Column: No Free Lunch on Transportation Funding

Column: No Free Lunch on Transportation Funding


Cook Photo Contributed

Next month, the General Assembly returns to Richmond, and transportation funding will be on the agenda. Fairfax County continues to consider funding as well. It’s an ongoing issue—in large part because the state, which owns nearly every road in the county, has for years under-funded transportation, and more recently has stopped, permanently, all secondary road construction.

Recently, the county undertook an effort to engage and survey its residents to gauge what level of support exists for generating additional transportation funding. The county held a series of meetings in every supervisor’s district and an online survey reported that 85 percent of respondents favor additional transportation spending. The survey also showed a reluctance to pay for the spending that so many support. Most respondents favored having developers pay more, and a vehicle rental tax and hotel tax were two other popular items. However, revenue sources that would fall on the population at large, such as a gas tax or sales tax, were less popular, as were user fees such as car registration and titling fees. It seems we want more roads, but for someone else to pay the bill.

Asking developers to pay for transportation makes sense, and we already require significant transportation dollars from them. We also require that funds be contributed for schools and parks, and we impose stringent, expensive environmental and stormwater retention standards. We also ask developers to build housing affordable to the lower and middle class, so all people can find appropriate housing. We could excuse developers from these various requirements solely in favor of transportation funding, but that would limit our ability to accomplish other important goals.

And if we impose too many costs on developers, commercial developers in particular, we run the risk of them building elsewhere or not at all, leaving the county unable to provide the same level of services residents have come to expect without increasing residential property taxes. This is because commercial development, unlike residential development, generates more revenue than it consumes in government services. This revenue permits the county to provide significant government services without placing the whole burden on the homeowner.

In our county discussions, some assert only “the state” must pay for transportation, as if “the state” is some outside source as well. In reality, who is “the state” if not us? The fact of the matter is that whether increased transportation funding comes through the state or the county, or through user fees such as tolls, the ultimate source of the money is the same—the people of Fairfax County. And we all know that whenever a statewide funding formula is concerned, we receive back from Richmond only a fraction of what we contribute.

Do we want to pay for transportation improvements, or are we going to tolerate increased congestion and declining road maintenance? It’s a fair question and a stark choice. But beware of those who say you can have good things without paying for them. There is no free lunch on transportation. If we don’t want to pay, that’s ok—but then the responsibility for the results lies with us as well.