Traffic gridlock, once the big hope for Democrats in Northern Virginia's legislative races, has lost traction in the month since Republican Gov. James S. Gilmore III offered his own spending plan for new roads.
Many voters now say that they don't perceive much of a difference between the Democratic and Republican plans for unclogging roads, and that they're skeptical--or at least unsure--that a vote for a particular candidate or party will help solve the problem.
"I understand it, I hear it, but I don't believe they can do anything about it," said McLean resident Jan Belevetz of the candidates and their promises. "It's a lot of talk."
Candidates of both major parties say they have a hard time convincing voters that they've got the answers, as Northern Virginians' anger and frustration over traffic grows.
"Transportation comes up right on top of everything [as a concern], but it's something that people seem to have gotten very cynical about," said George Lovelace (D), who again is challenging Del. Jeannemarie Devolites (R) in her Fairfax County district. "I talked to one resident who said, 'We've tried to do something about it for years, but nothing has been done, so let's move on to something else.' "
That's not the sort of voter reaction Democrats anticipated this summer when they began hammering the Gilmore administration and Republicans for paying too little attention to transportation needs, particularly in growing, increasingly traffic-choked Northern Virginia.
Democrats hoped the issue was gold for them in their drive to keep Republicans from capturing control of the General Assembly on Nov. 2, when all 140 legislative seats are up for grabs.
Then, to the surprise of some of his critics, Gilmore responded on the last day of August with a six-year, $2.5 billion plan designed to expedite 90 projects across the state. Gilmore previously had named a transportation commission to come up with longer-term ideas--expected sometime next year, well after the election.
With that move, lawmakers of both parties say, Gilmore substantially altered the dynamics of transportation politics in the campaign. Democrats were no longer able to argue that the Republicans had no plan, but were left to argue instead that their plan was better--an approach requiring them to talk to voters about details such as the merits of selling bonds vs. relying on money from the national tobacco settlement.
"He's pretty well trumped the Democrats," said Del Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), expressing the view of many Republicans seeking reelection. Black, like other suburban lawmakers, has developed a stock stump speech on pet highway projects, traffic signals and methods for easing road construction disruptions in neighborhoods.
For Black, that menu includes extending Metrorail's Orange Line from West Falls Church to Dulles International Airport; a cloverleaf for Route 28; and rebuilding part of Route 15, to name a few.
Many Democrats grudgingly concede that Gilmore managed to partly defuse the issue, although they argue that Northern Virginia is getting the back hand of transportation bureaucrats in Richmond.
"We definitely need to do some of the things he said to do," said state Sen. Patricia S. Ticer (D), the former Alexandria mayor who has struggled with transit problems for years. "I'm pleased. . . I commend him for finally hearing the message that so many people have been delivering for so long," she said, adding that she finds "a lot to be feared" in the details of Gilmore's plan.
Democrats contend that they have a better blend of short- and long-term financing for roads, earmarking a chunk of the state's budget surplus and leveraging tax revenue to issue bonds, relying on neither higher taxes nor tobacco money.
Gilmore, in contrast, ridicules the bond idea as fiscally irresponsible, saying his plan gives broader transportation relief sooner and more effectively without raising taxes.
"The people of Northern Virginia are comfortable that the approach that I've put forward is a responsible one, carefully thought through, creative, significant, doesn't raise taxes," Gilmore said.
He proposes tapping the state's general fund for road projects--a big departure in Virginia--and relying on a national tobacco settlement to pump $750 million into transportation.
One of the obstacles to making a persuasive case to voters, many candidates and others agree, is that neither party has come up with a comprehensive plan that transportation experts say will solve the region's transportation problems for the long run.
"We await the plan du jour," said J. Kenneth Klinge, a Republican activist who advises Gilmore on transportation issues. "None of [the candidates] sit down and look at the whole or bigger picture."
Indeed, transportation planners say the $2.5 billion proposed by Gilmore--and the $2 billion proposed by Democrats--don't come close to the $11 billion in new money that must be spent simply to keep traffic from getting markedly worse by 2020.
Gilmore's allies in Northern Virginia say his plan is a start, but only a start.
"I don't think it's a 10-year plan," said Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax), an expert on the state budget. "There's a lot more, ultimately, we need to do. This is a little step that is a good beginning."
Leslie L. Byrne (D), a former delegate who is running for a Senate seat in Fairfax County, said most taxpayers aren't moved by the election-year promises about money for roads--even though they find jammed roads increasingly vexing.
"They are fully aware that we have the second-worst traffic congestion in the country and want to know what you'll do to help them get from Point A to Point B," Byrne said. At the same time, Byrne said they're wary of sweeping pledges by any candidate. "They want to know you're not going to over-promise."
That wariness was on display in interviews with about a dozen prospective voters outside a Giant grocery store in Vienna last week.
Nearly all of them said traffic congestion was a major concern. But none said they could distinguish between Democratic and Republican plans, and they said they doubted--at this point, anyway--that they'd cast their vote based on transportation issues.
"They're all saying pretty much the same thing," said Mary Clinton, a Fairfax County school administrator who has lived in Vienna for 22 years. "It's a complex issue, and some of the proposals seem unrealistic."
As Devolites, the incumbent campaigning against Lovelace in that district, worked the crowd in front of the store, none of the voters asked her about transportation.
Devolites's explanation: "They have a very low expectation that anything will happen."
CAPTION: Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) may have trumped Democrats when he unveiled a plan to unclog roads, but voters don't see much difference in the schemes.