Hope for The Best, Expect The Worst

By Eric M. Weiss And Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 12, 2008

It was bad enough for gridlocked Northern Virginia that leaders in Richmond failed this week to come up with a transportation funding plan, but there's even worse news: There's no Plan B.

The result will be more congested roads, crowded trains and possibly an exodus of jobs from the region, officials said yesterday.

In addition to failing to provide additional statewide money for transportation, legislators also failed to fix legal problems that led the Virginia Supreme Court to disallow regional boards in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise local taxes and fees to fund regional projects.

Transportation officials estimate that the state will face about a $3 billion shortfall over six years in the part of the budget used to maintain roadways and bridges and that most of that money would have to be taken from new projects.

"Prospects are pretty grim; we're in a state," said Chris Zimmerman, chairman of the Metro board and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which had planned to raise and spend more than $300 million a year on regional transportation projects until the court ruling. The money would have gone toward alleviating some of the region's most notorious bottlenecks.

Northern Virginia leaders said there is no backup plan other than to get by with less and hope the problems get fixed later. Meanwhile, Zimmerman feared that the lack of a solution could give companies looking to relocate to the region pause.

"You constantly have companies coming in and going out," Zimmerman said, noting that some companies have avoided Atlanta because of its notorious traffic congestion.

The Washington area has the second-worst traffic congestion in the country, and conditions in Northern Virginia are among the worst in the Washington area. Many observers blamed partisan bickering and regional squabbles for lawmakers' failure to reach a consensus.

"The rest of the state just doesn't like Northern Virginia. It's what it's always been," said Craig E. Baumann, a lawyer who commutes from the Woodbridge area to his office near Fort Belvoir. "We can't get these politicians down there to understand that if the economic engine here doesn't continue to produce, it's going to hurt them down there as well. Everybody's dependent on Northern Virginia."

Baumann acknowledged that Democratic and GOP lawmakers have a tough job. Still, "that's what we voted them in there to do, to figure out the solution. . . . I think they'll both suffer."

But residents elsewhere in the state said they shouldn't have to pay higher taxes to solve Northern Virginia's problems.

"It's a little unfair for people in western Virginia, who are economically deprived, to pay for those in Hampton Roads and the Washington area, where they have better paying jobs," said Mary Dean, who works for the Danville Area Humane Society.

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