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October 17, 2008

Chamber of Commerce holds off endorsing regional transit initiative

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20081017-RTA-WG1
Sue Lewis and Morgan Butler address the RTA Work Group including Supervisor David Slutzky and Mayor Dave Norris

The City-County work group developing a legislative strategy for the formation of a Regional Transit Authority (RTA) met on October 17, 2008 to give further consideration to feedback from community organizations that have been heavily involved in local transportation matters.  The two organizations that appeared before the group were the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, represented by Sue Lewis, and the Southern Environmental Law Center, represented by Morgan Butler.  Both organizations shared significant reservations about the proposals, though it appears the Chamber’s concerns may create significant obstacles to this local effort to address the state transportation funding crisis.

Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20081017-RTA-WG

At a September meeting, the RTA work group first started receiving feedback from some representatives of a diverse 2005 community transportation committee known as the Transportation Funding Options Working Group (TFOG).  Today’s meeting was planned as an opportunity for each organization to share its endorsement of enabling legislation both for the RTA and for new tax revenues to support local transportation projects.

Representing the Chamber of Commerce, Sue Lewis began by reading a prepared statement intended to reflect the Chamber’s position, though she acknowledged the Chamber leadership had not met to discuss any specific RTA proposal.

The statement emphasized past policy positions of the Chamber including: 1) keeping responsibility for funding transportation with state government; 2) seeing the completion of several specific transportation projects in the community; and 3) enhancement of “appropriate public transit options, including a regional transit system.”  

However, Lewis said the Chamber would prefer to see the governing body be named a “Transportation Authority” instead of a “Transit Authority” so that the focus of its efforts was clearly on matters beyond public transit.  The RTA work group has stated their intent for the authority to manage transit operations while enabling legislation for new taxes would allow revenues to be used more broadly for transportation projects, including road construction.

With respect to that separate legislation, yet to be drafted, that would seek funding authority, Lewis said the Chamber preferred a local gas tax over a sales tax.  

"In reference to the funding options, the Chamber would prefer the broader approach of a variety of local sources, rather than an increase in the sales tax.  Most of the other sources used by either the Northern Virginia or Williamsburg area Authorities are fairer and more directly linked to the uses of the funds….At this time, it doesn’t look like the Chamber will support a sales tax increase, but would be more favorable to a local gas tax and other options."


20081017-RTA-WG2 Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) reacted quickly to the statement.  “The position that the Chamber is taking, in my view, will greatly impair the community’s opportunity to get the funding.”

Lewis said she was trying to communicate that she hoped the legislation would not be written in a way that made the sales tax the only option.  Slutzky encouraged Lewis to go back to the Chamber leadership to discuss the importance of their support for this legislation and he warned that intransigence on the sales tax may lead to no new funding.  

“If the position of the Chamber becomes we won’t support the sales tax, that may be tantamount to [saying] ‘We would rather keep the status quo of funding,’” said Slutzky.

Slutzky outlined how he sees local government being forced to take on the job of transportation, something that requires the ability to raise revenues.  “We are going in front of a legislature made up of anti-tax zealots who have been completely derelict in their responsibility to fund transportation, in all of its forms, for local governments in Virginia,” said Slutzky. “What we are trying to do is approach that group…and say ‘Look you are not willing to do the job, let us do that job.’”

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) pointed out that the Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors (CAAR) had indicated it could support a sales tax.  He said it would be very difficult to get a local gas tax approved in Richmond and that it would have to be twenty to thirty cents to generate comparable revenues.  With respect to a menu of other taxes, as was implemented in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, Rooker said that would be more confusing to the public.

“It’s much cleaner and straight forward, especially if we have a referendum requirement,  [for a sales tax] of a half cent or one cent,” said Rooker.  “People can really grasp very quickly the impact it will have on them financially and what they think the benefit is.”

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Charlottesville Tomorrow asked Tim Hulbert, President of the Chamber of Commerce, whether he thought the Chamber Board of Directors would support a sales tax.  Hulbert, who was not present at the work group meeting, said he could not speculate on the Board’s position.  He encouraged a specific proposal be brought to the Chamber for consideration.

