Hallelujah! No gas tax funds for light rail.

As a rule, I support separation of church and column. Today's an exception.

Details about the tax hikes just passed by the General Assembly and plans to finally address the state's transportation mess make it clear that we owe the Almighty a big "thank you."

For Del. Chris Jones of Suffolk.

He's the common-sense politician who insisted that no portion of the new local tax revenue be spent on light rail. Not a dime. Because of Jones, the roughly $200 million that is expected to stay in Hampton Roads from higher regional sales and gas taxes will be earmarked for roads, bridges and tunnels.

And nothing else.

Hey, why not? These are the surfaces traversed by the majority of us as we commute to work and go about our daily activities. Studies show that about 93 percent of Hampton Roads residents rely upon cars and trucks to get where they're going. Others use taxis and bikes. Fewer than 2 percent of the population - 1.84 percent - use public transportation.

That percentage is unchanged since 2010, incidentally. Before The Tide opened in Norfolk.

Ahem.

Calm down, lovers of light rail. There will be some new state money for mass transit. Only the local revenue is off-limits.

That sound you hear is developers gnashing their teeth. Ignore them.

Look, for the first time in decades, politicians of both parties came together to seriously address the deteriorating condition of Virginia's highways. New taxes are expected to generate about $3.5 billion over five years statewide and close to $200 million a year just for Hampton Roads. That's a huge infusion of cash for the commonwealth's crumbling infrastructure.

Dwight Farmer, executive director of the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, told me Tuesday that, with a revenue stream in place, pothole and other road repairs should begin immediately. Complicated building projects that require permits and bids will take a few years.

When I asked whether ordinary drivers would be able to see the benefits of the tax increase in a year, Farmer replied without hesitation: "I'm 110 percent confident."

Even so, a tax hike of this magnitude is sobering. It's going to mean that, thanks to an increase in the sales tax, Hampton Roads residents will see a drop in their disposable income at a time when wages are stagnant and sequestration has dropped a cloud of uncertainty over the local economy.

But roads are a core function of government. Without them, Virginia becomes a wasteland.

Jones was one of the architects of the transportation plan. When it came to local spending, he dug in and refused to let any of it flow to light rail.

Clearly, Jones pays attention. He knows that some powerful politicians are lapdogs for developers, who enthusiastically back light rail. And why wouldn't they? New development around train stations will mean millions for them. By fencing off the new money from mass transit, Jones has ensured that the light-rail lobby will be kept at bay.

Or has he?

State Sen. Frank Wagner, who said he favored a more "flexible" approach to road funding, told The Pilot that the no-money-for-mass-transit prohibition might be modified later.

God forbid.

Kerry Dougherty, 757-446-2306, kerry.dougherty@cox.net,

PilotOnline.com/dougherty


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