Kaine's Transportation Forums Yield Much Talk, Little Consensus
Wednesday, January 4, 2006
Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine has spent the two months since his election gathering Virginians to discuss the traffic congestion problems that plague much of the state, but the forums, including one last night in Fairfax County, have failed to yield a consensus for any new action.
After talking with thousands of people about transportation issues in his most visible effort to prepare for the governorship, Kaine (D) remains committed to the proposals he outlined during the election campaign. He has used the 10 town hall meetings across the state more as a listening tour than as a forum to promote ideas.
The well-attended forums highlighted both the significance of traffic congestion in the lives of Virginians and the conflicting opinions on how to ease it.
"Everyone agrees there's a problem. No one seems to agree what the solutions are, and these meetings haven't gotten us there," said Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R), who attended a town hall in Manassas in November.
During his campaign, Kaine said he would ensure that money designated for roads and rails is not diverted to other priorities and pledged to help localities gain more power to regulate development and control traffic congestion.
Spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said Kaine intends to submit a plan in about two weeks that would primarily focus on those issues. The General Assembly convenes next Wednesday, and Kaine will be inaugurated Jan. 14.
Skinner said the town halls have given Kaine a chance to get "a very good sense of how urgent the problem is across the state."
Others said the urgency has been apparent for some time.
"Everybody knows what the priorities are," said Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta), chairman of the House Republican Caucus. "I'm kind of befuddled about what his ideas are and what he wants to do. I guess it's almost like he's expecting the public to come up with a solution for transportation. He may be building momentum, but most people want to know what the plan is."
Fairfax Board Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said the town halls are "building up a head of steam and putting pressure on members of the General Assembly." But he also said that "there have been very few specifics, and it would be nice if we heard more of that."
Landes said House leaders will present a transportation package that includes a proposal to increase fines for chronically bad drivers and that seeks to designate surplus state revenue for new projects. He added that House members oppose higher taxes, potentially setting up a showdown with the Senate, where members proposed a tax increase two years ago to pay for billions of dollars in transportation projects.
As at all the other town hall meetings, Northern Virginians at George Mason High School in Falls Church last night offered Kaine a range of often contradictory ideas for how best to release motorists from their traffic headaches. Some said expansion of Metro transit was critical, while others said widening roads was a must. Many said it was necessary to raise taxes to pay for projects; others preferred tolls or private-sector investment.
About the only thing the crowd of about 500 commuters, politicians, activists and others shared was a sentiment that something needs to be done -- and quickly -- to ease the daily frustration of getting around in Northern Virginia.
"We need to address this issue and address it early," Kaine told them. "We just can't wait, because it gets tougher and tougher."
Several of the speakers praised Kaine's efforts to link land use and transportation.
"I highly applaud your stance. . . . We should definitely look at the impact [of development] on public facilities infrastructure," said Amy Tozzi of McLean.
The town halls and the focus on transportation have defined Kaine's time since Election Day, beginning with a pledge on the morning after his Nov. 8 victory to widen Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and build a rail line to Dulles International Airport.
His town hall tour, which has attracted hundreds of frustrated commuters at nearly every site, started in Roanoke eight days after the election. It has included stops in Newport News, suburban Richmond, Manassas, Leesburg and Fredericksburg. Last night's was his first in Fairfax, the state's largest jurisdiction, and will be followed by a last one tomorrow in Virginia Beach.
At the forums and elsewhere, Kaine has repeatedly said that transportation problems are at a "crisis" stage and that he is targeting the 2006 General Assembly session as the time to make major improvements.
If the meetings have brightened the spotlight on transportation, they have done little to bring Virginians closer to agreement on what kinds of fixes to make and how to pay for them.
The crowd in Falls Church concentrated on the need for better transit service, a focus different from many of the other meetings.
"I'm very frustrated by the poor solutions we have for public transportation," said Jay Baker of Arlington County. "I wonder why there are so many miles of free roads and yet every passenger pays for every mile on Metro."
The town halls have also heightened the debate between those who see roads as essential to business growth and those who see them as generating suburban sprawl.
And in some cases, they have appeared to make prospects for change more difficult. At the Newport News meeting, commuters tallied a long list of reasons they don't want another water crossing in Hampton Roads, something state officials have labeled as vital and have been eagerly trying to build.