Fairfax weighs meal tax to pay for roads

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Local,Virginia,Transportation,Aubrey Whelan

In need of $3 billion to meet its transportation needs over the next decade, Fairfax County is considering imposing a new tax on restaurant meals that could raise up to $80 million a year to help build and fix roads.

The meals tax could add as much as 4 percent to the cost of any meals sold at commercial establishments, from upscale restaurants to the local McDonald's. The $80 million the tax would raise each year would help offset a projected $300 million annual shortfall in the county's transportation accounts.

Still, the final decision on a meals tax will likely be up to the public. State law prevents the county Board of Supervisors from simply imposing the meals tax. The board first must get permission from the Virginia General Assembly -- which is unlikely, officials say -- or leave it to county voters with a ballot referendum.

Past attempts to enact a meals tax in Fairfax have been unsuccessful. A ballot referendum on the issue failed in 1992, and the board itself shot down Supervisor Gerry Hyland's attempt to put the meals tax on the ballot in 2010.

Still, county supervisors say time is running out to raise funds for a slew of transportation needs over the next several years, including phase two of the Dulles rail project, improvements at Tyson's Corner and countywide road and interchange work.

"We don't have the money in our current situation to deal with transportation. We're running out of options and running out of time," said Braddock District Supervisor John Cook. "This isn't a wants list. This is what we do minimally to be able to get from Place A to Place B."

Cook says he hasn't committed to supporting a meals tax referendum, but he's open to considering any options that would help fund the county's transportation needs.

The meals tax proposal is a long way from being put on the ballot, and county officials say they'll seek comments from residents before moving forward.

"I think this is just the very initial stages of considering what is out there. The board hasn't made a final decision to pursue it," said Susan Datta, chief financial officer in the county's Office of Management and the Budget. "The board is very clear that they believe the process should include extensive community engagement."

awhelan@washingtonexaminer.com

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