Sometime before the end of the year the Governor's Council of Transportation is supposed to recommend new policies toward all forms of transportation in Virginia.
It is hard to imagine a more timely endeavor. Northern Virginians are used to thinking of themselves as beset by transportation crises, but they are not alone in Virginia.
Every metropolitan area and small city in the state is wrestling with the problem of partly subsidizing bus operationsd that until a few years ago were self-supporting private enterprises.
Two cities, Danville and Martinsville, have just decided to let bus service die rather than support it.
In Danville, bus service advocates failed to come up with enough votes on the nine-member city council to win approval for a $92,000 subsidy to keep buses running until July 1, 1978. The decision heightened racial feelings in Danville because of the impact it will have on poor, black riders.
ransportation problems are not limited to urban areas or to moving people. When Penn Central collapsed, Virginia was not untouched. The decision by its government owned successor, Conrail, to abandon a 100-mile routed on Virginia's Eastern Shore further imperiled some already marginal businesses in the two isolated shore counties. Accomack and Northampton.
The federal government and the two counties are now subsidizing rail service by a short line operator. The state has given advice, but no money.
The Eastern Shore line requires about $1.5 million to bring it up to Class I (10-miles-an-hour) standards over its entire length. That's not much in the context of public spending in Virginia. Some Shore residents are bitter that legal and policy constraints deny help to them while the state's transit aid program - albeit a modest one - provides urban areas about $9 million annually.
In Northern Virginia, the bitterness over what is seen by many as a pinch-penny policy in Richmond toward Metro is deep-seated. The state has authorized about $130 million in construction aid for Metro from state and federal gasoline taxes. Nevertheless, the local governments are paying more than that out of property taxes for their share of the construction bill and face share of the construction bill and face operating deficits that reached a $1 million a month for bus service before rail operations began.
Up to now, the state has followed a policy of giving modest aid to transit capital programs - construction and equipment acquisition - while giving no aid for operating subsidies.
This policy rests on the premise that operating deficits are the product of local decisions about extent of service, fare levels and wages and should the reform be paid out of local tax revenues - chiefly the property tax.
This was a reasonable policy so long as public transportation problems were localized and required only modest outlays of city and county funds to solve. That is no longer the case, and the changed conditions may require a changed policy.
The new condition is this: Throughout the state - in Northern Virginia, in Danville, on the Eastern Shore - the development of a transportation service such as Metrorail, the maintenance of an existing bus service or the rescue of a tottering rail freight service is regarded as essential to a satisfying quality of community life.
The new condition seems to beckon the state to establish standards of quality for transportation just as it has established statewide standards of quality for public education. It can do this without elevating public transportation, as it has public education, to the level of a constitutional right, but the standards should have some teeth.
The policy adopted by the General Assembly should lead to the setting of minimum standards for public transportation services in every city and country and provide a formula for determining how much of the cost should be paid by users, local property owners and state taxpayers.
Such a policy would have the effect of setting not only minimum local responsibility in a city such as Danville but also maximum state responsibility in an area such as Northern Virginia.
A determination by state transportation planners that elaborate facilities or costly labor contracts exceed those required to satisfy the state's standards of quality for transportation shoudl leave imprudent cities and counties holding the subsidy bag or even result in state veto of a proposed project.
Clearly the state has just as much responsibility to protect city and county residents from excessive public transit costs as it has to provide transit services.
The development of equitable transportation standards to apply throughout a state of great regional diversity will be at least as complex as development of the controversial standards of quality for education.
However, if the Council on Transportation fails to start Virginia down that road, it seems reasonable to expect that the problems that beset Danville, Martinsville, Northern Virginia and the Eastern Shore will grow and the quality of life throughout the state will slip a notch on the scale of civilized living.