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November 03, 2008

RTA working group continues to debate approach for funding mechanism

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The General Assembly convenes in just over two months. While legislation to create a Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Transit Authority (RTA) is likely to receive support, local leaders are still seeking consensus on an appropriate funding mechanism. There remains uncertainty over whether the region’s legislators can agree on a specific funding source, or sources, that they would be willing to support.  Last week, three area legislators were skeptical that any bill to create a funding mechanism could pass in 2009.

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The working group of City Councilors and Albemarle County Supervisors responsible for shaping both bills spent their meeting on October 31, 2008 discussing how to proceed. Their preference is to ask the General Assembly for permission to hold a referendum on a one-cent sales tax increase. However, the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce has held off on supporting that approach, and would prefer to see the RTA and other transportation projects funded through a gas tax or other local revenue sources.  The Lynchburg, Danville, and Charlottesville Chambers all see a Western bypass for Route 29 north of Charlottesville as a key transportation priority, a road they would all like to see proceed even with local transit initiatives..

Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) is scheduled to brief the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce next week on the RTA legislation.  He has met recently with Chamber President Tim Hulbert to discuss his concerns. Slutzky reported that Hulbert said the Chamber could support the sales tax with reservations. “I still think we should go and ask for the enabling legislation,” Slutzky said. “Once we have a new President and if the political winds shift very strongly in a certain direction maybe the folks in the General Assembly will wake up.” Slutzky then asked for the opinions of other working group members.

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Supervisor Dennis Rooker

“I think it’s a bit of a Hail Mary pass at this point, but I think we should try it,” said Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris. Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) said the community should go forward with the legislation to create a local funding mechanism, but he was not sure what form that might take.

“Seems like from the response we’ve gotten that probably the sales tax seems to get the most support from people on the [Transportation] Funding Options Group,” Rooker said. Slutzky said the Chamber “hates” that option because they feel it will suppress consumer spending.

Rooker then asked members of the group if they were in agreement that the legislation would ask for up to a one-cent tax increase, to be approved by both City and County voters in a referendum. Norris said he was in favor, but asked how the RTA working group would respond if Delegate Rob Bell (R-58)  announces his opposition to the bill. Rooker said if that happens, the group would need to meet with the other legislators to gauge their support. However, many legislators including Senator Emmet Hanger (R-24)  and Senator Creigh Deeds (D-25)  have both said that transportation funding is a responsibility for state government. So far, the group has not received an indication of where Delegate Steve Landes (R-25)  is on the issue.

David Blount, Legislative Liaison for the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said two critical conditions needed to be met to get support from area legislators. First, there needs to be consensus among the local legislators, and second, there needs to be community support. Blount said neither existed at this time.

Slutzky further elaborated on the Chamber’s opposition. He said its membership wanted the allocation from any funding mechanism to be weighted in favor of roads rather than transit. In particular, the North Charlottesville Business Council (NCBC), a division of the Chamber, supports the Western Bypass. Slutzky said it might be possible to convince the NCBC that a series of grade-separated interchanges on US 29 would accomplish the same goals of relieving congestion at a cheaper cost.  

Rooker said that the NCBC was created by the Chamber specifically to fight grade-separated interchanges on US 29. He said he could not support the Western Bypass being listed as a beneficiary of the funding mechanism because US 29 is a primary road, which should be paid for with federal and state revenue.

“I don’t want us using the money that we’re trying to set aside to do local transportation projects on a $250 million road that certainly our studies indicate is not going to do a significant amount to move traffic in the corridor,” Rooker said. Rooker added that he doubted whether the current VDOT study of the US 29 corridor will recommend the construction of the Western Bypass on its existing alignment. Melissa Barlow of the TJPDC was absent from the meeting to attend the first meeting of that VDOT study group.

