As the 2013 Virginia General Assembly comes close to passing a significant new transportation package, there are critical questions that must be answered if all Virginians will be paying more taxes for transportation.
Will new transportation developments improve access that low and moderate income Virginians have to areas of high employment growth? Over the past few decades, the spatial mismatch between job creation in the suburbs and low‐income workers in the inner city has become more severe. This imbalance between jobs and housing deprives citizens living in areas where housing is affordable from accessing employment opportunities in high job‐growth areas. New transportation developments must focus on increasing access low income Virginians have to areas of high employment growth. This means not only roads, but also options such as mass transit.
For example, only 53% of the region’s jobs are served by the Greater Richmond Transit Corporation. Very few bus routes even extend into the surrounding counties. Those that do are primarily express lanes serving people coming into the city for jobs, not people going out of the city for jobs. This data was published in a report by HOME in December 2012 entitled Where You Live Makes All The Difference: An Opportunity Map of the Richmond Region.
Are we aligning transportation with housing? Sprawl development has forced people to drive farther to get to work, school, and other activities. We need to promote transit oriented development. Simply increasing the number of roads will not create a 21st century transportation solution. Virginia should diversify its transportation investments. Instead of focusing solely on road construction and maintenance, more funds need to be invested in alternatives to driving in order to help extend and improve connections within localities and regions. This includes greater funding for public transit, bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, bus rapid transit and light rail. Eliminating the gas tax is concerning because it means that the person who decides to carpool, or ride a bike is now subsidizing the person continuing to use a car.
For example, in one low income census tract in the Church Hill area of Richmond, 17% of the population has commute times of over 45 minutes, despite 25 GRTC bus stops. In contrast, a high income census tract in Chesterfield County (which has 0 GRTC bus stops) only 7.5% have commute times of more than 45 minutes. If all Virginians are going to pay more in taxes, they all deserve to have their transportation system meet their basic needs, especially the most vulnerable. This was also covered in HOME’s report Where You Live Makes All The Difference: An Opportunity Map of the Richmond Region.
How are low and moderate income neighborhoods affected? Large increases in the sales tax would hit low income Virginians the hardest. As a share of their income, low- and moderate- income households spend more than high-income households buying the basic necessities of life such as clothing, toiletries, and school supplies, which are subject to Virginia’s sales and use tax. According to The Commonwealth Institute: a family making less than $21,000 a year would see its taxes rise by about .21 percent under the governor’s plan. However, households making over $509,000 a year would see an increase of just .05 percent.
Also, diverting sales tax revenue away from the General Fund and towards transportation would have a serious negative impact on Virginia’s education investments. Over the past several years, the Virginia General Assembly has reduced state aid to schools. Virginia is ranked as the 9th wealthiest state but ranks 38th in the per‐pupil funding coming from state sources. According to the Virginia Education Association, Virginia has cut per-pupil aid almost 20 % since 2009. Per‐pupil state aid has been slashed from $5,274 in 2009 to $4,233 in 2012 in inflation‐adjusted dollars.