WITH THE passing of each congested day, greater Washington comes closer to that huge Moment of Traffic Truth that once seemed preposterous: when commuters in all directions are frozen in place indefinitely. Transportation experts have been warning for decades that the region is suffocating in its own traffic. It is not as if the engineering know-how were missing, nor is it a case of impossible financial dimensions. While the money demands are daunting, they can be met. The stumbling blocks are political. The big picture needs addressing by a string of governments -- federal, Maryland, Virginia, District and local. But they hide behind their jurisdictional differences to dismiss the idea of serious, concerted regional decision-making.
Still, a few local Democratic lawmakers -- Sen. Charles Robb, Rep. Jim Moran and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton -- have renewed their legislative call for an essential part of any solution: a regional transportation authority. The authority would be similar to the Metro federal-state-local partnership that overcame enormous, complicated financial and political odds to produce this region's rapid rail network. Like Metro, the transportation authority could be established by compact as a partnership to determine how pooled funds could be fairly spent and projects scheduled.
The idea invariably stirs fears in elected officials of a "super government" that would usurp cherished powers of taxation. Virginia Gov. Gilmore, for one, was quick to play the tax-scare card. A spokesman for the Republican governor dismissed the legislation as a partisan game without any proposed solutions or sources of money: "If they are really talking about new taxes they should just come out and say it."
The proposal would not grant the regional group any taxing authority -- nor could it, because state and local laws could not be summarily altered. The participating governments would have to agree to contribute, as they do with Metro. Virginia and other governments of the region have been partners in Metro for years, setting the construction and payment terms that have delivered the rail network. Like the regional airports authority -- in which Virginia has also been a key partner -- the regional authority could float bonds to get projects built.
Del. Norton notes that she could not support the legislation "if it were a roads-only bill" or if it sought to circumvent federal land use and environmental laws. Under the proposal, she explains, jurisdictions would have to reach consensus on any funds to be jointly authorized. The new authority would be "the first step toward an effective, balanced approach to make our transportation needs no longer a subject of conversation but rather a matter of action."
Who else among the region's leaders will stand up for this urgently needed approach to the region's mammoth transportation challenge?