- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 6, 2002

Business leaders and owners in Virginia support the idea of raising the sales tax in Northern Virginia a half-percent to help fund transportation projects.
From Richmond to Fairfax, chambers of commerce and business owners say the plan, which would allow Northern Virginians to vote in a referendum for the increase, if passed would help alleviate the area's notorious traffic congestion without hurting business.
"The congestion in the Northern Virginia area has actually begun to diminish our economic competition, and has made our quality of life less desirable as a business location, and less of a draw for workers to relocate," said Tony Howard, spokesman for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce.
He said the higher levy, which would raise the sales tax in Northern Virginia to 5 percent, would actually help local businesses, both large and small. Roads have been clogged by the quick economic growth of the 1990s, when many high-tech and Internet companies moved to the region.
However, the plan hit a roadblock yesterday when the state Senate overwhelmingly rejected a transportation-only tax referendum. By doing so, it told the House it won't support any bill that doesn't also allow a regional vote on tax increases for public-school improvements.
A study by the Texas Transportation Institute shows that commuters in the Washington area spend an average of 123 hours a year sitting in traffic.
"But traffic congestion means more than just people stuck in traffic. It means lost wages, wasted fuel and wasted time," said Hugh Keogh, president of the Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
The state chamber supports the referendum, since Northern Virginia provides almost 40 percent of the state's revenue.
"If Northern Virginia is hurting due to traffic congestion, so is the rest of the state," he said.
The tax increase would provide almost $130 million in increased funds for transportation initiatives in Northern Virginia. Some of the projects slated to receive funds are designed to increase mass transit to the Tysons Corner area, to widen Interstate 66 and to improve the Dulles corridor, where many technology companies are based.
But not all business owners in Northern Virginia support, or care about, the referendum.
"Sales tax is just such a nuisance to me not the raise, but because only about half of 1 percent of all my customers are in-state and nongovernment agencies," said Ben Venzke, chief executive of Tempest Publishing LLP, an Alexandria company that also run IntelCenter, an intelligence group specializing in terrorism, national security and other cyber-threats.
"I'm busy tracking terrorists," he said. "And I've got to do all these filings for sales tax for $6 or $10, which is a royal pain. So for me, it's inconsequentual other than the hassle."
Bert Ely, a banking consultant in Alexandria, said the proposed tax increase would not affect his business, but it would affect his personal life.
"As a consumer, I'm opposed to it. Just think about all the money that's being wasted on the new Wilson Bridge … . It's obscene how much they are proposing to spend there in light of other transportation needs in the area."
He said instead of raising the sales tax, the state should cut the budget for the bridge and use the money to pay for other projects that are being stalled by budget shortfalls.
Jan Smoot, owner of Falls Church gift shop Happy, Joyous and Free, said she doesn't think the tax increase will hurt her business.
"One-half of 1 [percent] won't cause people to shop out of state," she said. "We're still lower than the District. I think it's a good thing. We've got a lot of people on the roads here in Northern Virginia. Traffic is a problem."
Charles Gaston, district director of the Small Business Administration's Richmond office, said that if the tax benefits small business, it should be a priority.
"We are the advocates of small businesses. Anything that will improve small-business owners' ability to get their goods and services to market is a good thing."
The Washington area is infamous for long delays in heavily congested traffic. It has been cited by the Texas Transportation Institute as the fourth-worst commute in the nation. A study by the bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council said that even after spending $11 billion, most major roads in the area would be just as congested in 2020 as they are now.
"I don't like going to the area, because even if I go in the morning, there are delays. You're on the road at 4 o'clock in the morning and there are lots of people already out there," Mr. Gaston said.
"I don't think this tax will negatively affect consumer decisions," said Phil Morosco, general manager of Fair Oaks Mall.
"There is a lot of talk about easing congestion problems by extending the Metro Orange line past Vienna all the way to Centreville. Taking a comprehensive look at mass transit will help business," he said.
Fair Oaks stands to benefit from the tax, as it is off Route 50 in Fairfax, where there is currently no Metro line nearby.
Karl and Angela Robb, owners of Chocolateofthemonth.com, an online firm, support the measure.
"It would be beneficial to Northern Virginia in regards to public transportation and highway construction," Mrs. Robb said.
Kristina Stefanova contributed to this report.

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