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Nancy  Madsen
By Nancy Madsen February 5, 2013

State Sen. Richard Saslaw says in Virginia “one-third of the gasoline is purchased by out-of-state people”

Many Democrats oppose Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation plan, which would eliminate the state’s gasoline tax and raise the sales tax from 5 percent to 5.8 percent to fund road repair and construction.

Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, told reporters that McDonnell’s plan would lift some of the tax burden for transportation paid by out-of-state motorists buying gas and put it on the back of Virginians purchasing goods.

"There’s no reason for us to put the whole burden on Virginia when one-third of the gasoline is purchased by out-of-state people and now we’re going to give them a free ride," he said on Jan. 9.

We see lots of cars with other states’ plates on Virginia’s roads, but do those visitors really account for one-third of the state’s gasoline sales?

We asked Saslaw, who once owned service stations in Northern Virginia, to back his claim that out-of-state drivers buy one-third of the gas in the state. He said the Department of Motor Vehicles has estimates showing visitors bought between 26 percent and 35 percent of the gasoline bought in Virginia.

We told Saslaw that the DMV denied ownership of the figure asked him if he could identify an official or a report that was his source. He said he could not, saying he did not recall. "I heard it," he said. "It was either the DMV or VDOT."  

But officials at the Virginia Department of Transportation told us VDOT doesn’t know what percentage of gas is purchased by out-of-state drivers. When he relayed this to Salaw, he said, "We got it from somewhere. I think I read it in the paper."

We searched the archives of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Washington Post and The Virginian-Pilot and found a few references to a similar statistic.

An Emporia City Council member told the governor in August that 40 percent of the fuel bought along I-95 is done so by out-of-state drivers. And fellow Democratic Sen. Ralph Northam said that 35 percent of the fuels tax is paid by out-of-state drivers in an editorial in The Virginian-Pilot in March. But those references do not give any indication of their source.

We also turned to the U.S. Department of Transportation, which collects a federal excise tax. But like Virginia, the federal government also collects the levy from wholesalers and doesn’t gather statistics about the end users of gasoline.

Jeff Lenard, spokesman for the Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing, said the statistic we were seeking doesn’t exist.

We stumbled on a possible source of the mythical figure. Mike O’Connor, president and CEO of the Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, said he has estimated that visitors purchase 25 to 30 percent of the fuel in Virginia.

O’Connor noted that Virginia’s gasoline tax hasn’t increased since 1987. Since then, the number of registered cars in Virginia has increased by 63 percent while fuels tax revenues have gone up by 81 percent. The logical explanation for the different trajectories, he said, is that a large portion of the gas is being purchased by visitors to Virginia.

But the amount of fuel used by each vehicle has increased, too. Federal Highway Administration data shows that fuel use per vehicle per year in Virginia increased by 7.8 percent from 1987 to 2010, the most recent year for federal statistics. So the fuel use by vehicles registered in Virginia increased by 77 percent over that time.

O’Connor’s estimate is also not too useful because it doesn’t separate diesel, whose tax won’t change, from gasoline, whose tax would with the governor’s proposal. The Federal Highway Administration reports that diesel sales in the state grew 73.6 percent -- from 540.6 million gallons in 1987 to 938.4 million gallons in 2010. Meanwhile, gasoline sales increased 37.5 percent -- from 2.91 billion gallons to 4 billion gallons. So diesel contributed more to the jump in fuels tax revenue than gasoline did.

There’s a big difference between how O’Connor and Saslaw make their arguments, however. O’Connor acknowledges up front that his number is an estimate while Saslaw has presented his figure as fact.

Republicans have been trying debunk Saslaw’s claim. The McDonnell administration and House Speaker William Howell, R-Stafford, have been circulating a memo from the Virginia Department of Transportation that suggests the portion of gasoline purchased by out-of-state drivers is only about 9 percent.

VDOT came to the figure by noting that non-Virginians pay about 9.1 percent of the sales tax collected in the Old Dominion, according to the departments of Taxation and Tourism, and that 9.6 percent of drivers convicted of traffic violations are out-of-state visitors, according to state police.

