The Problem Isn't the Destination, It's How to Get There

Morning commuters in Arlington wait to board a Metrorail Orange line train toward New Carrollton in April last year.
Morning commuters in Arlington wait to board a Metrorail Orange line train toward New Carrollton in April last year. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 5, 2006

Northern Virginia legislators generally agree with Gov.-elect Timothy M. Kaine (D) that improving the transportation network should be the top priority for the 2006 General Assembly.

But what exactly should be done about growing commutes and vicious traffic -- and how those fixes should be paid for -- is another matter altogether.

"That's the difficulty," said Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria). "We all agree transportation is the priority. But after that, it becomes far harder. What are the solutions? The solutions for Alexandria are not necessarily the same as the solutions for Loudoun."

Kaine has said that improving the state's road network and public transit should be a major topic for discussion during this year's 60-day legislative session. Since his election in November, he's been traveling the state, holding town hall-style meetings with residents to hear their ideas.

And there is no area where the conversation is more relevant than in sprawling Northern Virginia, several legislators said. But that doesn't mean the group of delegates and senators will be speaking with one voice, especially about whether new taxes are necessary for the kind of improvements that would make a real difference for commuters.

Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), for instance, is once again championing higher fines for reckless driving to pay for improvements. He sponsored a similar measure last year, but it died in the Senate. He said that a good portion of the state's growing surplus should be spent on transportation.

"There are politically palatable ways to raise a lot of money," Albo said.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw of Fairfax, the Senate's Democratic leader, questioned whether those fees would amount to enough for major new construction projects.

"There are people who say we should never build roads by raising taxes," Saslaw said. "They'll use smoke and mirrors and try to do it that way. None of that will make it through the Senate."

Senators are expecting the chairman of the body's finance committee, Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Northumberland), to put forward a package that will include some kind of permanent and continuing new revenue, possibly through higher taxes.

Such a plan could run into difficulties in the House of Delegates, where Republicans have expressed opposition to increasing taxes when the state's booming economy has ensured a historically high surplus.

The dynamics of the debate -- with the Senate contemplating a major new funding initiative that House Republicans might oppose -- feel much like the start of the 2004 session, some lawmakers said. That year, the two chambers stayed in Richmond for 115 days in a standoff over proposed tax increases, before ultimately raising $1.5 billion in new funds over two years for health, public safety and education -- but not transportation.

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