Hulbert did point out that the local Chamber parted company with its state organization when the Virginia Chamber of Commerce took a position to support a statewide sales tax increase of up to 1% in advance of the June 2008 special session of the General Assembly on transportation.  

The Chamber’s Economic and Government Affairs Committee stated in May 2008 that a gas tax was “the most direct, user-related, reliable source for… increased funding.”  Further, the Committee “did not endorse the sales tax method to raise new revenues as it would encompass virtually all consumer consumption rather than transportation uses.”

While Sue Lewis represented the Chamber during 2005 in the work of the Transportation Funding Options Working Group, Hulbert says the Chamber never endorsed the group’s October 2005 recommendations.

“We never signed on to that document,” said Hulbert.  “They were good discussions that we participated in.  However, we wouldn’t sign anything that described specific transportation priorities if it ignored the US Route 29 Western Bypass.”

The potential of having a road project like the Western Bypass receive new funding as a result of these legislative proposals for an RTA appeared to be among the concerns of the Southern Environmental Law Center.  

“From our point of view, we are concerned that some bad road projects may get funding,” said Attorney Morgan Butler.  “At this point there is no clear plan on the table.”

Butler asked for more specificity as to the process by which transportation projects would be added to or removed from the priority list.  In their discussion, the work group reached consensus to add language to the list of projects, and perhaps to the legislation, that indicated the revenues raised via any new taxing authority would only support projects identified in the City, County, and Metropolitan Planning Organization’s normal transportation plans.  

The RTA work group meets next on October 23, 2008 with members of the local General Assembly delegation to receive their input on legislative strategy.

Brian Wheeler

Note: Charlottesville Tomorrow is a member of the Charlottesville Area Regional Chamber of Commerce Brian Wheeler is a member of the Chamber’s Economic and Governmental Affairs Committee.  As a representative of Charlottesville Tomorrow, Mr. Wheeler does not vote on positions taken by the committee related to land use and transportation, or any other matters covered in the reporting of Charlottesville Tomorrow.

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 01:04 – Call to order by Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio), chair of the work group.
  • 02:10 – Sue Lewis addresses the group representing the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
  • 05:35 – Lewis explains how a gas tax is closer to the users of the transportation improvements.
  • 07:25 – Slutzky asks Chamber to give further consideration to legislative proposals with a sales tax.
  • 08:14 – Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) describes state funding cuts for transportation.  Mentions that Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors (CAAR) prefers a sales tax.
  • 11:47 – Lewis points out that the current draft list of projects that could receive financial support does not identify the expected costs of public transit.
  • 14:10 – Lewis reiterates Chamber position and explains that when more details of the RTA are clear, the Chamber be supportive.
  • 15:55 – Slutzky begins a discussion of how the transit authority and the funding options are being addressed in separate legislation.  He asks Lewis why the Chamber wants the authority itself to be focused on transportation as opposed to transit.
  • 20:42 -- Slutzky explains that the RTA work group does not want to be specific yet on the allocation of funding that would go to transit vs. transportation.
  • 28:55 – Attorney Morgan Butler addresses the group representing the Southern Environmental Law Center.
  • 29:44 – Rooker responds to Butler’s concern about who would decide what projects would receive support.
  • 31:06 – Butler continues describing preference for allocating funds to a known list of projects.
  • 32:42 – Slutzky outlines how he thinks the existing transportation planning process and the MPO can set priorities with meaningful community input.
  • 50:00 – Lewis asks whether a voter referendum will be required for any new taxes.
  • 51:00 -- Slutzky summarizes what he would like to receive from the Chamber and the Southern Environmental Law Center.  He asks for clarification from the Chamber which funding options they will support.
  • 52:08 – Jennifer Lyttle, Assistant Albemarle County Attorney, points out that no draft legislation to enable new funding sources will be prepared until after the October 23, 2008 meeting with local legislators.

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