Fairfax County will be holding a series of community outreach meetings over the next couple of months to explore what the public thinks should be done about paying for transportation in light of diminished state funding.Various options are on the table, including a meals tax.
The meeting for Mason District residents will be Oct. 1, 7 p.m. at the Mason District Government Center. Other nearby sessions will be Sept. 24 in the West Springfield Government Center and Oct. 11 at the Braddock Hall, both also at 7 p.m.
A new revenue source is needed, because “we are not receiving the funding we need from the state to keep transportation viable in Northern Virginia,” Board of Supervisors Chair Sharon Bulova told members of the Fairfax Federation of Citizen Associations Sept. 20.
“When the state ceases to invest in transportation, it’s the local governments that will have to pick up the costs” for road and transit construction and improvement projects and also for the maintenance of existing roads, she said. And that includes ongoing projects like the Dulles Toll Road and Metro Silver Line and proposed efforts like widening Guinea Road and Rolling Road.
Elected leaders in Northern Virginia, Richmond, and the Tidewater region, who have formed a coalition called “Virginia’s Urban Crescent,” sent a joint letter to Gov. Robert McDonnell Sept. 4 expressing alarm at the state’s failure to fund transportation. The letter notes that Northern Virginia commuters waste 74 hours a year stuck in traffic.
Bulova says the upcoming community meetings will center around this question: “If Fairfax County were to take on a greater role in transportation, what sources of revenue would be acceptable to residents?” Without some additional revenue stream, she said, the county would have to cut funding for other county services, including schools, parks, libraries, and social services.
One answer might be a meals tax, she suggested. The last time the county put a meals tax on the ballot, in 1992, it was shot down by voters. This time, it might be more palatable, as voters grapple with the realization of state disinvestment in transportation. The cities of Fairfax, Alexandria, and Falls Church charge restaurant diners a meals tax, as does Arlington County.
In fact, Arlington, which worked out an agreement with the state government decades ago to have the county manage its roads, is only able to continue to do that because it uses revenue from its meals tax, as well as a proportion of state gasoline tax revenue.
Noting that Braddock Supervisor John Cook wants Fairfax County to take over responsibility for local roads, Bulova says that would cost about $100 million to $200 million a year and doubts whether the state would be willing and able to provide enough money.
Fairfax County has the authority to put a proposed meals tax on the ballot, she said, “and we want to know what the public thinks about that.” A meals tax of 4 percent could generate $80 million a year.
The county also has the authority to put out a referendum asking voters to approve an income tax, but she is less comfortable with that option because “we’d have to put a tax of 1 percent on the referendum even if we want to do less.”
With regard to another issue, Bulova called the proposed state constitutional amendment on eminent domain that will be on the Nov. 6 ballot “troublesome.” Noting that Virginia law already protects property owners, she said, “I’m afraid people will vote for it, unaware of how damaging it will be.”
If the amendment passes, landowners will be able to object to anything the county does on the grounds that it could lead to a loss of revenue—and that will restrict the ability of local governments to undertake road projects. For example, a person could seek compensation if a parade goes by their place of business limiting access, she said.
Another worry for the county is the looming specter of sequestration, if Congress can’t agree on a plan to cut the federal deficit. Fairfax County businesses are not bouncing back from the “great recession,” Bulova said, because they are concerned about the potential loss of federal contracts. Federal funding is not a large proportion of the federal budget, but there is a concern that cuts in federal funding for human services could have a huge impact.
She said the board put $8.1 million in carryover funds from the previous year in reserve as a hedge against sequestration.