The Pulse, Richmond's new bus rapid transit line, runs every 10 minutes through 7 p.m on weekdways under a new agreement with VCU. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

By Stewart Schwartz 

With all the attention given to the controversial Coliseum-Navy Hill project, another major tax issue has been flying under the radar screen. HB1541 passed the House of Delegates and is before the Senate.

The bill would establish a Central Virginia Transportation Authority and raise taxes by 2.1% on wholesale fuels (7.6 cents per gallon for gasoline), and 0.7% on sales taxes in Richmond; the counties of Henrico, Chesterfield, Hanover, Goochland, Powhatan, New Kent and Charles City; and Ashland.

Championed by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, local elected officials and county executives, there was no broad public consultation in crafting the proposal. The creation of a new authority, funded with tax dollars, with the power of eminent domain and authority to issue debt and arrange public-private partnership deals, merits greater scrutiny.

Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, the sponsor, views the bill as the best opportunity for dedicated funding for transit and to win support for transit from the counties. We very much appreciate her support for transit and her desire to bring the region together.

However, in a region that has built hundreds of miles of highways and wide arterials, the allocation of just 15% of the revenues to transit is insufficient. The bill’s “maintenance of effort” provision, moreover, requires that jurisdictions (effectively it applies to Henrico, Richmond and Chesterfield) commit to maintain just 50% of their current transit funding.

The Richmond region spends far too little on transit, and we have a lot of ground to make up. The Greater Richmond Transit Company’s annual budget is only about $60 million per year – very little when compared to spending on highways and the key role transit now plays in economic competitiveness. While the legislation will reportedly generate up to $14 million per year for transit, this pales in comparison to $154 million per year in bondable funds for roads. While it’s good the bill also allows funds to go to maintenance, past experience with new transportation funding indicates that officials often short-change fixing potholes in favor of road expansion.

Our concerns go deeper. Only recently have Henrico and Chesterfield started to focus on revitalization of older communities through walkable, mixed-use development and limited transit expansion. Most approved developments are still overwhelmingly sprawling and 100% auto-dependent. Fueled by taxpayer subsidized infrastructure, sprawl is marching ever westward, with additional pressure to the north in Hanover.

With a big new infusion of tax dollars, the jurisdictions could very well approve even more highway and arterial expansion and pave over even more forests and farmland. Years ago, a powerful set of corporate leaders and landowners lobbied elected officials for construction of Route 288. What naturally followed was an explosion of growth far from the core of the region, making jobs less accessible to lower-income residents and magnifying the region’s economic divide.

The failure to tie new funding to better land use planning prompted Northern Virginians to reject a sales tax increase in a 2002 public referendum. By the time the General Assembly approved funding for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority in 2013, all but two of the jurisdictions had adopted transit-oriented development as their priority approach to land use.

We are not confident that Richmond’s suburban jurisdictions are yet committed to transit-oriented land use and the rural land conservation necessary to reduce traffic and preserve the livability of the region. Instead, with a big infusion of tax dollars for road expansion and accompanying auto-dependent growth, the region could repeat the mistakes of traffic-choked Northern Virginia.

This legislation merits greater scrutiny, broader input from the public, more transit funding, prioritization through the state SmartScale system, and a direct link to better land use.

Stewart Schwartz is vice president of the Partnership for Smarter Growth.