Washington area business leaders were predictably lukewarm in their reaction this week to proposals by the governors of Maryland and Virginia calling for substantial increases in the transportation budgets of their respective states.
Although he acknowledged that the two proposals represent a significant step in addressing the region's traffic problems, James W. Dyke Jr., chairman of the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, insisted that much more needs to be done.
Even the governors themselves would agree that more needs to be done. But, given the funding that's on hand now and what's likely to be available in the near term, the two proposals, limited as they are, seem reasonable.
Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening (D) this week unveiled a record $7.8 billion transportation budget, an increase of 43 percent from last year. The plan, which calls for $2.7 billion in additional spending over the next six years, includes a proposal to spend $434 million for extension of Metro's Blue Line to Largo, and $200 million as the state's share of the cost of replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Meanwhile, the transportation budget being proposed by Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) calls for $2.5 billion in additional spending over the next six years and includes funding for Metrorail service to Tysons Corner and express bus service along the Dulles Access Road.
"It's a step in the right direction but not enough steps," declared Robert Grow, staff director of the Greater Washington Board of Trade's transportation and environmental committee.
Gilmore's proposals are welcome, Grow added, "but not everything we had hoped for."
Grow underscored the business community's disappointment over an earlier decision by Glendening to withdraw support for the proposed intercounty connector that would have linked the I-270 corridor in Montgomery County to I-95 in Prince George's County. But he added that the Board of Trade is pleased to see the governor "keep his word" by proposing that the ICC's eastern and western terminuses be built.
"In the long run it would have been better to follow the recommendation of [Glendening's] transportation commission," Grow maintained.
That's probably true. But it does no good to replay the intercounty connector debate at this juncture.
Glendening's and Gilmore's proposals are the most encouraging transportation initiatives to come out of Annapolis and Richmond in decades. The mere fact that the governors of the two states are finally addressing some of the region's transportation problems simultaneously should be seen as a victory, however small, for business leaders.
Had they been given a choice between receiving a small tax cut or transportation improvements, most Northern Virginians probably would have chosen the latter.
Similarly, Marylanders living in the Washington suburbs probably would have chosen funding for mass transit and road improvements over construction of a football stadium in Baltimore if the choice was theirs to make.
But neither Gilmore nor Glendening put transportation at the top of his agenda prior to this year.
Now in his second term as governor, Glendening appears to be sharpening his focus in developing an agenda that addresses some of the state's more pressing needs, including transportation improvement.
Gilmore, meanwhile, has apparently concluded that traffic congestion in Northern Virginia is not just a quality of life issue but one that has serious implications for the region's business community, especially the high-tech sector that he so aggressively promotes.
Certainly, Northern Virginia's business leaders have made that point repeatedly in lobbying for relief from the region's growing traffic problem.
Exactly how both governors arrived at the decision to add substantially to their transportation budgets isn't really that important. What is important is that they apparently are in sync at least on this subject. It may be purely coincidental that they are but it is nonetheless significant from a regional perspective.
Now it's up to business to respond in ways that are more potentially productive than the ludicrous suggestion that state and local officials underwrite a regional transportation plan that would cost more than $25 billion to implement.
What suggestions do business leaders have that might be used to augment the proposals unveiled this week by Gilmore and Glendening until additional funding for transportation can be identified?
Grow agrees that the area's business leaders "need to look at long-term solutions."
Meanwhile, he added, a committee is looking at ways in which telecommuting might be increased and how accident management on major highways can be improved.
At the same time, said Grow, the Board of Trade fully supports initiatives such as the commuter choice tax credit bill approved by the Maryland General Assembly last year. The measure, which was introduced by Sen. Ida Rubin (D-Montgomery), provides for an income tax credit of 50 percent for employers who contribute up to $30 a month toward commuting expenses incurred by an employee who uses public transit or ride sharing.
It's up to business to be equally as creative in dealing with the area's transportation problems now that Glendening and Gilmore are prepared to do more.