THE MOST important vote in Northern Virginia this election day is a YES for transportation relief, locally controlled and coordinated with planning for managed, orderly growth. To vote no is to do nothing -- which is precisely what brought on so much of the congestion now crimping the lifestyles and wallets of residents and workers in the region. Opponents not only underplay the transit improvements that a yes vote can get going, they discount the desperate need for more road capacity. It is a need that has increased not because more roads have produced more traffic, but because road capacity has not kept up with growth. Arguing against more road capacity because it attracts more traffic is like arguing against more schools because they attract more children. The traffic and children are here; growth, however well managed, can't be freeze-framed.
The road and transit systems designed and built more than 30 years ago could barely handle traffic then. Projects on the board at that time were delayed or stopped, but that didn't stop growth. Some 1,500 lane miles of parkways planned in the mid-1960s to be in place today were not built, according to the George Mason Institute of Public Policy. Not all of these miles would be appropriate today, but the region is playing catch-up at best; new roadways fill up with traffic that has been spilling into, and jamming, neighborhood side roads. Since 1960 this region has added nearly 2.5 million people, and more vehicles than people. Transit systems today do not reach to where much of the population is -- in the Tysons-Reston-Herndon-Dulles-Eastern Loudoun corridor areas west of Vienna.
A yes vote on the question, which appears on the ballot as "Northern Virginia Sales and Use Tax," would raise the regional sales tax a half-penny per dollar. The money would remain in Northern Virginia, to be controlled locally and coordinated by those elected to be responsible for land-use policies. The alternative, if new roads and transit are ever to be funded, is to pray for a huge outpouring of money from Richmond -- money that for a host of bad reasons isn't there.
The unusual alliance of anti-any-tax groups and stop-roads, stop-growth advocates casts the revenue-raising proposal as a sneaky way for developers to pave the greenswards of the outskirts. These groups cite the money raised by developers and businesses -- and fully disclosed -- to finance the yes vote, but they refuse to disclose the sources of their own funding. They do not point to the fact that more than 80 percent of the yes supporters are individuals or businesses contributing $100 or less. They play down the importance of the referendum proposal to Metro, which cannot begin to relieve much more road traffic without a significant infusion of money.
Congestion costs money. According to the Texas Transportation Institute, 79 percent of freeway travel and 84 percent of arterial street travel during peak periods in this region occurs under congested conditions. Amount of fuel wasted per commuter annually: 136 gallons. Region's ranking in terms of miles of highway per thousand people: 30th of the 40 largest metro areas, based on population.
Intelligent strategies to curb sprawl and encourage transit travel must be stepped up -- and can be, with the local empowerment that the referendum will establish for home-generated transportation improvements. State, regional and local leaders from both parties and all jurisdictions in Northern Virginia finally have mustered the political courage to call for revenue-raising action necessary to unlock gridlock. Without a yes vote tomorrow, it will be back to a jammed square one.