Saslaw: State roads bill shortsighted

Posted: April 22, 2013

The Winchester Star

Sen. Dick Saslaw

WINCHESTER — The Virginia General Assembly “drove to California by way of Brazil” on the recently passed transportation bill, according to Senate minority leader Richard “Dick” Saslaw (D-Springfield).

The bill, which takes effect July 1, will bring new money to the state Department of Transportation for road maintenance and construction, but, Saslaw said, a simple change to the gas tax would have accomplished the same thing in a less complicated way.

Saslaw spoke to the Blue Ridge Democratic Women’s Committee Saturday morning at the Holiday Inn on Front Royal Pike.

The transportation bill was the biggest item on the legislature’s 2013 agenda, but the legislation, as approved, is convoluted and doesn’t deliver a long-term solution to the state’s issues with highway maintenance and construction, Saslaw said.

The bill substitutes the state’s current gasoline tax of 17.5 cents per gallon —  a rate that has remained the same since 1987 — with a new 3.5 percent wholesale tax on motor fuels.

That rate is supposed to take into account inflation and economic growth.

Part of the transportation bill includes boosting the sales tax on nonfood items from 5 to 5.3 percent. The additional tax revenue generated is supposed to go to transportation needs, but opponents say it will take away from spending on schools, public safety and other services.

Another part of the bill allows Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area to boost their sales tax to 6 percent, with the extra money to be spent on transportation projects in those localities.

There are now people paying for roads “who don’t own a car,” Saslaw pointed out.

There also will be an increase in vehicle registration taxes, which will be felt locally, he said, as well as an increase in titling taxes.

“Gas taxes have little to do with gas prices,” Saslaw added.

Fuel companies adjust prices to even out the cost of gas in different parts of the country, he said.

Cost per gallon is determined every night based on fuel availability in New York and Port Arthur, Texas, Saslaw said.

“That determines the prices.”

In the past, there were 21 entities trading futures in fuel oil, Saslaw said. Today, there are 5,000, some with no background in oil.

”If the federal government would license who can deal in (gasoline) commodities, the price would drop 50 percent,” he said.

Asked about public transit, Saslaw said there is no question that rail is cheaper to operate in the long run, but its high initial construction cost scares off legislators.

“You can’t win this war without getting people out of cars,” he said,

Saslaw cited the European experience of high speed rail between cities.

“How many of you would drive if you had a rail line that would get you to D.C. in 35 minutes? In the long run, it’s cheaper,” but not too many people are taking the long view, he said.

Saslaw said he saw no enthusiasm in the legislature to try to provide more funding for community colleges or even higher education as a whole.

Thirty years ago, the state provided 45 percent of the funding for the University of Virginia. Today, it’s about 13 percent, he said.

Saslaw said Democrats traded support for the Republican governor’s transportation bill for passage of the health insurance legislation.

The state would have lost $2.3 billion in federal funds if it had backed out of that portion of the Affordable Care Act, Saslaw said.

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s insistence that insurance companies participating in the state’s health exchanges not fund abortions went against the grain, Saslaw said.

“We have no business telling physicians how to practice medicine,“ Saslaw said.

The Democratic women also heard from Leonard Bauserman of the Winchester Police Department, who wants to be the Democratic nominee for Winchester sheriff, and Monte Johnson, a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, who is challenging Republican incumbent Randy Minchew for the 10th District House of Delegates seat in the Nov. 5 election.

— Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com