THE CHANTS of Northern Virginia lawmakers for state action on this region's suffocating traffic grow louder. But they still fall on deaf ears in Richmond, where Gov. Gilmore responds with mutterings about "political grandstanding" and a chilly agreement to meet with the legislators at some point. Democrats and Republicans are busy upping the ante with competing proposals, but so far their biggest numbers wouldn't add that much to what Virginia has been spending on roads all along.
"All this posturing," says Fairfax Republican Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr., co-chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, is over "nickel-and-dime stuff" in terms of what is needed. For the current fiscal year the state is spending about $2.6 billion for road construction and maintenance. Proposals by the Democrats and Republicans depend on what projects each list includes and how solid the sources of revenues prove to be.
The Democrats seized the initiative with a financing plan using half the surplus along with revenue from recordation taxes. Republicans eventually churned out a proposal calling for 20-year bonds financed from money budgeted for non-recurring expenses. Back came the Democrats last week to top the bidding, proposing a $2 billion package with 40 percent coming from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement. How much that share may be -- and how much of it could be used for roads -- depends on cigarette sales; if one or more tobacco companies declared bankruptcy, the amounts would shrink.
Even with their competing proposals, members of both parties have joined in requesting a special legislative session to get moving. Their bipartisan agitating is hardly "grandstanding." The proposals would only begin to address an emergency in the making. They fall far short of what independent analysts for the region's top transportation panel say will be needed for roads and transit improvements. The bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council of elected officials concludes that $11 billion will be needed for projects over the next 20 years. Even after spending that much, the council says, most main roads would be as congested in 2020 as now; and some highways, such as Interstates 395 and 95 and Routes 50 and 123 would be worse. The council's project list includes 46 more miles of Metrorail, an additional 33 miles of light rail; widening of many roads, including the Beltway; and adding some new highways.
This kind of project list-making and pricing seems to be without end and without means. While major-league spending must be part of the response, analysts ought to be looking at more ways to apply supply-and-demand pricing on roads. Congestion ultimately might be tempered by a pay-for-use roads policy: tolls. Time wasted in traffic is money wasted. Sensible land-use patterns won't change all that much if transportation policies don't. But pay-by-the-trip policies might change the demands for roads, which in turn might facilitate sensible land-use decisions.
The state lawmakers in urban/suburban regions of Virginia are feeling the pressures to come up with big money -- and big thinking. Gov. Gilmore has yet to accept the scope or grasp the urgency.