The two major party candidates for governor each promised Northern Virginians yesterday that he will get the region's traffic moving and warned that transportation improvements will stall if his opponent is elected.
Former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore (R) and Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) spoke one after the other to the Potomac Officers Club in what the group's founder called an "old-fashioned, side-by-side, stand-and-compare."
But the two politicians were not on the stage together, and Kaine continued to criticize Kilgore for refusing to accept more opportunities to debate. Last week, Kilgore bowed out of a debate that was to have been televised statewide.
Kilgore has also refused to debate Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running for governor as an independent. Potts said he did not receive an invitation to address the business group, a nonprofit networking organization open to senior executives that met at the Ritz-Carlton in McLean.
"I call on both of my opponents to get on a stage with me and talk about transportation," Kaine said at the end of his 20-minute talk.
Kaine and Kilgore, neither of whom is from Northern Virginia, used the event to introduce themselves. Kaine talked at his typical rapid-fire rate about his work as a missionary, lawyer and mayor. The slower-paced Kilgore talked about his youth in Southwest Virginia and joked about his twin brother, who is a state delegate.
The candidates also focused on their plans for transportation, declaring it a critical issue, and criticized each other's ideas for financing roads, bridges, tunnels and rail lines.
Kilgore said, "My opponent's plan can be summed up this way: Stuck in traffic. Get used to it."
Kaine criticized Kilgore's plan for regional transportation authorities, and he declared that a "local referendum is no substitute for leadership at the top."
Both candidates vow to protect the state's transportation trust fund from legislators who might want to use it for other programs. Both say they want to make better use of public-private partnerships for construction projects. And both have said they will not raise gas taxes to pay for the billions of dollars in projects that politicians and planners say are needed.
But there are differences. Kilgore would create regional authorities that could operate toll roads and borrow money using low-interest bonds. He would allow the regions to hold referendums on whether to raise taxes to support transportation programs.
Kilgore vowed to widen Interstate 66 inside the Beltway, and he received applause by promising to build another bridge to Maryland.
"I'm the only candidate committed to another crossing. . . . I will deliver," he said.
Kaine said state and local officials need to do a better job of coordinating road and land-use planning so that communities are not expanded beyond transportation capacity.
"The state is continually trying to play catch-up with the land use planning of 134 cities and counties," Kaine told the audience, which included several of the region's elected officials.
He also pledged again to "barnstorm the state" after the election to build a "coalition for action" on a transportation plan.
Elsewhere, Potts has described himself as the only candidate willing to be blunt about transportation needs. He has said "everything needs to be on the table" and has specifically indicated support for raising the state's 17.5-cent tax on gasoline. He has promised to call a special session of the legislature and not let it adjourn without confronting the transportation issue.
Several executives at yesterday's event said they are pleased that Kaine and Kilgore are treating transportation issues seriously.
Gary Nakamoto, chief executive of a government contractor, said he supported the proposed sales tax referendum in 2002 that would have raised $5 billion for transportation. He said he is a Kilgore supporter because the Republican would empower local jurisdictions.
"Empowering these regional authorities would keep a lockbox on the money we raise in these regions," Nakamoto said.
Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who was in the audience, said Kilgore has "no plan for added investment in transportation. He's saying you're on your own."
In front of the group, Connolly criticized Kilgore for opposing the referendum in 2002, prompting Kilgore to say, "I supported the transportation referendum."
Kilgore later clarified that he supported "the right of the people in Northern Virginia to vote" on the proposed sales tax increase but did not urge people to vote one way or the other. He said he personally would have voted against the sales tax increase but pledged not to "get involved" in any referendum that any of his regional authorities would propose.
Political observers predict that no matter who wins the governorship Nov. 8, the battle over transportation spending during the 2006 General Assembly session will rival the legislature's extended tax debate in 2004.
During that fight, a majority in the Senate voted to raise gas and other taxes by $800 million a year to help pay for transportation projects. That plan was scrapped as part of the compromise that ended a two-month budget stalemate.
Now, senior GOP senators may present another plan, which could include even larger tax increases. If so, they could face a Gov. Kilgore or a Gov. Kaine who has promised to veto such increases, setting up another stalemate.
This time, the governor might have the House of Delegates on his side. House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) has also vowed not to raise the gas tax in 2006. Howell has said in recent speeches that he wants the state to do much more to privatize the road-building process.