Up until last week, Virginia gubernatorial candidate Creigh Deeds had attracted a lot of criticism for failing to take a position on raising taxes to fund transportation. Now that criticism is old news, as Candidate Deeds has firmly stated: “I have voted for a number of mechanisms to fund transportation, including a gas tax. And [if elected Governor] I'll sign a bipartisan bill with a dedicated funding mechanism for transportation -- even if it includes new taxes.” In contrast, Republican candidate Bob McDonnell has put forth a plan that has been rightly criticized by The Washington Post as relying on “wildly optimistic assumptions, brazen exaggerations, gauzy projections and far-off scenarios.” McDonnell’s package consists of a hodge podge of proposals: some of which run counter to federal law, some of which are politically impossible, and some of which are attached to revenue estimates that can only be described as being “invented or, worse, an intentional distortion.”
Much of Virginia’s transportation problem stems from its inadequate gas tax. Unlike sales taxes, which are collected as a percentage of an item’s purchase price, gasoline taxes are collected as a specific number of “cents per gallon.” In Virginia, the gas tax has been at 17.5 cents per gallon of gasoline since 1987.
Of course, given inflation, 17.5 cents today isn’t worth nearly what it was in the 1980s. More specifically, in 1987, 17.5 cents had about the same purchasing power as 33 cents does today. In other words, over the last 22 years, inflation has cut the real value of the gas tax by nearly 50%. Add to that the downward pressure on gasoline sales brought about by increasing vehicle fuel-efficiency, and it’s clear why the state’s transportation infrastructure is in such dire straits.
In this light, Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan completely misses the mark. His plan to turn Virginia’s interstates into toll roads will require approval from the federal government – something which is far from certain. His promise to sell off the state’s liquor stores has been attached to a $500 million revenue estimate that has been thoroughly rebutted as being wildly unrealistic, especially given its assumption that $100 million in current liquor store profits will be siphoned away from “mental health, substance abuse and other human services” in favor of transportation. Moreover, McDonnell’s pledge to redirect sales tax revenue away from schools and public safety, and toward transportation could be categorized as outrageous, were it not so politically unrealistic as to be laughable.
Adding to the absurdity, one of McDonnell’s recent campaign ads bragged that The Washington Post found his transportation plan to be deserving of credit for “the extent and specificity of its proposals.” But “specificity” is of little value if the specifics don’t add up. In fact, the same article that McDonnell cites in his campaign ad also included the following passage:
“Given [the] crisis in funding, and the centrality of transportation infrastructure to Virginia's economy, you'd think the candidates for governor would advance serious, plausible proposals -- and that they would include fresh revenue from new taxes or fees. Unfortunately, former attorney general Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican, is pushing a plan that mostly rules out such revenue and that would deliver significant new funds for road-building only at the probable expense of the state's colleges, public schools, police departments, prisons and health programs… [In addition], unfortunately, the new revenue [McDonnell] identifies is one-time-only, many years distant or paltry.”