Fold this hand

Published 9:17 pm Friday, January 10, 2014

To her credit, at least state Senator L. Louis Lucas is thinking outside of the box regarding transportation funding in Virginia. But don’t bet on her idea of allowing a casino to be developed in the city of Portsmouth and using the resulting state revenues to reduce tunnel tolls.

It’s no secret that Lucas, whose Senate District includes a portion of Suffolk, wants to develop a hotel and conference center in downtown Portsmouth, and a casino there could help her achieve that dream. But the self-serving nature of the proposal she has put before the General Assembly isn’t even the worst thing about the plan.

To be sure, the projected $113 million in tax revenue a casino would bring to bear on the region’s transportation problems would go a long way toward reducing the tolls that will start Feb. 1 at the Downtown and Midtown tunnels, and it could eventually help with other important Hampton Roads transportation needs.

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Considering the history of transportation funding in the commonwealth, though, it seems a long shot that legislators from other parts of Virginia would ever agree to a plan that funnels such a large portion of tax money to this area. More likely would be an agreement to water down Lucas’ legislation, leaving Hampton Roads with no guaranteed funds or, at best, a much smaller slice of the pie.

But even if Lucas were able to push through her proposal for 90 percent of the casino’s tax revenues to go to regional transportation projects, the money would come at a steep price for Portsmouth and the rest of Hampton Roads. Casinos are a Faustian bargain, a fact that quickly becomes clear upon leaving The Strip in Las Vegas or the Boardwalk in Atlantic City.

Along with people eager to drop their quarters into the slot machines, casinos attract organized crime, they wreck the families of those who cannot control the urge to gamble, they ultimately depress the economies of the communities where they’re located and they take money from a disproportionate portion of low-income residents.

What’s most surprising about Lucas’ proposal is that it’s so completely out of touch with both the needs of her constituents and the mores of Virginia. It’s a losing hand for Lucas, and she should fold instead of chasing a win she can’t — and shouldn’t — get.