Traffic congestion on Northern Virginia's roads is no longer a mere transportation problem. It's a threat to economic prosperity and the quality of life in that part of the state and the region.
Almost everyone agrees that something needs to be done to ease congestion or the situation will get worse.
Even more significant, perhaps, is that for the first time in memory, both business leaders and elected officials are conceding that everything--including new taxes to pay for transportation improvements--ought to be on the table for discussion.
But by maintaining a hard-nosed stance against any kind of tax increase, Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) seems ready to challenge local officials to a game of chicken.
That's a game that can't possibly produce any winners. All of Northern Virginia would be the loser if officials allow themselves to get caught up in political road rage over taxes.
All sides agree that traffic congestion on Northern Virginia roads will likely hurt business growth and ruin the quality of life for most residents. Even so, the transportation debate is being shaped increasingly by partisan politics and recriminations.
Gilmore continues to criticize Democrats, contending that their only solution to the problem is to raise taxes. Local officials, meanwhile, don't seem to have the stomach to suggest that new sources of revenue must be part of any plan to improve transportation. And business leaders, though clamoring for a massive road building program, have yet to present a plan to pay for it.
So far, only the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce has stepped into this leadership void, by calling for a creative discussion with the governor of potential transportation solutions and funding sources.
"What we need is a comprehensive plan to address our transportation needs that includes improved transit, the use of smart technology to more efficiently move traffic, the encouragement of telecommuting, a reduction in car use, widening of several key roadways and building new roads and river crossings, where necessary," James W. Dyke Jr., the chamber's chairman, wrote in a letter to Gilmore late last month.
All of that, Dyke said, must be implemented with a program to streamline and create greater efficiencies in the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Gilmore has questioned VDOT's operation and promised during a recent appearance on WTOP radio to wring greater efficiencies out of that agency.
But Gilmore also spent an inordinate amount of time on the radio call-in show bashing Democrats while repeating his opposition to any plan that would require new taxes to fund transportation improvements. He appealed to residents and business leaders to be patient until a blue-ribbon panel completes a study and submits its recommendations for dealing with traffic problems in Northern Virginia.
Quick fixes and seat-of-the-pants solutions obviously won't do the trick. But neither will another study without the funding to implement its recommendations.
The shelves are filled with transportation studies, including those by the Greater Washington Board of Trade, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and Northern Virginia's Transportation Coordinating Council.
But studies don't build light rail. They don't widen existing roads and build new ones. And they don't build housing and office buildings in older commercial areas to take advantage of existing infrastructure.
If Northern Virginians want fewer clogged roads, then someone has to be willing to pay the piper, another study notwithstanding.
"Traditionally, the chamber has never advocated a tax increase," Dyke noted in a recent interview.
But the transportation crisis is so threatening to the quality of life and economic prosperity, said Dyke, that the chamber has concluded that every option, including the consideration of new revenue sources, ought to be on the table.
Moreover, he said, improving the transportation infrastructure is a statewide issue and not just a concern in Northern Virginia.
Gilmore recently suggested that local jurisdictions already have the authority to increase taxes, though he doesn't support the concept. If they choose, they could use a portion of the income tax to fund transportation improvements. But the enabling legislation has a maintenance-of-effort clause and a sunset provision, Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, explained.
"The short answer is you can't use [that legislation] because of the sunset clause," said Hanley. "What you need is a long-term guaranteed revenue source to pay for bonds" that would be needed to finance transportation improvements.
A proposal by two Virginia members of Congress, Sen. Charles S. Robb (D) and Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D), to create a regional transportation authority could be the vehicle needed, Hanley suggested, because it would have bonding authority, though not the power to tax. Local governments could determine what the source of revenue would be.
Meanwhile, it's time to stop posturing and bite the bullet in Northern Virginia, even if that means tacking on a gasoline tax to pay for transportation improvements.