SIMMONS: Transportation — and how to pay for it — is Topic 1

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

This week, motor vehicles officials resumed their positions in city hall, Annapolis and Richmond, and whether you’re a motorist or bicyclist, mass transit commuter, and whether you hoof it as a pedestrian or work from home, transportation costs are going to be a top priority in 2013 regardless of where you live.

To drive home the issue, officials are looking at your wallet.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley told business leaders on Wednesday that he wants to raise the state’s 23.5-cent-a-gallon gas tax by a penny to fund transportation projects.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell has jumped ahead of the DMV pack, conceding Tuesday that while “transportation is a core function of government” there’s got to be a better short- and long-term way to pay for it.

He is advocating eliminating the state’s 17.5 cent-a-gallon gas tax and replacing the outdated revenue model with a higher sales tax, which would increase from 5 percent to 5.8 percent.

And, suffice it to say, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray is a typical tax-and-spender.

I know, I know. The slightest mention of a possible tax increase makes fiscal conservatives want to holler and throw up both their hands. But hear out the Republican governor of Virginia: “Transportation is a core function of government. Children can’t get to school, parents waste too much time in traffic, and businesses can’t move their goods without an adequate and efficient transportation system.

“My 2013 transportation funding and reform package is intended to address the short- and long-term transportation funding needs of the commonwealth. Declining funds for infrastructure maintenance, stagnant motor fuels tax revenues, increased demand for transit and passenger rail, and the growing cost of major infrastructure projects necessitate enhancing and restructuring the commonwealth’s transportation program and the way it is funded. We simply cannot continue to do what we have always done and expect this problem to go away,”Mr. McDonnell said.

What’s exciting is that Mr. McDonnell, entering his final year in office, is breaking ground with his tax-swapping plan, and if the smart men and women in Richmond hop aboard, Virginia would become the first to eliminate the state gas tax.

More and less

Northern Virginians who routinely use Metro bus or rail services likely will breathe a sigh of relief today after learning that the transit agency has no plans to raise fares this year.

But there is a caveat.

The proposed budget includes a projected $27 million deficit, which means that the District, Maryland and Virginia taxpayers will have to close the gap — whether they utilize Metro services or not.

Understand, Metro promised in 2008 to make fare changes every two years, so agency officials are holding steady, but since then they have promised upgrades, better maintenance and expanded service.

Indeed, Metro’s $2.5 billion operating and capital spending plan includes buying new buses and rail cars, rehabbing escalators and elevators, a new radio communications system to meet Federal Communications Commission mandates, and operation of the new Silver Line in Northern Virginia.

Metro also wants to buy new vehicles for MetroAccess, the discounted pickup-dropoff service for the disabled.

Some bus routes will provide limited service, but even that sounds like a reasonable move considering the fact that overall Metro ridership is down.

Still, Metro officials would do a disservice to bus and rail riders if they don’t make two additional promises. The first is improve safety and efficiency; the second is a vow to focus on routine and preventative maintenance and regular upgrades.

Metro officials’ shortsightedness in the past decade has led to widespread criticism and human tragedy.

For once, officials in the District, Maryland and Virginia need to scrub Metro’s plans with the finest-toothed combs, including asking aloud at a public hearing about school-transit subsidies.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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