Don’t set transportation sights low

Robert Thomson
Columnist October 28, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Thank you for your coverage of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance’s forum [Commuter page, Oct. 23].

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

However, I found alarming your “take” that “planners should focus resources on preserving what we have” as opposed to also building what planners say we need.

In what other public-policy area would simply preserving what exists as opposed to preserving and building what is needed be acceptable?

Would anyone suggest that Loudoun County focus only on maintaining existing schools rather than planning and budgeting for the tens of thousands of additional students that will materialize as the county’s population goes from 300,000 to 500,000?

Would anyone suggest that health-care planners focus solely on maintaining existing rooms and technology as opposed to providing what will be needed to serve a growing and aging population? How about parks and recreation, public safety and fire departments?

Regional forecasts show millions more people, jobs and vehicles in the pipeline. How can focusing solely on preserving an existing system that is the nation’s most congested be considered prudent?

You also observed that the public seems determined not to pay for transportation improvements.

Well, the public is not inclined to accept higher government, utility or cable fees, but it pays them because that’s what keeps schools open, the lights on and ESPN in the house. Only in transportation is excusing the public from paying the actual cost deemed acceptable. And it shows.

Had Virginia’s 17.5-cents-a-gallon gas tax been indexed for inflation when last raised in 1987, it would be 35 cents today. Maryland’s 23.5-cents gas tax would be 38 cents.

Mick Jagger reminds us that “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need.” It’s time to try. If the public wants better transportation, the public needs to start paying its fair share of maintaining the system it is using and building the system it needs.

Otherwise, learn to live with poorly maintained and congested highway and transit systems and watch good-paying jobs migrate elsewhere.

— Bob Chase, president, Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance

Chase has remained a cheerful warrior on what some would consider a Quixote-like quest for transportation improvements. In fact, I do agree with much of what he says about our needs and the consequences of not addressing them, even though I sometimes disagree with the alliance on specific projects.

But unlike Chase, I’m not so cheerful about the quest. When I look to my left and my right, I expect to see others charging, too. Instead, I see no evidence in the D.C. region or at the national level of a collective will to finance the repair, let alone the expansion, of our transportation network.

The Virginia government could prove me wrong by stepping in to complete the financing of the Dulles Silver Line, a resource for the entire Commonwealth. The Maryland General Assembly could prove me wrong by taking on Gov. Martin O’Malley’s challenge to consider raising the state’s gas tax.

Skeptical about taxes

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

Last Sunday, you noted that “Commuters in the D.C. region are determined to see improvements in the transportation system, and they are equally determined not to pay for them.”

As a 50-plus-year commuter, I have a slightly different take.

We do want improvements. We also feel we’ve already paid and are still paying the taxes for these improvements.

When the politicians have a money problem, they first allocate funds to what’s important to them (fill in your own definition); and when that leaves transportation short of the money we were taxed to provide, they tell us more taxes are needed to pay for what’s important to us. I think some people would call this “bait and switch.”

— Frank O’Brimski,

Garrett Park

I stand by my comment, but please don’t translate it into “Dr. Gridlock says taxpayers are cheapskates.” The reasons for our unwillingness to finance transportation improvements include a healthy skepticism about whether some proposals actually would improve travel and legitimate questions about whether the money collected in transportation trust funds actually is reserved for transportation projects.

But Chase is absolutely right about the gas tax: The failure to tie it to inflation weakens arguments that we are willing to address our transportation needs.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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