YOU'RE MOTORING on a freeway and you see a huge tie-up in the other direction. The lines go back for miles before you find the end of the jam. A little beyond there you see unsuspecting drivers tooling along with no knowledge of the awful experience about to confront them. Even the occasional "Expect Delays" warnings don't sink in quickly enough for those drivers to avoid compounding the mess ahead. That's how it is today on a much greater scale throughout the Washington area:
For far too many years already, the region has been heading along a road toward the Ultimate Standstill of Tomorrow. While some elected officials do warn about trouble ahead, no one is committing the political and financial capital necessary to cope with a transportation calamity already building. Still worse, other officials are belittling any prospect of a mammoth tie-up. Mass transit is the best answer, they submit, because better new roads beget new traffic.
Mass transit must be expanded, but not at the expense of highways. Today's commuter travel patterns show that people have to drive more than ever -- from home to day care or the grocery store and on to work, then back to pick up kids and run other mandatory errands. Travel in private vehicles accounts for more than 90 percent of all person-miles of travel. Yet sufficient road relief is nowhere in sight.
Though the Capital Beltway is choking daily, efforts to expand its capacity wind up being detoured. Plans for an outer beltway or bypass system run into roadblocks too; Maryland and Virginia have different views of where these roads and bridges should run. When it comes to raising transportation money, neither state is doing enough. Maryland Gov. Glendening has avoided increasing transportation taxes, and Virginia Gov. Gilmore doesn't even want to hear about them.
The biggest projects at least capture enough attention to crawl forward. The Wilson Bridge replacement has to be built as quickly as the courts will allow, now that federal assistance seems to be materializing. Some form of intercounty connector highway has to happen in Maryland soon.
But if transportation funds are left to dry up in both states, dozens of other projects will be delayed or dropped, and congestion will continue to spread in the Baltimore-Washington-Richmond region. If the two governors -- each one leaving office at the end of his term -- are shopping for legacies, they should consider a joint undertaking: to press for the establishment of a regional transportation authority with some stable sources of funding from the states, the District and local government partners. If somebody doesn't move soon, nobody will move much at all.