Va. Plans Costly but Could Ease Commutes
Sunday, January 22, 2006
Virginians would pay more to buy, insure, register and gas up their cars under the transportation improvement plans proposed Friday in the state capital. Drivers won't even want to think about the cost of a traffic ticket.
But would all that extra money to spend on road and rail projects ease commutes over the next few years?
Signs point to yes.
Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and leaders of the state Senate, who announced competing plans Friday to raise about $1 billion a year for transportation projects, said the money would pay for wider highways, more rail cars on commuter lines and the unclogging of some major bottlenecks.
Although the region's most avid transportation advocates say the plans fall short, they would pump billions of dollars over the next decade into Northern Virginia projects that have gone unfunded for years. Virginia hasn't raised a substantial, steady source of funds for transportation since 1986, a two-decade gap during which traffic in the rapidly expanding Washington suburbs has gotten as bad as almost anywhere in the nation.
Commuters would see the most immediate changes on the region's rails, where money for new cars for Metro and Virginia Railway Express would help ease the daily jam of riders on both. The cars would be available as soon as next year.
Both plans would also provide hundreds of millions of dollars to widen area highways, including Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and I-95 between Newington and Route 123. Funds would allow remaking of the Route 29/I-66 interchange in Gainesville, one of the most dangerous and time-consuming bottlenecks in the Washington region. State officials said construction on the road fixes could begin within two years.
The proposals, as well as others that attempt to raise more money for transportation, face considerable challenges in a legislature that approved big tax increases for other state services two years ago. Several Republican House delegates have said they are opposed to more taxes, and their leaders said they plan to announce a congestion-relief proposal this week that would not raise taxes.
Kaine's plan directs money to build express toll lanes on I-66 between Gainesville and the Capital Beltway and possibly inside the Beltway. His proposal also includes funds that would help launch bus service on express toll lanes and that would nearly double the amount of money available to localities to improve such roads as Route 1 and Route 7. His plan also more than doubles funds for mass transit, which overwhelmingly go to Northern Virginia.
"This is the first long-term funding commitment to Virginia transportation in 20 years," Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said of the administration's proposal. "It's a very balanced distribution. The doubling of public transportation funding will be felt in the near term by Northern Virginia commuters who are trying to get a seat on Metrorail or VRE or their local bus. And it targets very specific money to increase local and regional highway construction."
Kaine's proposal, which would raise about $4 billion over his four-year term, would increase taxes on vehicle insurance and purchases and increase fees on vehicle registration and driving offenses.
It's the third element of an ambitious effort by the governor to overhaul how the state plans, pays for and builds transportation projects. Kaine (D) announced a handful of proposals Monday that would give localities greater powers to deny developments that would worsen traffic and discussed his support of a constitutional amendment that would ensure that transportation money is not used for other state services.
The Senate plan would add about $1.2 billion a year for new projects by also raising taxes on vehicle purchases, as well as levying a sales tax on gasoline at the wholesale level, which would probably raise the cost of a gallon of gas for drivers.
While Virginia is debating major changes, there is little talk in Maryland about adding money for transportation projects during this year's General Assembly session. Jack Cahalan, spokesman for the Maryland Department of Transportation, said Maryland addressed its funding needs in 2004 when lawmakers raised fees to provide $238 million per year for projects.
Despite the large amounts and the prospect of more money for the first time in decades, many Northern Virginia transportation advocates said the amounts are not nearly enough.
"These are positive steps in the right direction but fall short of the funding necessary to really solve Northern Virginia's transportation crisis," said David F. Snyder, a Falls Church City Council member and chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
Snyder added that the funds would do little more than maintain "the current level of poor service."
The governor's revenue-raising proposal angered slow-growth advocates whom Kaine has courted with his calls to better connect land use and transportation planning.
"The bottom line is we're not seeing a fundamental change and a comprehensive approach to land use and transportation in these proposals," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "Given the amount of additional money they want to spend on transportation, you'd think there'd be an obligation for elected officials to have a more coordinated plan."
Local leaders said additional money earmarked for highway projects would go toward a number of much-needed improvements.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said priority projects include widening West Ox Road, revamping the Gallows Road/Route 29 intersection and making changes to Route 7.
Aside from improvements to the Gainesville interchange, the most pressing needs in Prince William County are widening Route 1, Route 28 and Route 29, said Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R).
Arlington County would use the money to repair bridges and remake intersections, including the Washington Boulevard bridge over Columbia Pike, the Glebe Road bridge over Arlington Boulevard, the Courthouse Road/Route 50 interchange and the Arlington Boulevard/Washington Boulevard interchange, said board Chairman Chris Zimmerman (D).
Priorities in Loudoun include widening Route 7, Route 50 and Route 28, said Charles E. "Chip" Taylor, an assistant director in the Office of Transportation Services.