The General Assembly has once again passed a bill that will fill Virginia’s share of Metro’s funding gap largely by stripping funding from other Northern Virginia transportation projects.
Regional leaders saw hope for that funding when Gov. Ralph Northam recommended significant edits to a bill that would have taken much of that money from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which is funded by special taxes in the region and provides grants for hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation projects every year. Northam’s amendments would have taken less money from that authority, and instead raised taxes on real estate transactions and stays in guest lodging like hotels to raise additional money for Metro.
On Wednesday, the state Senate endorsed those edits, including support from the four senators whose districts include parts of Loudoun, Sens. Richard H. Black (R-13), Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-27), Barbara A. Favola (D-31), and Jennifer T. Wexton (D-33). Black took to the floor of the senate to speak in favor of the governor’s amendments.
The House of Delegates, however, took the governor’s edits that would have restored NVTA funding out of the bill on a party-lines vote. Every Loudoun delegate except Del. Dave A. LaRock (R-33), Loudoun’s only Republican delegate, voted to keep the governor’s edits.
In Loudoun, however, reaction to that vote stretched across party lines.
“It’s honestly a disgrace, and I say that as a Republican,” said Loudoun Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “I’m just so frustrated with my own party, for a lot of reasons.”
County Chairwoman Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) said she was “sorely disappointed” in the House majority.
“After all these years of NVTA being very fiscally responsible, and putting money aside and pulling money together so that we can vote on big road projects that would have positively impacted the entire region, we now have to go back and decide what we can do, what we can’t do,” Randall said.
The NVTA is moving toward adopting its first six-year plan, allowing it to fund major projects over several years rather than doling out funding one year at a time. The funding schedule for Loudoun’s road projects over the next several years anticipates tens of millions of dollars from the authority.
“What we’re talking about really are lost opportunities,” Letourneau said. “So projects that we’re hoping to get funding for, now there’s a much smaller pot.”
Letourneau and Randall said it’s too soon to know precisely what impact the new law will have, but the NVTA is expected to lose out on more than $100 million per year. An analysis by NVTA staff members of the General Assembly’s previous version of the bill estimated Loudoun would lose out on about $27.8 million in funding over the next five years.
Asked whether she prefers the governor sign the legislation—which is expected to fill the Metro funding gap, although at the expense of the NVTA—or veto it and try again next year, Randall said she wouldn’t object to killing this bill.
“This is a bad bill, and this bill hurts everyone. It hurts all of Northern Virginia, and it hurts Loudoun and although it does fund Metro, the damage it does to this county and to this region is so great that I’d just as soon he’d veto this bill,” Randall said.
NVTA Chairman and Prince William County Supervisor Martin E. Nohe disagreed with that. He said Metro funding is the region’s top priority, but taking that money out of the authority means the NVTA will have to decide which other projects it won’t fund.
“The challenge we now face is that while I think everyone in the region is excited that there’s now funding to fix Metro, the way the General Assembly chose to do that is going to leave lot of other things broken,” Nohe said.
Northern Virginia leaders have argued funding regional transportation is important for the entire state.
“To the extent that projects now don’t get funded at all, Northern Virginia faces continued congestion and gridlock on our highways,” Nohe said. “And that makes it difficult for us to continue to produce the revenues, the economic generation that we have here in Northern Virginia that pays taxes that benefit the entire state.”
They have also argued road projects in the region will now increasingly compete with projects from around the commonwealth for statewide funding—meaning projects in rural areas of Virginia will now be competing with Northern Virginia highway projects.
The General Assembly’s bill passed in March drew calls for change from the member jurisdictions of the NVTA and from the Northern Virginia Transportation Coalition, a group of business leaders and chambers of commerce. The legislature’s bill would redirect money from the grantor’s tax, the transient occupancy tax, and the gas tax away from the authority. Northam’s subsequent recommendations would have raised the grantor’s tax and transient occupancy tax, dividing the revenues between the NVTA and Metro.
While opposition to diverting revenue from the NVTA has found generally broad consensus among local elected leaders in Loudoun and the region, the debate brought put some Northern Virginia Republicans into conflict with their party colleagues downstate. Letourneau said House Republicans voted down the changes “just to adhere to this reflexive ideology on taxes, when you’re talking about two taxes that are not going to impact just about anybody that’s living in this region.”
“Right now we keep losing elections in Virginia, in my judgment because we’re not focused on the issues that people actually care about, and I would put transportation at the absolute top of that list,” Letourneau said.
The vote prompted a press release from House Democrats. House Democratic Leader David J. Toscano and Caucus Chair Charniele Herring released a statement Wednesday saying the vote “will strip localities from resources that would have gone to unclog traffic in various key arteries in Northern Virginia and across the Commonwealth” and called the vote by the Republican majority “reckless and unfortunate.”
“This will negatively affect all ongoing traffic projects, causing even more congestion,” the statement read. “We know traffic is an issue from Vienna to Virginia Beach, we want Virginians to spend more time at home with their families, and not stuck in traffic.”
But Northern Virginia’s elected leaders said there’s always next year in the General Assembly.
“I’m not going to give up the fight, I’m sure my colleagues on the board are not going to want to give it up, and I’m sure that others in the region, the NVTA, won’t want to give up,” Letourneau said.
“I will continue to fight to get money back in NVTA,” Randall said. “The signing of that bill does not stop me from fighting to get money back into NVTA and get money back into local road transportation.”