FUNDING MECHANISM DEBATED

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Supervisor David Slutzky explains his positions

If the group decides not to pursue a sales tax, other options include seeing a local gas tax as well as the various taxes and fees previously authorized for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads under HB3202. Slutzky said the HB3202 options did not make sense for this community. The group speculated on how much money would be brought in by a gasoline tax. If a gas tax were raised, would a percentage of the cost be proposed, or a specific amount? The group was concerned that the tax on gas might have to be fairly substantial to come up with the same amount that could be raised through a sales tax.

Councilor Satyendra Huja said he supports the sales tax, but he did not think it had much chance of passing. He also said he would not be supportive of creating the RTA unless there was a new funding source.

The City and County already have the power to levy additional property taxes in specific areas to fund transportation projects. Slutzky asked how much money would result from instituting a commercial service district which could carry a supplemental property tax. No one had the answer at the meeting.

Given the uncertainties of a gas tax and a commercial service district, Slutzky asked if the group should take a position to recommend a penny-sales tax with a statement that a gas tax might not work. Rooker said the group should hold off on making a recommendation until after Slutzky makes his presentation.

Other localities across Virginia are also pursuing legislation to create transportation and transit authorities. County Attorney Larry Davis said the Richmond area will decide in mid-November whether or not to go forward with their enabling legislation, which will utilize the HB3202 funding options. Fredericksburg has opted not to pursue an authority at this time, according to Blount.

Both Fairfax and Arlington County have levied an additional commercial real estate tax to fund transportation. Huja said the HB3202 options might be worth pursuing, and that perhaps this community should accept whatever the legislators are willing to fund.

“I think it’s going to be a complicated discussion depending on how many different concepts are being floated around,” Davis said. “They’re going try to meld and mold and try to come up with some kind of consensus approach.”

Rooker said it was common for communities to have to pursue enabling legislation for many years. He said it would be a good idea for Charlottesville-Albemarle to be ready to adjust its plan to match another locality’s plan if theirs looks close to passage.

City Council will hear an update on the RTA tonight. The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission Board will consider a resolution in support of both pieces of legislation at its meeting on this Thursday. Delegate Toscano had recommended securing the regional support of the TJPDC to help get the RTA approved in Richmond. The RTA working group will next meet on November 21st, 2008.

Sean Tubbs


TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 1:00 - Slutzky reports on his meeting with Tim Hulbert, asks RTA working group members for their thoughts on legislation
  • 8:10 - Norris asks question which prompts discussion of legislators' support for the funding mechanism
  • 14:10 - Rooker outlines why he is opposed to the Western Bypass
  • 21:00 - Slutzky asks about if the Chamber's position would be subject to a vote
  • 22:00 - Discussion of other funding options besides the sales tax
  • 25:20 - Councilor Huja said that he is not supportive of creating an RTA without a dedicated funding source
  • 28:00 - Discussion returns to the Western Bypass with Rooker giving a history lesson on Carter Myers' involvement
  • 29:30 - Slutzky asks how much revenue would come through a commercial service district
  • 33:00 - Discussion switches to how much revenue a gas tax would build in
  • 36:30 - Slutzky asks the group if they should recommend a penny sales tax
  • 43:00 - Huja asks question about how funding allocation will be funded
  • 46:45 - Comment from County Attorney Larry Davis about Richmond's efforts
  • 50:50 - CTS Director Bill Watterson asks question about Richmond's efforts
  • 54:00 - Discussion of how other communities are building their plans
  • 55:00 - Discussion of TJPDC support
  • 1:00:00 - Slutzky asks if he should go down to meet with Lynchburg and Danville officials to discuss western bypass
  • 1:06:00 - Mayor Norris suggests possibility of raising additional money for transit through local property taxes as a Plan C
  • 1:11:00 - Discussion of who will actually write the legislation
  • 1:13:00 - Norris says legislation does not have to come before Council again
  • 1:14:30 - Discussion of whether Board of Supervisors will approve resolution 1:17:30 - Rooker briefs City Councilors on County's budget shortfall
  • 1:21:00 - Discussion of meeting schedule for RTA working group
  • 1:23:00 - Supervisors decide to pass two resolutions to support the two separate pieces of legislation

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