The men who would be Virginia's next governor have unveiled grand transportation agendas, each hoping to persuade fed-up commuters to vote for him Nov. 8.
Former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) wants to create regional road authorities that could hold referendums on raising taxes. Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) promises a personal tour statewide in which he would listen to concerns about traffic. Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr., the Republican from Winchester who is running as an independent, says he would call a special legislative session.
Voters concerned about traffic congestion will have to sort out the promises before they head to the polls.
In addition, House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who is not running for governor, has begun talking openly about his ideas for improving Virginia's transportation system. Some of them are far more radical than any of the candidates' proposals.
In a wide-ranging speech to the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce this month and in comments elsewhere, Howell has said that Virginia should consider selling its largest, most profitable toll roads to private companies.
"Did you know," he told chamber members, "that global finance markets are awash with capital -- totaling as much as $500 billion -- for economically sound highway projects?"
Howell has said, for example, that Virginia might be able to sell the Dulles Toll Road and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for $3 billion, giving the state upfront money to spend on road projects.
In the Fredericksburg speech, he compared the idea to Chicago's decision to lease its Skyway toll road for $1.8 billion, and a Texas plan to allow Cintra, an international engineering and construction company, and the San Antonio-based Zachry Construction Corp. to build the Trans-Texas Corridor for $1.2 billion, in exchange for the rights to operate the toll project for 50 years.
"I grant you, the idea of investor-owned highways might strike some of you as odd," Howell said. "But think about it. It is no more radical than investor-owned electric utilities or investor-owned telecommunications firms."
In some ways, Virginia is already moving in that direction, out of necessity.
The Beltway project envisioned by the Virginia Department of Transportation does not go quite as far as Howell would like. Once the project is completed, the state would still own the Virginia portion of Interstate 495. But the private companies that built it would operate the tolls -- and reap the profits.
That is the big question about Howell's idea: Is it penny-wise and pound-foolish?
No one doubts that Virginia needs a major infusion of funds. There are enormous projects looming that cost billions, including extending Metrorail to Dulles International Airport and building new Potomac River crossings. A new tunnel or bridge in Hampton Roads alone would cost billions.
Transportation officials are wringing their hands about the growing cost of maintaining Virginia's already huge network of roads, bridges and tunnels. At some point in the not-too-distant future, all the state's road money will be consumed by maintenance costs, leaving none for building new projects.
In theory, Howell's proposal would help, at least in the short run. It would pump money into the system that could be used to match federal grants for wider highways, bigger bridges or new tunnels.
Critics wonder about the long term, when a road's debt is paid off and the tolls keep pouring into the coffers of the private company that owns or leases the road from the state. Would people then wonder why Virginia wasn't raking in the money?
It's not a crazy notion. The bonds that built the original Dulles Toll Road have long been paid off. The tolls, which continued, initially paid for the road's expansion and are now a major source of funding for the proposed extension of rail toward Dulles. If a private company had bought the road years ago, private investors -- not the state -- would be reaping the rewards.
Howell's proposal to sell state roads is driven in part by his opposition to increasing taxes. In the Fredericksburg speech, he reiterated his opposition, calling the gas tax "a flawed and failing mechanism" for raising transportation money. He signaled that he would once again oppose any efforts in the 2006 General Assembly to increase gas taxes.
He might have to. Republican senators, who in 2004 proposed increasing transportation taxes by $800 million annually, are developing proposals for next year that are almost certain to include tax increases. Howell's aides said he is actively developing his transportation agenda to offer as an alternative.
Taken together with the promises made by gubernatorial candidates, the focus on transportation by Howell and senators promises to make 2006 a very interesting year for Virginians stuck in traffic.