FROM NORTHERN VIRGINIA to nearby Maryland, trying to follow the winding routes of tax-and-transportation bills in Richmond or Annapolis is getting to be rough going. Even lawmakers right on the scene in either capital are feeling the strain of keeping one eye on the legislative calendars and another on their pockets. They all share the same goal -- to come home with state-approved plans for raising the requisite amounts of revenue for Metro. But beyond these essential missions in search of the "stable" Metro financing necessary to meet federal requirements, any similarity between where the bucks may stop or start in each state is purely coincidental and subject to more than a little debate.
When we last left Annapolis, Gov. Harry Hughes had detoured around a gasoline tax increase and was heading for a package of proposals involving increases in yearly auto-tag fees along with some transfers of certain revenues from existing taxes into the state's transportation fund. The danger in any such package is that it may get picked apart, leaving too little to meet the tab. So far at least, the reaction to the governor's plan has been relatively mild, limited to some routine grousing for the record. But now these proposals need the support they deserve from leaders in the General Assembly, to ensure orderly consideration before the eleventh-hour free-for-all in which so many Maryland bills have been mangled.
More dizzying is the action in Richmond, where nobody likes any proposal very much. The House has approved a 4 percent tax on retail gasoline sales in Northern Virginia, while Gov. John Dalton's bid for a smaller but statewide gas tax -- after initially getting a cold legislative shoulder in committee -- seems to be turning into a two-or-three-cents-a-gallon tax exclusively for highways. Legislative timing and maneuvering becomes key here, since the Senate may come up with yet another combination of proposals. The danger is that members of Northern Virginia's delegation, already splitting over how a regional tax should apply to their localities, still may wind up with nothing.
Whatever intramural difficulties they may have with the regional tax should be stashed for now, so that full time and attention can be devoted to the fast-track maneuvering going on. It is critical that Virginia agree this year on a plan for financing the subway, as a vital part of the state's transportation system. This year -- in Annapolis as well as Richmond -- the delegations from this region are under unprecedented pressures to win financing for Metro. But in both states, there is also new, important support from the governors that should not be squandered. With a little attention to unified efforts, the two delegations don't have to come home shortchanged or emptyhanded.