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October 29, 2008

Area legislators offer feedback on proposals for transit authority and local tax increases for transportation

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20081023-Legislative-Lunch1 The road got rough last week for local leaders trying to orchestrate the formation of a Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Transit Authority (RTA).  On October 23, 2008, the task force of two City Councilors and two members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors met with three area legislators to get their feedback to this regional approach to the state’s transportation funding crisis.  Before the 2009 session of the Virginia General Assembly, local leaders intend to endorse a legislative framework which, if approved in Richmond, would allow the creation of the RTA and for new taxing powers to raise funds for transportation.  

“We have a serious problem of inadequate funding to tackle our transportation challenges,” said Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio).  “Our community is being proactive… by coming up with a request for the enabling legislation to collaboratively manage our transit system.”

Podcast produced by Charlottesville Tomorrow * Player by Odeo

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20081023-RTA-WG

Delegate David Toscano (D-57), Delegate Rob Bell (R-58), and Senator Emmett Hanger (R-24) listened to a description of the RTA project and then weighed in with their assessment of the political landscape in Richmond, and their home districts.  The legislators all offered their support to help Charlottesville and Albemarle seek authority to jointly operate a transit system.  However, funding it with new taxes ran into a mix of skepticism, alternative ideas, and outright opposition.  The legislators did agree that if there was to be any local tax increase, it would require a voter referendum.

Hanger and Toscano both expressed a preference for statewide solutions to fund transportation needs.  Hanger specifically suggested an income tax as a way to tap into the community’s wealth.  Hanger indicated a gas tax or a sales tax should only be adjusted at the state level.  Toscano said he didn’t want to “balkanize” the state’s approach to funding by giving Charlottesville-Albemarle a different set of taxing tools.

Rob Bell sat next to Supervisor David Slutzky and the two sparred over whether Albemarle residents should have the opportunity in a referendum to vote for a tax increase, solely to support transportation projects.  Slutzky said the voters should be able to decide whether they want to tax themselves.  Bell responded that the state and local government’s budgets had continued to grow in recent years and it was a question of how to allocate existing tax dollars.  Given the current national economic crisis, Bell said it wasn’t an appropriate time to raise anyone’s taxes.

“This is extraordinarily bad time to be looking at a tax increase,” said Delegate Bell.  Bell said he felt better that there was interest ina voter referendum, but that it was still an extraordinary request to seek a tax increase at a time when the economy is so fragile.

“That is a very substantial tax increase, and I am very concerned about it, said Bell.  “Nothing you have told me so far that would allow me to say, ‘Yes, I would support that.’”

20081023-Toscano
Delegate David Toscano (D-57)

Delegate David Toscano said that since the General Assembly is unlikely to pass a statewide tax increase, local governments need to be granted the authority to do so by a voter referendum.  Toscano recommended the creation of a very concrete list of transportation projects that would receive support.  

“Specificity… is [the] key,” said Toscano.  “Unless you are specific, people are going to pick this thing to death and you won’t have a chance of getting it passed.”

As their almost two-hour conversation wrapped up, Dennis Rooker told the legislators that the community was not wed to a once cent sales tax increase and that even a half cent would be a significant help.  He warned, however, that the RTA was unlikely to move forward without new funding.

“I don’t know that the City really wants to cede control of transit in the absence of some commitment by the County [to expand funding],” said Rooker.  “Without additional revenues, it’s going to be difficult to do that.”

Councilor Huja agreed.  “I think the solution for the [Regional Transit] Authority alone without money is really a non-starter in my mind.”

Key points by local officials:

  • The state is not adequately funding transportation and allocations to this area have declined to the point no new major transportation project can be undertaken
  • Local government is being forced to fund transportation infrastructure
  • The City and County want to work together and provide increased support to public transit
  • In the absence of state funding, local government desires the power to levy a local tax that would generate revenues exclusively for transportation (including transit operations)
  • Authority to create the RTA and authority to raise a tax for transportation needs are two separate legislative matters
  • Funding transportation by increasing the local real estate property taxes should be avoided.  A sales tax increase is one likely option.
  • Taxing authority would remain in the hands of the elected officials (Council and Board of Supervisors).  The RTA would have no taxing powers.
  • A voter referendum on the tax increase could be required if that was deemed necessary to gain support in the General Assembly

Key points by General Assembly members:

  • A regional approach to public transit sounds like a good idea.
  • There should be specificity on the transportation projects to be supported by a tax increase.
  • There was no consensus as to which type of local tax should be increased, if any.
  • A voter referendum should be required for any local tax increase.

20081023-Legislative-Lunch2 The next day, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors held their annual retreat.  Reflecting on the feedback from the legislators, Slutzky and Rooker gave their colleagues an assessment of the RTA’s legislative challenges.