The Transportation Department also tried to construct a mathematical proof. It started with a DMV report that the state, in 2011, had 6.6 million registered passenger vehicles and motorcycles. VDOT multiplied that number by 10,640 -- the average number of miles traveled by passenger vehicles according to the National Household Travel Survey from 2009.

The multiplication led VDOT to conclude that Virginians logged about 70.2 billion miles on state roads. That’s short of the 77.1 billion total miles that department had previously estimated. VDOT reasoned that 6.9 million mile gap was filled by out-of-state motorists, who would have accounted for 8.9 percent of all the road travel in Virginia.

VDOT’s proof is flawed, however. It assumes that Virginians drive every single mile in their home state. No one knows what percentage of the driving by Virginians occurs inside the state’s borders.

If Virginians did one-fourth of their driving out of the state, then under VDOT’s construct, visiting motorists would have accounted for one-third of the miles driven in the Old Dominion. That would give credence to Saslaw’s claim that non-Virginians pay one-third of the gas tax.

Our ruling

Saslaw, the senate minority leader, said one-third of the gasoline bought in Virginia is purchased by out-of-state motorists. He cited the statistic as a reason he and many other Democrats oppose the governor’s plan to raise money for roads by ending the state gas tax and increasing the sales tax. Saslaw said the plan would diminish Virginia’s ability to tax out-of-state drivers for using its roads and transfer that burden to Virginians.

Saslaw offered no credible proof to back his statistic. Each time we asked him, he cited a different possible source: the DMV, the Virginia Department of Transportation, maybe a newspaper article.

There’s a good reason none of his possible sources pan out: the statistic does not exist. Virginia taxes gasoline sales at the wholesale level, not at the pumps. So there’s no data on the percentage of gas purchased in Virginia by out-of-state drivers.

The burden of proof falls on Saslaw and he comes up empty. We could find no element of truth in his statement, which we rate False.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

YouTube, "NBC12 Decision Virginia - Saslaw on the McDonnell transportation plan," Jan. 9, 2013.

Saslaw, interviews on Jan. 15 and Feb. 1, 2013.

Department of Motor Vehicles, "Fuels Tax - General Information," accessed Jan. 16, 2013.

DMV, "Fuels Tax Refunds," accessed Jan. 16, 2013.

Emails and phone call from Pam Goheen, spokeswoman for DMV, Jan. 15 and Jan. 22, 2013.

Emails from Tamara Rollison, spokeswoman for Virginia DOT, Jan. 15 and 22, 2013.

Emails and interview with Jeff Lenard, vice president for industry advocacy at NACS, Jan. 15, 2013.

Email, fax and interview with Mike O’Connor, president and CEO of Virginia Petroleum, Convenience and Grocery Association, Jan. 15, 2013.

Emails from Tucker Martin, communications director for Gov. Bob McDonnell, Jan. 14, 2013.

PolitiFact Virginia, "McDonnell says his roads plan would make Virginia the only state to end its gas tax," Jan. 10, 2013.

American Petroleum Institute, "Notes to State Motor Fuel Excise and Other Taxes," Jan. 1, 2013.

National Travel Highway Survey, 2009 NHTS Average Annual Vehicle Miles of Travel Per Vehicle (self-reported), accessed Jan. 23, 2013.

National Travel Highway Survey, 2009 NHTS Average Annual Vehicle Miles of Travel Per Vehicle (Best Estimate), accessed Jan. 23, 2013.

The Washington Post, "Brash, Scrappy Senate Minority Leader Savors Role in Budget Battle," Feb. 23, 2007.

Daily Press, "Democrats’ counteroffer: Raise gas and sales tax," Jan. 15, 2013.

Interview with George Hoffer, professor of transportation economics at the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond, Jan. 29, 2013.

Federal Highway Administration, Annual Vehicle Distance Traveled in Miles and Related Data - 2010 By Highway Category and Vehicle Type, February 2012.

Federal Highway Administration, Highway Statistics Series(click on Public Data for Highway Statistics), accessed Feb. 4, 2012.

Richmond Times-Dispatch, "Emporia leaders call McDonnell to oppose tolls," Aug. 24, 2012.

The Virginian-Pilot, "Getting real about transportation," March 31, 2012.

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State Sen. Richard Saslaw says in Virginia “one-third of the gasoline is purchased by out-of-state people”

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