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As 495 Express Lanes Open, Advocates Ponder VDOT Funding Picture

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VDOT officials officially open the I-495 Express Lanes today. But some transportation advocates are already thinking about the funding for upcoming projects. 
Martin Di Caro
VDOT officials officially open the I-495 Express Lanes today. But some transportation advocates are already thinking about the funding for upcoming projects. 

Virginia transportation officials cut the ribbon today on the state's new highway: the 495 Express lanes. Those new electronic toll lanes have an impact on taxes for state residents — even those who don't regularly drive the lanes, advocates say.

The state gas tax in Virginia is 17.5 cents per gallon. It hasn't been raised since 1987. Gas taxes are low, as a rule, especially when adjusted for inflation and greater fuel efficiency. As a result, government transportation agencies usually don't have enough gas tax or other revenue to embark upon megaprojects. The 495 Express lanes, which cost $2 billion,  are a case in point. They were built not with public money alone, but as a public-private partnership.

Bob Chase, the head of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group that advocates road building to relieve congestion and higher gas taxes, sees flaws in the current transportation funding structure. 

"Tolls pay for one facility, but what they don't pay for is 99 percent of the rest of the system," Chase says. "And right now the gas taxes don't pay enough to maintain the system that we have, let alone build the system that we need."

Express Lanes toll revenues will not go to the state, but to the highway's private sector operator. So where to find funding for the other transportation projects on the state's plate? 

The American Road and Transportation Builders Association, which lobbies for more federal dollars in infrastructure building, believes there should be a more stable source of funding, according to Alison Black, the group's  chief economist.

"Our position is that we clearly need some sort of dedicated revenue source and we are really open to all options," Black says. Those options should include vehicle-miles-traveled taxes, higher registration fees, tolls, and freight taxes, not just higher gas taxes, she adds.

But Emil Frankel, a former assistant secretary for transportation policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation, says politicians shouldn't fear discussing the gas tax issue. The federal gas tax, at 18 cents per gallon,  hasn't been raised since 1993. A significant percentage of VDOT's construction budget relies on those finite federal revenues.

"It's been just impossible to talk about it and I wonder sometimes whether the public isn't more open to an increase in the gasoline tax than members of Congress, or the administration, perceive," Frankel says. 

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