“With the funding ideas that we put on the table, I certainly didn’t come away from that meeting feeling that they had much chance of getting passed this year,” said Rooker.  “We didn’t get real far with them on even accepting the idea of legislation that would enable us to have a referendum locally to determine if [our citizens] want to tax themselves to improve transportation in the area.”

Both Rooker and Slutzky recommended that enabling legislation still be pursued for the creation of the RTA, even if it could not be utilized in the near future.  Slutzky went further to say that, despite the cool reception from the legislators, he felt the community should also still move forward with the request for legislation allowing for a referendum on a local tax increase to support transportation.

The RTA work group meets again at the end of this week to select a legislative approach they can bring back to Charlottesville City Council and the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

Brian Wheeler

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 01:26 – Call to order by Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio), chair of the work group.  Slutzky shares the work group’s purpose, transportation funding challenges, and desire for a Regional Transit Authority (RTA).
  • 09:00 -- Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) provides background on the 2005 recommendations of the Transportation Funding Options Working Group (TFOG).
  • 16:57 – Rooker reports that a majority of citizens responding to a recent citizen survey, conducted for Albemarle County, indicated they would support increased taxes for transportation.
  • 21:11 -- Rooker comments on the difficulty of computing and collecting a local gas tax.
  • 32:07 – Senator Emmett Hanger (R-24) shares his support for an RTA and mass transit.  He says there will be significant debate on the funding questions.  Hanger says there needs to be comprehensive tax reform in Virginia.  Hanger prefers sales taxes be adjusted uniformly across the state.
  • 34:40 – Senator Hanger describes challenges with sales tax and fuels tax.  Hanger prefers both be addressed statewide and said it would be reasonable to look at a gas tax as a transportation user fee.
  • 43:00 -- Senator Hanger says he would support a local income tax increase to take the burden off the property tax and to “capture the wealth of Charlottesville.”
  • 44:14 – Delegate Rob Bell (R-58) begins asking a series of detailed questions about the RTA proposal and funding options.
  • 48:20 -- Delegate Bell asks how much money would be raised on an annual basis with a 1 cent sales tax.  Rooker responds that 1 cent sales tax would raise about $25 million in Charlottesville and Albemarle County combined.
  • 48:30 – Delegate Bell asks what Albemarle County transportation projects would receive support.
  • 48:54 – Rooker outlines the current approval process by the County and the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).  He argues that the process for selecting projects would be no different if the state provided the funding vs. local governments raising the funds.
  • 1:09:09 – Slutzky asks Delegate Bell which taxing option he thinks might have more appeal.  Delegate Bell shares his view that a voter referendum on any tax increase would have to be a required for him to get even close to supporting this effort.
  • 1:10:22 – Delegate Bell says that state and local budgets continue to increase.  He says other priorities, besides transportation, have received support.  His first reaction is that a sales tax increase is not the answer to the funding problem.
  • 1:12:47 – Delegate Bell tells David Slutzky that he does not recall him bringing up a tax increase of this magnitude in his 2005 election for Supervisor.  Slutzky says at the time he supported a gas tax increase.  Rooker observes that a lot has changed with the funding picture since that election.
  • 1:20:57 -- Delegate Bell asks whether the proposed Western Bypass to Route 29 north of Charlottesville would be on the project list and eligible for support.  Slutzky responds that it is not a project on the list because in his view it fails any cost-benefit analysis.
  • 1:22:10 – Rooker says the Western 29 Bypass cost is estimated to be $300 million.  He shares VDOT’s opinion that even with the bypass Route 29 would have an “F-level of service” without additional improvements.
  • 1:28:10 -- Councilor Satyendra Huja asks Delegate Bell if he would support a tax increase, like a sales tax, if it had a voter referendum.  Bell answers that he could not support a tax increase unless it was approved by the majority of the voters first.  Huja points out that the group is seeking permission to ask that question of the voters.
  • 1:29:05 – Delegate Bell expresses concerns about the absence of a specific list of defined projects and costs.  Indicates the 1 cent sales tax increase seems to him an arbitrary way to arrive at a funding pool of $25 million.  Bell says this is an extraordinarily bad time to ask for a tax increase.
  • 1:32:50 – Delegate David Toscano says he is concerned about the balkanization of transportation funding around the state, but that since the General Assembly is unlikely to pass a statewide tax increase, local governments need to be granted the authority to do so.  Toscano recommends creation of a very concrete list of transportation projects that would receive support.  Toscano questions the size of the tax increase needed.
  • 1:39:45 -- Senator Hanger offers his closing remarks and says he prefers the local income tax option.
  • 1:43:40 – Delegate Bell offers his closing remarks and shares that nothing he has heard would lead him to support a local tax increase for transportation.
  • 1:46:45 – Rooker says even a half cent sales tax increase would help a lot.  He points out that the 1 cent number came from a consultant’s report that analyzed the transportation funding authority offered to Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.  Rooker says that a Regional Transit Authority is unlikely to go forward without additional funding.

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