The road got rough last week for local leaders trying to orchestrate
the formation of a
Charlottesville-Albemarle Regional Transit Authority
. On October 23, 2008, the task force of two City Councilors and
two members of the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors met with three
area legislators to get their feedback to this regional approach to the
state’s transportation funding crisis. Before the 2009 session of the
Virginia General Assembly, local leaders intend to endorse a
legislative framework which, if approved in Richmond, would allow the
creation of the RTA and for new taxing powers to raise funds for
“We have a serious problem of inadequate funding to tackle our
transportation challenges,” said Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio). “Our
community is being proactive… by coming up with a request for the
enabling legislation to collaboratively manage our transit system.”
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Delegate David Toscano
Delegate Rob Bell
Senator Emmett Hanger
(R-24) listened to a description of the RTA project and then weighed in with their assessment of the political landscape in Richmond, and their home districts. The legislators all offered their support to help Charlottesville and Albemarle seek authority to jointly operate a transit system. However, funding it with new taxes ran into a mix of skepticism, alternative ideas, and outright opposition. The legislators did agree that if there was to be any local tax increase, it would require a voter referendum.
Hanger and Toscano both expressed a preference for statewide solutions to fund transportation needs. Hanger specifically suggested an income tax as a way to tap into the community’s wealth. Hanger indicated a gas tax or a sales tax should only be adjusted at the state level. Toscano said he didn’t want to “balkanize” the state’s approach to funding by giving Charlottesville-Albemarle a different set of taxing tools.
Rob Bell sat next to Supervisor David Slutzky and the two sparred over whether Albemarle residents should have the opportunity in a referendum to vote for a tax increase, solely to support transportation projects. Slutzky said the voters should be able to decide whether they want to tax themselves. Bell responded that the state and local government’s budgets had continued to grow in recent years and it was a question of how to allocate existing tax dollars. Given the current national economic crisis, Bell said it wasn’t an appropriate time to raise anyone’s taxes.
“This is extraordinarily bad time to be looking at a tax increase,” said Delegate Bell. Bell said he felt better that there was interest ina voter referendum, but that it was still an extraordinary request to seek a tax increase at a time when the economy is so fragile.
“That is a very substantial tax increase, and I am very concerned about it, said Bell. “Nothing you have told me so far that would allow me to say, ‘Yes, I would support that.’”
Delegate David Toscano said that since the General Assembly is unlikely to pass a statewide tax increase, local governments need to be granted the authority to do so by a voter referendum. Toscano recommended the creation of a very concrete list of transportation projects that would receive support.
“Specificity… is [the] key,” said Toscano. “Unless you are specific, people are going to pick this thing to death and you won’t have a chance of getting it passed.”
As their almost two-hour conversation wrapped up, Dennis Rooker told the legislators that the community was not wed to a once cent sales tax increase and that even a half cent would be a significant help. He warned, however, that the RTA was unlikely to move forward without new funding.
“I don’t know that the City really wants to cede control of transit in the absence of some commitment by the County [to expand funding],” said Rooker. “Without additional revenues, it’s going to be difficult to do that.”
Councilor Huja agreed. “I think the solution for the [Regional Transit] Authority alone without money is really a non-starter in my mind.”
Key points by local officials:
Key points by General Assembly members:
The next day, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors held their annual retreat. Reflecting on the feedback from the legislators, Slutzky and Rooker gave their colleagues an assessment of the RTA’s legislative challenges.
“With the funding ideas that we put on the table, I certainly didn’t come away from that meeting feeling that they had much chance of getting passed this year,” said Rooker. “We didn’t get real far with them on even accepting the idea of legislation that would enable us to have a referendum locally to determine if [our citizens] want to tax themselves to improve transportation in the area.”
Both Rooker and Slutzky recommended that enabling legislation still be pursued for the creation of the RTA, even if it could not be utilized in the near future. Slutzky went further to say that, despite the cool reception from the legislators, he felt the community should also still move forward with the request for legislation allowing for a referendum on a local tax increase to support transportation.
The RTA work group meets again at the end of this week to select a legislative approach they can bring back to Charlottesville City Council and the Board of Supervisors for final approval.
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