Weeks before Virginia's political parties began bombarding voters with competing initiatives to cure traffic congestion, then-Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D) walked into a Roanoke conference hall and fired off the opening shot.
Baliles, who had summoned the legislature back from recess in 1986 to raise unparalleled quantities of cash for roads and transit, was determined to deliver a "wake-up call" to the state. He told a June meeting of transportation experts what many Northern Virginia motorists suspected: Traffic has grown worse over the past decade while state officials seem to have deluded themselves into believing the crisis would solve itself.
Since this entreaty, Virginia's legislative election campaign has accelerated and rival candidates have elbowed each other aside in a bid to offer the best and fastest fix for traffic. But as much as Republicans and Democrats have jousted over the issue, Election Day is now two days away and neither party has offered a long-range vision nor a long-term source of funding to address Northern Virginia's transportation problems.
"I have been underwhelmed by the proposals," Baliles said last week. "The proposals appear to be more political than economic. They appeared to be shaped to meet the short-term political problem of getting through the election cycle rather than the real long-term needs of the commonwealth."
The rival plans offered first by Democratic legislators, then by Republican legislators, and finally by Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), promise between $1.9 billion and $3.5 billion in new money for Virginia's roads and transit. But leaders of both parties acknowledge that these plans are primarily stopgap measures that do not provide a sustainable source of transportation funding.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (R-Fairfax), who could become House speaker if the Republicans take control of the General Assembly, said his party's plan seeks to accomplish several significant projects "in a very short time frame," including the extension of Metrorail through Tysons Corner to Dulles International Airport. But he added that the Republican program "is not a long-term solution. The longer-term solutions can come in the longer term."
Craig K. Bieber, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party, said his candidates have also suggested ways to boost transportation spending immediately while leaving the question of a reliable funding source until after the elections. "Once you talk about the long term, that's where the legislative process comes in," he said. "It's sort of difficult to do that right now in the middle of a political campaign."
Developing a steady funding source could pose the kind of wrenching choices about increasing taxes, borrowing more and divvying up of transportation dollars across the state that politicians loathe, especially before an election.
"It's a question of Richmond designating more funds for transportation, sustainable year-after-year funding," said Robert T. Grow, transportation director for the Greater Washington Board of Trade. "I haven't heard enough to convince me that we're close to getting there."
Instead, Democrats have offered a plan they predict will raise $2.3 billion statewide over the next four years. Most of this would be bonds financed with the fees paid on real estate transactions and with proceeds from the national tobacco legal settlement. The balance would come from budget surpluses and other general treasury money.
Republican lawmakers, meantime, have proposed a $3.5 billion initiative that involves issuing bonds, repaid with money from the general treasury, to finance projects in the next seven years.
Many Republican candidates have also rallied behind Gilmore's transportation program. This would provide $1.9 billion in new funds over the next six years, mainly by tapping the tobacco settlement and spending money from the general treasury. Beyond this, it would also accelerate the receipt of $590 million in federal money promised to Virginia.
While the governor's plan goes farther than the others' in making a long-term commitment to transportation funding, this would represent only $150 million annually. And of that, Republican leaders say less than $40 million a year would come to Northern Virginia--where a bipartisan commission recently said an average of $550 million a year is needed over the next two decades just to keep traffic from getting worse.
Gilmore said the $150 million annual allocation from the treasury lays the groundwork for long-term transportation investments, adding that legislators could boost that sum. "I'm letting the General Assembly make some decisions about that," he said last week.
Ultimately, the task of designating a reliable source of cash could fall to the governor's special transportation commission, impaneled this spring under the chairmanship of J. Kenneth Klinge, of Alexandria, a transportation expert and Republican campaign consultant. The group, which has been meeting monthly, is expected to issue two interim reports before completing its review in December 2000.
In the first report, scheduled for release by Dec. 1, the commission plans to establish criteria for selecting the most urgently needed projects, Klinge said. The second report, due out by July, will recommend changes in the operations of the Virginia Department of Transportation and a more comprehensive approach to highway and transit planning. The final report will suggest how to raise more money through a reliable funding source, possibly including increases in income, sales or gas taxes.
Dependable funding is what is missing from the election-year plans floated by the two parties, said Bob Chase, of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. "We haven't seen a proposal that gets to that aspect of the problem," he said. "At some point in the very near future, we have to address this long-term issue. Every year, we fall farther and farther behind."
In his Roanoke speech, Baliles attributed part of the current funding crisis to his administration's success 13 years ago in winning an immediate infusion of cash. That removed the urgency of crafting a long-term transportation solution and left Virginia, ultimately, to "lurch from one crisis to another."
He warned in an interview that Virginians might again be wooed into a false sense of security by the quick fixes offered by the two parties. "Funding needs to be steady and reliable over time," he said. "I don't see any light at the end of the tunnel."
Below is a breakdown of the rival political plans for statewide transportation funding:
Democratic legislators' 4-year plan
1. Bonds retired with proceeds from the tobacco legal settlement:
2. Bonds retired with fees paid for recording deeds:
3. Portion of budget surpluses:
4. Money from the general treasury:
TOTAL: $2.330 billion
Gov. Gilmore's 6-year plan
1. Money from the general treasury:
2. Proceeds from the tobacco legal settlement:
3. Accelerated receipt of federal transportation funds:
4. More efficient collection of fuels tax:
TOTAL: $2.514 billion
Republican legislators' 7-year plan
1. Bonds retired with funds from the general treasury:
2. Money from the general treasury:
TOTAL: $3.500 billion
NOTES: Many Republican legislators also support the governor's plan. Dollar figures are estimates provided by the parties and have not been verified.