Northern Virginia Democrats renewed pressure on Gov. James S. Gilmore III's administration today to fix their hometown traffic problems, while across Capitol Square a commission appointed by the Republican governor toiled to develop traffic congestion solutions in time for November's elections.
Leaders in both political parties said here today that transportation is fast becoming a defining issue in the fall races, when the entire 140-member General Assembly is on the ballot. Each of the opposing sides also claimed credit for attacking traffic congestion more quickly and effectively than the other.
At one end of the square, the commission met for the second time to sift through the current mass-transit technology and road-building strategies to deliver a package of relief for the Washington suburbs and other parts of the state.
At the same time, four Fairfax County Democrats held a news conference to accuse Gilmore of dawdling about solutions around the Beltway and beyond.
"Across the street, they're trying to decide whether Virginia really does have a transportation crisis," said state Sen. Richard L. Saslaw. "In fact, we've studied transportation to death."
Gilmore, said Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller, "doesn't understand the absolute craziness that we're feeling like we're going through. We hear it every night when we go door-to-door. We hear it at the grocery store. We hear it every place we go: 'Can't you do something about this?' "
Democrats in the last two weeks have seized on an issue they believe will have leverage for them in the fall, when the balance of power in the evenly divided legislature could shift.
Democrats have managed to put Gilmore and other GOP leaders on the defensive, and Republicans are now fighting back, first with a radio appearance by the governor Tuesday, when he promised an audit of the Virginia Department of Transportation.
Details of the audit remained unclear today, but Gilmore and his inner circle of advisers want to shake up the agency, which is already spending well over $1 billion across the state this year on road projects.
"Democrats from Northern Virginia drove down here today to mislead the public," Gilmore press secretary Mark A. Miner told reporters this morning.
"Democrats wake up after 50 years and realize there's a problem," Miner said. "They've been missing in action. . . . These issues didn't happen overnight. They're not going to be solved overnight."
Del. John A. "Jack" Rollison III (R-Prince William), a commission member, said he wanted the kind of bipartisan cooperation that produced a $208 million highway bond package for Northern Virginia and Southside this year.
"We need a consensus between the two parties and the regions of the state," Rollison said. "We're going to have to deal with . . . real increases in funding."
Democrats are proposing to dedicate recordation tax money at the rate of $71 million a year that could be magnified tenfold into highway bonds. In a healthy economy, half of all state budget surpluses also would go to road improvements under their plan.
Republican leaders said Gilmore's commission may be headed in a similar direction, expanding bonding authority as well as sending significantly more state revenue to localities.
For now, though, the issue is as much political as practical.
J. Kenneth Klinge, a longtime GOP strategist and transportation expert who is chairman of Gilmore's commission, was exasperated today about the raging partisan debate. "It's not productive," Klinge fumed. "It won't get anything solved."
"It's an election year!" he added. "What did you expect?"