In Transportation Debate, a Prominent Voice

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 7, 2006

The political battle over solving Northern Virginia's traffic woes will not wait until the beginning of next month's General Assembly session: Former governor Gerald L. Baliles joined Northern Virginia business leaders last week in demanding more state money for transportation.

Baliles blamed legislators who have blocked efforts to raise taxes for transportation, saying they are holding the commonwealth "hostage" to ideological purity.

"Too many elected officials have been encouraging the public to believe that transportation is basically free, that there is plenty of money, that people don't have to pay more or that the private sector will provide," Baliles said. "The result is a transportation program that is breaking down -- one that is being held hostage by those who place a higher premium on ideological purity than finding solutions to Virginia's present needs and its future vitality."

Baliles, director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, spoke at a conference organized by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group of business and civic leaders who argue for increased spending on transit and highways. In the audience were state legislators and local elected officials, such as Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) and Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

Baliles (D), who was governor from 1986 to 1990, was described as a "rock star" of transportation policy in Virginia by David M. Guernsey, chief executive of Guernsey Office Products Inc. and chairman of the transportation alliance. In 1986, Baliles called a special session of the legislature to raise funds for transportation spending. That was the last time Virginia raised taxes for transportation.

But it is unclear if the past will be prologue in Richmond. A special session called in September to come up with solutions for transportation failed.

Last week, on a tour of Northern Virginia, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said he will again try to push for transportation dollars and growth controls when the General Assembly convenes in January. Kaine acknowledged, however, that persuading House Republican leaders to raise taxes for roads will be difficult so soon after the special session.

Also, lawmakers are up for reelection next year, perhaps making big initiatives and bipartisan compromises more difficult.

Bob Chase, president of the transportation alliance, said Baliles's speech and the rest of the program were designed to instill a sense of urgency among legislators.

"Our basic message is that Virginia's future can't wait," Chase said. "We can't continue to say that this is not the time to address the issue. It's hard to believe we have gone 20 years without addressing transportation."

But some disagree with the transportation alliance's vision of the future.

"The problem with the NVTA is that for decades they have been pushing the same thing: more and more and wider and wider roads," said Laura Olsen, assistant director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "It doesn't work. That is what has made our traffic worse."

She said increased investment in transit and better planning for residential growth are the only way out of the gridlock.

"It doesn't matter how much money we spend on transportation," she said. "If you don't link it to planning, it is not going to help."

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