Transportation measures in two Northern Virginia counties have reignited a debate over whether governments are spending too much of their scarce funds on public transit and not enough on roads.
Bond issues on the Nov. 2 ballots in Fairfax and Arlington counties would send the bulk of the money raised to Metro to help the transit agency meet its financial needs, leaving smaller amounts for road improvements.
In Fairfax, $110 million, or two-thirds, of a $165 million bond package would go to Metro. Arlington leaders are asking for $18.5 million for Metro and $10.2 million for other transportation initiatives.
The ballot questions involve a tiny fraction of the $5 billion that would have been raised through the transportation tax proposal that was rejected by Northern Virginia voters in 2002. Nevertheless, they frame one of the region's major transportation issues: Are the burgeoning businesses and growing populations of the suburbs best served by improved transit or more roads?
The choice of roads versus rail played out most recently in a battle over extending Metrorail toward Dulles International Airport, a project still in the planning stages that many regional leaders hail as a way to link the job centers of Tysons Corner and Dulles to downtown Washington.
Opponents of the rail project say better roads are a cheaper way to move people. They condemn the plan to finance part of the project's cost -- which could be as much as $4 billion -- by raising the cost for motorists who use the Dulles Toll Road.
And some of those foes are criticizing the Fairfax bond proposal.
"Fairfax County is going to give Metro $110 million to help the rail system when the rail system isn't really carrying the load in Fairfax County," said Ken Reid of Landowners Opposing Wasteful Expenditures on Rail. "When you start getting out into suburbs, you find that most people are driving their cars, and politicians in Virginia are not doing anything to improve or expand road capacity."
Reid released a report yesterday titled "Metro Really Doesn't Matter," which suggests that rail lines pull people away from cheaper bus service and carpools and that the system serves a sliver of the population.
Fairfax County has five Metro stations, at which about 86,000 riders get on and off the system each day. The first phase of the Dulles extension would add five stations.
Transit advocates say roads contribute to sprawl and new ones quickly become congested. They point to packed cars on Metro's Orange Line and on Virginia Railway Express as evidence of the popularity of commuter trains.
"I think it's a cause to celebrate that officials across the [Washington] region have finally come together to fund critical Metro needs. It's long overdue," said Michael Replogle of Environmental Defense.
Road backers say that trains are prohibitively expensive and that money used on rail projects could build far more highway capacity. Some also suggest using that added capacity to run rapid bus service to move the masses.
The emphasis on transit on this year's ballot reverses priorities laid out in the bond question two years ago that would have raised sales taxes. About 60 percent of that money was earmarked for road construction.
"Right now we're focused on transit because of timing," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), citing a backlog of needs for Metro. "If we want to mitigate congestion and we want to try to absorb the growth that we know is coming, rail is an essential ingredient in our transportation future."
On Monday, the Fairfax board approved an agreement with Metro to help fund its $1.5 billion Metro Matters program to buy new rail cars and buses and pay for enough maintenance to keep the region's aging transit system going over the next six years.
Fairfax plans to use the money raised from the ballot question, plus $56 million of state funds and proceeds from previously approved bonds to cover its $166 million share.
Arlington's officials said they would use bond and state money to meet its $79.6 million, six-year commitment to Metro.