Va. Court Will Rule on Tax Authority; Road Upgrades in the Balance

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Ramstack, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Virginia Supreme Court might rule as soon as today on a local tax case that could change the way Northern Virginia confronts its crippling traffic congestion.

The case is testing the limits of the state legislature's right to delegate taxing authority to local agencies.

A ruling in favor of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) would allow the agency to continue levying seven new taxes to finance road, bridge and public transit improvements.

The NVTA says it is trying to minimize commuter annoyances such as those of Kathleen Joyce, an information-technology project analyst who drives daily from her home in Springfield to her job near Fairfax County Parkway and Route 28 in Ashburn.

The 37-mile drive sometimes takes her two hours in the mornings. She puts up with it only because she likes her job near the Dulles corridor.

"If it wasn't the job or a company where I didn't think I could excel, I wouldn't make the drive," Miss Joyce said. "I'd work somewhere closer."

She supports "anything that would cut down on the traffic" but is uncertain whether new taxes are the answer.

A court decision against the NVTA would mean advocates for transportation relief would need to look elsewhere for funding at a time when one of the region's solutions to traffic problems - a Metro rail extension to Washington Dulles International Airport - appears to be losing federal support.

The lawsuit against the agency was filed by Virginia Delegate Robert G. Marshall, who was joined by the National Taxpayers Union and Loudoun County. They say the NVTA has no legal right to levy the taxes that it started collecting Jan. 1.

The $326 million a year in new taxes the NVTA seeks to raise would be imposed on motorists, property sellers and hotel guests.

Mr. Marshall, a Prince William Republican, argues that under the Virginia Constitution, only elected officials have the right to levy taxes and issue bonds.

"These people are just frittering it away," Mr. Marshall said of the taxing authority the General Assembly granted to the NVTA.

Delegating tax authority to an agency like the NVTA, which consists only of appointed board members, is an effort by the General Assembly to sidestep the will of voters, Mr. Marshall said.

Northern Virginia voters rejected a sales-tax increase in 2002 to fund transportation improvements.

Mr. Marshall agrees Northern Virginia transportation problems are severe, but said state officials should find solutions other than NVTA taxes, such as partnerships with private developers to improve roadways or the construction of a light rail. …