Editorial: Don’t threaten road funding

·3 min read

Gov. Glenn Younkin won a lot of legislative battles during his first six months in office, but his proposal to temporarily suspend the commonwealth’s gas tax this summer was not among them.

That defeat seems to have stuck in his craw. He cannot let it go. And now he’s making preposterous arguments to advance the idea that his initiative was correct and Senate Democrats were wrong to block it.

Only nine years ago, when Virginia faced the prospect of running out of transportation money, the General Assembly managed to cobble together a bipartisan coalition to dramatically reform how the commonwealth funds road projects. With the urging of Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, lawmakers scrapped the per-gallon tax on gasoline in favor of a wholesale tax on motor fuels in order to generate the revenue needed for Virginia’s woefully inadequate roads, rails and bridges.

This was no small feat. There was plenty of give and take among lawmakers of both parties, and even among those on the same side of the aisle. But all involved knew how critical it was for Virginia to address its woefully inadequate transportation system and to do so in a way that equitably shared the cost burden.

Thus began a transportation revolution in the commonwealth, as projects waiting for funding could finally proceed. The progress is evident across this region: from the widened Interstate 64 to the new High-Rise Bridge to the ongoing expansion of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

Richmond has tweaked that formula a few times since, most recently in 2020 when lawmakers approved increases to the per-gallon portion of the gas tax — then among the lowest in the country at 16.2 cents per gallon — to offset losses from electric vehicles, more fuel efficient cars and low gas prices. The second installment of those hikes took effect on July 1.

When Youngkin took office in January, he proposed, first, to delay the scheduled increase and later to suspend the entire tax for a period of three months. These were defeated by the Senate’s slim Democratic majority, which argued the benefits for such a suspension would accrue to gas producers rather than consumers.

It’s a point that Youngkin conceded during an interview in May, telling a Richmond TV station that there was no guarantee that suspending the gas tax would result in lower prices at the pump.

Democrats instead proposed to send direct payments — $50 to each vehicle owner; a maximum of $100 per household — to provide relief for high gas prices. The per gallon average has since reached its lowest price this year, though it is still more than $1 higher than a year ago.

Despite the defeat of his proposals and the steady decline in the price of gas, Youngkin again this week argued a suspension is necessary. Speaking in Virginia Beach on Tuesday, he expressed concern that the transportation fund was taking in too much money, per Richmond Times-Dispatch reporting.

That’s a remarkable assertion. The problem with Virginia’s transportation funding has never been an abundance of money but a lack of it. If the roads fund has “too much” money, then the state must find a way to utilize it.

There are plenty of projects — new construction as well as road repair — for which the fund should be applied. And if the governor’s argument is that the money isn’t being utilized quickly enough, he should focus his attention on that rather than siphoning away funding that will be put to good use.

Yes, it takes time to plan road work, to conduct the necessary surveys and to bring projects to completion. But that’s no argument for turning off the spigot that ensures the money for those projects is there when needed.

Youngkin has a lot of budget wins he is right to celebrate, but his determination on this one setback, knowing the potential implications, defies reason. It’s time he puts his energy toward more productive ends.