The deepening financial troubles gripping state and local governments in the Washington area have severely set back efforts to finance needed highway and transit projects, leading some officials to revive the idea of a regionwide transportation tax.
Frustrated drivers will remain stuck in traffic for years longer and riders on Metro buses and trains likely will pay higher fares because of the drop in tax revenue attributed to the souring economy, according to interviews with District, Maryland and Virginia officials.
Maryland's list of projects that will be deferred includes the widening of the Capital Beltway between New Hampshire Avenue and Route 1 in College Park, the widening of Route 50 between the Patuxent River and Annapolis, and the creation of a trolley connecting Bethesda and Silver Spring in Montgomery County.
In Northern Virginia, state officials already have trimmed money for 70 projects in Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties, and the projects will take longer to finish if additional funding isn't found.
Among those already cut are the widening of Route 7 west of Falls Church, the widening of Route 29 east of Fairfax and the extension of the four lanes on Route 50 between the Fairfax line and Route 15 in Loudoun.
For the most part, the search for additional transportation money has been shelved until the economic slump eases and the region learns how much money it will get when Congress enacts a new highway program this year, officials said.
"We're moving into a kind of holding pattern until the federal legislation is approved," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which estimates the region's transportation needs to be $500 million a year through 2010. "It's really hard to know what to do at this point."
Until solutions are found -- and one of them could be the special transportation tax -- the cost of projects already planned will continue to rise and it will take longer to complete them. During those delays, traffic will keep increasing each year; some stretches of the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia now carry as many cars and trucks as Los Angeles freeways.
In a weak economy, cautious consumers buy less gasoline for the duration of the slump and fewer automobiles, which reduces the amount of tax money the states collect for their transportation trust funds.
Maryland's revenue from these sources has fallen by $200 million, and Virginia's by $226 million, from projected levels.
People also are taking fewer trips on Metro, which is why revenue is down and the regional transit system has had to cut as many as 335 jobs as part of its effort to slash spending by $12.5 million. To meet future needs, rail and bus fares will go up annually, beginning in the summer.
One of the biggest transportation worries for local governments is an increase in the subsidies they will be forced to contribute to Metro. Congress in the fall authorized $1.3 billion of the $2 billion cost of completing most of the planned 103-mile system, but the local governments will have to kick in the remaining $780 million -- a share 17 percent bigger than under the current formula.
"We're going to have to discuss as a region how we're going to pay for that," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who added that officials might want to consider the regionwide transportation tax.
A discussion of sorts already is beginning. Three panels recently weighed in with transportation financing proposals. The Rivlin Commission on the District's finances recommended a regional payroll tax. The Linowes Commission on Maryland taxes proposed an annual 2 percent personal property tax on vehicles and boats. The Council of Governments suggested tolls on the Beltway bridges, parking fees, gasoline surcharges and higher vehicle registration fees.
Only Maryland's General Assembly will seriously discuss tax plans this year; lawmakers probably will consider a gasoline tax increase to help raise the $1.5 billion in new revenue they said is needed for transportation.
Virginia's lawmakers, by contrast, likely will be paralyzed. Not only are they hesitant to raise taxes in an election year, but Gov. L. Douglas Wilder "has made it clear he doesn't see new taxes as the answer to transportation issues or the state's broader economic difficulties," said Transportation Secretary John G. Milliken.
In November, Virginia voters rejected proposals to allow state and local governments to issue pledge bonds for transportation projects. Those defeats also caused local officials to back away from asking voters for money. Fairfax County Board Chairman Audrey Moore (D) withdrew her support for a $330 million bond plan to finance the Fairfax County Parkway.
Moore and other officials said they believe it is pointless to talk about new transportation taxes until 1992, after Congress decides how much to distribute to the region in federal highway money. If Congress believes the region will largely pay its own way, she said, "they might not want to give us as much money."
Other officials said that attitude is shortsighted because Congress is unlikely to increase federal aid to states substantially. The Bush administration's draft highway proposal calls for annual spending of $17 billion, up from the current $14.5 billion, while requiring local governments to pay a larger share of the cost of projects.
"In the past, that was a good strategy, but we're playing on a different field now," said Rep.-Elect James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), referring to Moore's plan.
Moran and other officials want to start discussion of highway and transit aid now because it may take several months to build support in the region for transportation taxes. The Fairfax board will decide this month whether to create a commission for that purpose.
The payroll tax advocated by the Rivlin Commission has so far fizzled, mostly because suburban officials fear it would lead to a tax on commuters, an unpopular idea previously rejected.
The commission recommended a 0.25 percent payroll tax on gross income, a $60 annual commercial parking fee and an annual $50 motor vehicle fee. Half of the roughly $500 million raised would go to local governments. The other half would go to a regional transportation authority that would plan and build major projects in the region, such as the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Creating a regional transportation authority would, in theory, remove road decisions from elected officials, who some people believe have been unable to solve the region's problems because of conflicting pressures from their constituents. The concept is vigorously promoted by business interests, particularly the Greater Washington Board of Trade, but also is backed by some elected officials.
"The major benefit is we get to keep all of the money raised here," said Moran, noting that Northern Virginia gets back only about 65 cents of every dollar in tax revenue it sends to Richmond.
Moore and other leaders said an authority would promote developers' interests without being accountable to the people.
"We don't need a transportation czar," she said.
But local officials are unanimous in their frustration that the economic troubles came when transportation money already was tight.
"The public that asks for substantial additional transportation has to face up to the fact that the enemy is us," said Lilla Richards (D-Dranesville), a Fairfax board member who heads COG's transportation planning board. "We're not going to have transit or roads until we are willing to pay for it."