Virginia on Metro Sales Tax Recommendation: Not So Fast

WASHINGTON — Virginia leaders are questioning whether a regionwide sales tax to pay for Metro fixes would be fair or politically feasible.

“We have to be able to sell something to the entire rest of the Commonwealth of Virginia, not to decide what we want to do and then impose that upon them. That’s not going to work,” Sen. George Barker said Wednesday.

Loudoun County Supervisor Matt Letourneau argued that a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments technical panel went too far by offering its recommendation that the region impose a 1 percent sales tax in all cities and counties served by Metro to help cover $15.5 billion in Metro repairs and upgrades needed over the next decade.

“The political realities of that are going to be very difficult, and I think there is a fairness issue,” Letourneau said. “I don’t think it will be fair to ask somebody who lives in Leesburg or Lovettsville or Hamilton to pay an additional cent … on every single thing they purchase in order to fund Metro.”

Loudoun County will get its first Metro stations when the second phase of the Silver Line opens. Those stations will connect Ashburn to Dulles Airport, Reston, Tysons and D.C.

Letourneau suggested looking into whether current Metro funding can be converted into a form that could support Metro bonds and make existing dollars go further.

“I do believe you have to address governance issues and labor costs before any of this happens,” Letourneau said.

Barker agreed and said it’s “premature” to decide what dedicated funding source would work best for Virginia, since the General Assembly needs to be involved in that decision.

“What I don’t want to do is have … one hand tied behind my back before I go down and talk to people, and that’s why I’m somewhat concerned with the report,” Barker said.

He would rather wait for a report this fall to the General Assembly from U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that is expected to address Metro’s finances, governance and any other related issues.

Virginia’s Republican-led General Assembly would have to give local governments permission to raise any new taxes or change existing taxes set at the state level, such as the gas or sales tax.

Due to the general resistance in Richmond to raising taxes of any kind, Barker said it is “just not reality” to think he can go down and simply ask for a sales tax, even if that turns out to be what the Washington region wants.

Statewide elections this fall could also play a role in any discussions held over the next few months.

A Council of Governments Metro Strategy Group, led by Fairfax County Board Chairman Sharon Bulova, is scheduled to consider the technical panel’s recommendations and bring back a regional strategy for a dedicated funding source to the COG board of directors within the next few months.

“Inaction is not an option,” Bulova said.

Numerous studies and recommendations in the past have gone nowhere, though.

“I believe we can do it, but I don’t think we can do it if we, in effect, are setting the terms of the debate and the discussion up front,” Barker said.

Several regional leaders, including U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer, of Maryland, Barker, and Fairfax County Executive Ed Long, said that the region may end up with different tax solutions in different areas.

“There is no perfect solution; we’re going to have to bite the bullet and pick something that we can live with, but it’s not going to be perfect and … we have to respect the [regional] differences,” Long said.

Long is on the technical panel that recommended a 1 percent sales tax, and said that if nothing else, hopefully people can now agree that some kind of dedicated funding is needed.

For example, for the District, the projected gap between expected spending and Metro’s needs is bigger than the entire District Department of Transportation capital budget, which pays for road repairs, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWitt said.

At a minimum, the proposal provides a baseline to measure other ideas against, Arlington County and Metro Board member Christian Dorsey said.

“This is sort of the worst way to fund Metro, except for all the others,” Dorsey said.

Prince George’s County Councilmember Derrick Leon Davis said that if Maryland and D.C. back some kind of tax, leaders there must do more to support the push for it in Virginia.

“This is about regionalism; this is about partnership, and so if our friends in Virginia have challenges, we need to help … because if we don’t fix the bottom line, we have avoidable accidents, and we have deaths,” Davis said.

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