If the question of how to fund Metro is an 800-pound gorilla for state lawmakers to tame, then the matter of how to find more money for bus and rail service in Prince William and Stafford is merely a 120-pound chimpanzee.
At least, that’s how local transportation officials see the brewing debate down in Richmond, as deliberations over finding a dedicated revenue stream to support Metro sprawl out to incorporate smaller services, like the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission and Virginia Railway Express.
Leaders at Metro have pled for years for a reliable source of funding, tracing the transit system’s problems with broken tracks and malfunctioning trains to its perpetual inability to fund major capital projects. Crucially, lawmakers in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. all seem ready to strike a deal on the subject, and somehow find the roughly $500 million in annual revenue Metro officials say they need to make service reliable again.
These machinations may appear at first glance to be only tangentially relevant to Northern Virginia’s Metro-less localities (like Prince William and Stafford) yet the General Assembly seems to be moving closer to a deal that would roll in a provision long coveted by local leaders: a floor on the regional gas tax set aside for PRTC’s bus service and VRE’s commuter rail.
“All of the energy is focused on Metro in the General Assembly right now,” said Prince William County Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, who also serves as chair of VRE’s operations board. “Our hope and expectation is that a deal will be struck between the House [of Delegates] and the Senate specific to Metro, then, in the final moments of the conversation, whatever is to be done for VRE and PRTC can get done. It’s sort of our strategy, at this point.”
Nohe and others close to the debate caution that there’s plenty to be worked out when it comes to exactly how the new gas tax floor will work, especially if the matter is to be resolved at the last minute. There’s also a major difference between legislation in the House and the Senate in terms of how much money goes to Metro, complicating the underlying discussion — the two chambers have passed bills with a roughly $50-million difference in annual funds.
But as a small, bipartisan group of lawmakers prepares for a “conference committee” to hash out the differences between the bills, all parties involved are generally optimistic that the negotiations will produce a stable funding model for both Metro and its smaller siblings.
“I’m a firm believer that a high tide lifts all boats,” said Robert Schneider, PRTC’s executive director. “Metro doing well is absolutely good for everybody else.”
Finding the floor
Prince William, Stafford, Manassas and Manassas Park all have distinct needs, and the four localities certainly don’t always see eye-to-eye; but when it comes to a gas tax floor to support PRTC and VRE, they’ve long marched in lockstep.
All of the various jurisdictions rely on a fuel tax to support the transit systems, and as gas prices have plummeted over the last few years, so too have revenues for local bus and rail service. That’s forced the localities to scrounge up other funds to support the systems, and left PRTC and VRE without much of a chance to plan for future expansion.
Both services have also had to raise fares in recent years; PRTC has even cut back on some service, while VRE shelved plans to expand service out to Gainesville and Haymarket over cost concerns. In short, leaders see some way to stabilize gas tax revenues as absolutely essential for the long-term viability of both systems.
“Both VRE and PRTC need to not only remain operational, but must increase their capacities to move more people,” said Prince William Supervisor Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan, who also serves as chair of PRTC’s Board of Commissioners. “We won’t have Metro and can’t possibly build enough roads to move all of the people projected to live in our area over the next couple of decades. Therefore, we need to have dedicated funding streams to support all forms of public transit.”
Nohe believes the patrons of both bills — Del. Tim Hugo, R-40th District, and Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-35th District — fully grasp the importance of the gas tax floor, and have included similar mechanisms in each bill. There are some differences in the execution, however, that officials are watching closely.
For instance, the Senate bill would set the floor right away, while the House bill would phase it in over time. Nohe believes the former is a much more viable answer, as he believes the latter relies on the assumption that gas prices will someday return to their $4-per-gallon heights.
“Any plan that phases it in as prices go up, doesn’t solve the problem,” Nohe said. “We don’t need a huge amount of revenue, just enough to get back on track.”
There’s also some debate over how money collected through the gas tax gets administered.
One possibility would be setting it aside into a fund specific to VRE, opening up more capacity for localities to use the money once dedicated to the rail service to beef up operations at PRTC. Nohe certainly favors that option, considering that Prince William is the largest contributor to VRE of all the Northern Virginia jurisdictions.
Schneider is more inclined to support an approach that dedicates money to both VRE and PRTC, saving his service from the sort of constant lobbying it does now.
“We‘d have to go back and say, ‘Can we, may we’ each year for everything we want to do,” Schneider said. “A dedicated revenue stream is more reliable and predictable.”
Saslaw declined to tip his hand on how any gas tax floor deal might come together, but he’s certainly confident the bill’s conferees can hash something out before the legislative session ends.
“Ultimately, we will get it worked out,” Saslaw said. “We always do.”
A brewing tax fight
Saslaw, a Springfield and Falls Church-area senator who doubles as Senate minority leader, is a bit more uncertain on how the two sides might strike a deal on how to come up with Metro funding.
His bill would bump up a few select tax rates in Northern Virginia to generate $154 million in new annual funding for Metro, meeting the $150-million standard Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld says he needs from Virginia to avoid fare increases and additional service cuts.
But Republicans want to avoid a tax increase of any kind, and Hugo crafted a plan that would redirect $105 million in existing tax revenues to a special fund for Metro.
“Some of these tax increases in the Senate bill impact everybody, whether you ride Metro or not,” said Hugo, who represents parts of western Prince William and Fairfax and doubles as House majority caucus chair. “I think the taxpayers have paid enough.”
Saslaw warns that his GOP colleagues will “have to come off that ‘no tax’ thing” if they hope to cut a deal, though he would acknowledge that Democrats will have some concessions of their own to make (and considering Republicans hold a 4-2 advantage on the conference committee, Saslaw and company only have limited leverage).
Republicans are particularly focused on making any new revenue contingent on Metro reforms; chiefly, Hugo’s bill sets penalties if the service can’t limit operating budget increases to 2 percent each year, down from the 3 percent Saslaw and Wiedefeld favor.
“In the past, Metro has said, ‘Give us the money,’ and the reforms never come,” Hugo said. “Maybe there’s some other things we can find, other monies in Northern Virginia we can redirect...but the money has to go hand-in-hand with reform.”
No matter how the two sides work out these differences, Nohe cautions lawmakers to keep non-Metro localities in Northern Virginia in mind.
For instance, one provision of the House bill would draw tens of millions of dollars from funds administered by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a regional body that draws tax money from Prince William and others to coordinate major road construction projects. Nohe chairs that group, and he wants to be sure that if lawmakers do redirect money from the NVTA to Metro, they don’t touch funds that counties without Metro use to improve local roads.
“That revenue needs to be used for a transportation system that serves Prince William County,” Nohe said.
Accordingly, Nohe expects to be “engaged on the issue at a high level up until moment governor signs or vetoes the bill,” but he remains broadly confident that all parties will come away happy. Considering just how rarely lawmakers in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. have found any common ground on how to fund the system, Hugo certainly hopes Nohe’s right.
“This is our chance to fix Metro,” Hugo said. “We shouldn’t let this opportunity get away from us.”