95 will be subject to a destination tax that goods shipped to Petersburg via I–85 will avoid. The same goes for travelers to those destinations.
McDonnell has received permission to put one tollbooth on the North Carolina border and the second South of Fredericksburg. Drivers will soon discover that both locations will function as construction zones that never go away. Even with E–ZPass there will be new slowdowns adding the lost time insult to the increased expense injury. Strangely enough, the American Trucking Association (ATA) supports an alternative that is not only more practical and has the added bonus of being supported by business. According to the ATA, adding a few pennies to the gas tax is a more equitable and efficient way of raising road money “because it doesn’t require governments to hire workers to man toll booths or spend millions of dollars to build and maintain toll plazas.”
Virginia’s 17.5 cent a gallon gas tax has not been raised since the mid–1980’s and prospects for an increase in this century are dim even though a gas tax is a reasonable pay–as–you–go user fee on highways.
Morally superior types who operate granola–burning vehicles or only drive two days per week— to allow their electric vehicles time to recharge —will hardly pay anything at all. While modern day road warriors will pay their fair share.
Unfortunately drivers are deadlocked between Republicans who won’t raise taxes a penny and Democrats who won’t cut spending by a penny. Conservative Republicans contend the state has plenty of money and it’s time to repay the money that has been “borrowed” over the years from the highway trust fund.
In theory this is true. In practice Democrats won’t allow it to happen. You can’t even get Democrats to end subsidies for “public broadcasting” during a recession. (Although, “public broadcasting” could be part of Democrat’s long–term transportation strategy for world domination. Drivers stuck in a traffic jam could tune to NPR out of boredom and be subject to “progressive” indoctrination in spite of themselves.)
Another Republican objection is that under Obama’s leadership from behind, gas prices have approached record levels and Virginia drivers can’t afford the additional expense. This is untrue (the driver’s part not the Obama part). North Carolina’s gas tax is almost double Virginia’s, but per–gallon prices on a recent trip to Charlotte were about the same or occasionally lower than in PWC.
A better solution to transportation funding is for Republicans to lead from the front and increase the gas tax and make it a percentage instead of a fixed amount. If conservatives in state and local government can’t persuade voters that paying for highways is a core function of government then we won’t ever be able to persuade voters to stop wasting money on non–core functions.
Both arguments require the courage of your convictions in the face of kneejerk criticism. If this bit of candor is too bracing for my fellow conservatives, then let’s try the semantics approach. Republicans support cost of living increases for social security recipients and cost of living increases for government employees, so how about a cost of living increase for the gas tax?
Or Republicans could take Norman Leahy’s advice and increase a gas fee that already exists. In addition to the 17.5-cent gas tax, Virginia also charges 2.2 cents per gallon in fees. This is very low. West Virginia charges 11.7 cents in fees, in addition to 20.5 cents in gas tax. Raising the gas “fee” doesn’t make a politician any more vulnerable to the “tax raiser” charge than increasing the charge to renew your driver’s license.
Every driver uses Virginia’s roads and every driver should be responsible for paying their share. A toll on an already completed road is double taxation: once for the gas and once for the trip.