Don't Like Tolls? Take A Chance On This Idea

Governor Bob McDonnell and his Transportation Secretary, Sean Connaughton, lit up a firestorm across the commonwealth this week with an outline of a plan, via the Federal Highway Administration, to toll up Interstate 95 (see Jim Bacon at Bacon's Rebellion). We suspect the debate will get more vociferous on the policy — but more so on the political — side as the plan gets fleshed out fully and presented to the public. Transportation is the perennial issue in the Old Dominion. I still remember Wyatt Durrette campaigning in 1985 about how he was going to improve the roads in Northern Virginia. It's basically the Chicago Cubs of state policy: wait until next year. Why wait? When news broke, I immediately thought of the novel idea I proposed here three-and-a-half years ago that got some attention among blogs and even some members of the General Assembly. It's, speaking of sports, a win-win, no losers approach that can save all of the heartburn of another tax increase vs. tolling vs. so-called "user fee" debate.

This proposal does not increase taxes, spares drivers the ignominy of stopping to pay for the right to delay their commutes further, and will go a long way toward funding the road improvements we all desire — all while having fun and getting entertained in the process. Sound impossible? Hardly. It's one of the easiest solutions imaginable: Double the cost per lottery ticket.

Right now, all Virginia Lottery proceeds, by law, go toward education. However, if ticket prices were doubled, and the law was changed to split the revenue for transportation, education would lose none of its funding and wed have some case for roads. It has all the hallmarks of both the left and the right: it is a voluntary tax (conservative) and spreads the wealth around (liberal). How much more of a harmonious fix could there be?

Here's the original post, spelling out how it would work, from April 28, 2008:

We’re quite distressed the G.A., the Guvna, the transportation bureaucracy, the N.Va. developers and other special interests have gotten their knickers in a twist the last few years over the impending doom the Old Dominion’s woeful road situation is soon to pour down on us. Seems they’re all in a spot of bother over this Armageddon.

What’s the fuss? We have a simple answer.

We need money, right? Lots of it. That’s the only way to fix our transportation problems, or so we’re told. One side persistently wants to raise taxes. Another side says no (sometimes, kinda). Still others have made noise about legalizing new types of gambling and throwing that “voluntary tax” revenue to solve our transportation problems. Rumors floating around Capitol Square today are that this third group will hit the coming special session with more momentum.

Why go through all of that hassle? We already have mechanism in place. It just needs a bit of fine tuning.

The lottery was passed on the philosophy that it was a voluntary tax — only those who wanted to pay for it would pay it. (Actually, there’s a space on your Virginia Income Tax form to pay extra taxes voluntarily, but those preaching the need for more state taxes never lead by example.) So we have a lottery. Problem is, its revenues are limited to education funding.

Here’s the simple answer:

Double the cost on all lottery tickets. Amend the law so that 50 percent of all lottery revenue goes to transportation. Problem solved. Education money is not touched. Transportation gets its new revenue stream. Taxes are not raised but on those who wish to pay them. Say what? Higher prices may discourage people from buying lottery tickets? Or create an unfair burden? But somehow tax increases on necessities do not increase prices or are not burdensome?

Bingo! (Speaking of the devil, that’s another option.)