Now that the General Assembly finally produced a bill providing for meaningful and growing funds for transportation, we could soon see some construction projects that might relieve some of our traffic nightmares.
How will that work? Some of the additional revenue will go to the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) for regional transportation projects. The NVTA is a body consisting of a representative from each of the local governments that belong to the NVTA; one state senator; two state delegates and two members appointed by the Governor.
Is this body constitutional? It raises concerns under the “one person, one vote” standard. That standard prevents some voters from having more sway than others. It requires, for example, electoral districts to be virtually equal in population.
While it generally applies to the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, city councils, county governing bodies and elected school boards, a number of courts have held the requirement applies to any body that exercises “general governmental powers.”
The NVTA has the power to decide what transportation projects to fund, to appropriate tax dollars to those projects and also to issue bonds. That sure sounds like “general governmental powers” to me. What would a court say?
The NVTA might violate the Constitution in two ways. First, by including three state legislators (Senator Ebbin, Delegate May and Delegate Rust), some Northern Virginians (constituents of the three legislators) seem to have two votes on the NVTA, whereas the rest of us only have one vote (our local government’s representative).
Further, some residents of Prince William County have no votes on the NVTA even though they must pay the new, higher taxes since that county’s representative, Supervisor Martin Nohe, is not elected on an at-large basis. I’m not sure a federal judge would find this acceptable.
To make matters worse, none of us get to vote for the Governor’s two appointees, both of whom have transportation backgrounds, but also can represent their own special interests. How does that meet the “one person, one vote” standard?
Second, the NVTA appears to have done away with weighted voting. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova represents more than a million constituents, while Fairfax City Mayor Scott Silverthorne represents fewer than 23,000 residents.
While there seem to be provisions in NVTA’s bylaws that protect Fairfax County’s interests to some degree, do they satisfy the U.S. Constitution? Are Fairfax County residents short-changed? I would like to see what a federal court would conclude.
I’m not suggesting the members of the NVTA are anything but first-class government officials and private citizens who want to see traffic improvements. But our government operates based on laws and not individuals.
As important as transportation improvements are, we also need to follow the U.S. Constitution. The NVTA needs to pass constitutional muster since it makes decisions about our tax dollars.
The NVTA must operate based on “one person, one vote” in order to protect the rights of all of us. It needs to be fixed. The NVTA should consist only of an official from each member locality who is elected on an at-large basis and its operating authority provide for population-weighted voting. We deserve no less.
Robert H. Jackson, McLean