Traffic, and the Campaign to Fix It, Yet to Make a Dent in Most of Va.

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006

RICHMOND -- At 8:15 a.m. on a recent weekday, when congestion on the Capital Beltway was more than an hour into its daily tyranny, the scattered drivers on the six-lane highway around this city were as unencumbered as truckers on a midnight run through Kansas.

There was none of the incessant stopping, starting and raging that colors commuting in Northern Virginia. The only backup was a four-minute wait to exit Interstate 295 onto Interstate 64.

Northern Virginia is among the most congested areas in the nation, but the traffic problem that many of the region's commuters see as a crisis barely registers in some parts of the state. That geography of interest is part of the reason the Virginia General Assembly ended its regular session in a deadlock Saturday over how much to spend on transportation improvements, lawmakers say.

In the land beyond the Beltway, well beyond the reaches of Metro and far past the carpool lanes, there is a whole lot of Virginia without a whole lot of traffic. Nelson County in Central Virginia, for example, got its first traffic light just a couple of weeks ago.

"The way I look at it, it seems that it really is a huge amount of time, a huge amount of fuel people waste," sitting in traffic in Northern Virginia, said Del. Robert Hurt, a Republican from rural Pittsylvania County who opposes plans to raise taxes to fund transportation. "But that's not our issue."

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the state Senate are backing proposals to raise taxes and fees to add about $1 billion a year for transportation projects across the state. They say it is needed to build a modern transportation system from the coast to the mountains. Kaine told the legislature on its final day of the session Saturday to return March 27 for a special session.

"It is definitely a statewide problem," Kaine had said earlier. "This is the biggest obstacle for us having the kind of economy we want to have going forward."

Nevertheless, Kaine, who has held 16 town hall meetings on transportation since his election in November, acknowledged that the "degree of passion is different in different parts of the state."

The House plan aims to satisfy only the most passionate. It uses surpluses and money from other parts of the budget to pay for specific projects, mostly in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. House Republicans are opposed to tax increases and say targeted money will suffice.

Much of that money would go to Northern Virginia, where the transportation issue is almost entirely about relieving congestion so people can get to work, home and elsewhere in a timely manner. Business leaders also fear that congestion will constrict the area's expanding economy.

Congestion is also a leading concern in Hampton Roads, where too many drivers cram onto too few bridges and tunnels every day, lawmakers and transportation officials say. Drivers loathe the unpredictability of the water crossings and their lack of options to get around them, especially when summer beach traffic from the Virginia and Carolina shores joins the daily mix.

Elsewhere, however, transportation concerns are more localized and less pressing in people's lives. In Richmond, for example, drivers suffer through regular jams on the primary routes between the suburbs and city's center, but they're mostly minimal and predictable. Rush hour lasts about an hour. In the Washington suburbs, the morning and afternoon congestion stretches for about a third of a day.

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