Virginia's transportation woes are multiple, but the primary issue may be summed up by an encounter with a Swiss police officer. If the sign says, "Parken Frei," then you get to park for free, right? Nein. It simply means that there's an available spot. You still pony up, twit -- or, as the Swiss cop said as he wearily leaned into one more dim American's car window, "Not free!"
Somehow that message needs to get across to Virginia road users: not free. But don't count on our leading gubernatorial candidates -- Republican Jerry Kilgore and Democrat Tim Kaine -- to post the notice. Both men seem to have adopted the same approach embraced by Jim Gilmore when he was governor: If you just keep talking, keep hurling diversions and keep rationalizing cost avoidance, you can win high office and live happily ever after. Kilgore and Kaine have their own sets of proposals -- assorted variations on alchemy mostly all premised on the notion, as Gilmore once confidently asserted, that you can build roads and improve transportation without paying for it.
In this part of the world, there are no such delusions. Austria instituted a decal system a few years ago for its main cross-county arteries. France requires cash or a credit card every 30 miles or so on its expressways. And gas taxes throughout Europe explain why fuel prices here soar above those of the United States. Here they build roads and oblige motorists to share the real, not pretend, costs. Public policy and human inclinations converge.
Max Eidlhuber, an Austrian hotelier who once ran major hotels in the United States, now operates the graceful Landhaus zu Appesbach in Austria's Salzgammergut. "There's a general understanding here that you have to pay for what you drive on," he says, noting a clear divergence in continental attitudes, "your taxes are what, half ours?" A little better than that, in fact, and if you listen to Kilgore and Kaine, state gas taxes will remain low. Some gift. For the joy of electing one of these fellows governor, Virginia's urban corridor -- from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads -- will remain mired in increasingly congested and dangerous traffic. Kilgore and Kaine will shift, reallocate or borrow money or, in Kilgore's case, abdicate fiscal authority to new regional authorities, but neither man will provide new money.
Consider a few recent developments in the wacky world of getting there from here in Ol' Virginny:
* The commonwealth's first private-public toll road project -- the much-heralded Pocahontas Parkway serving suburban Richmond -- has missed revenue projections by so great a margin that the state is willing to consider an Australian bailout, allowing the firm to pay off the debt and become the road's new operator. (This same outfit -- Transurban -- also wants to build and operate toll lanes on the Capital Beltway.) The latest price revision on the vaunted Metrorail extension out to Hermes near Tysons Corner (and oh, yeah, Dulles, too) is up to $4 billion.
* The equally celebrated Southwest Virginia Coalfields Expressway -- a 51-mile Skyline Drive-like thoroughfare linking rural counties -- is bumping up around $4 billion. Four years ago, it was supposed to cost $1.6 billion and the Federal Highway Administration, citing ballooning costs, has withdrawn its support of the project.
The proponents of these projects say they will persevere. Still, it would be nice if they would offer a charitable gasp, even to acknowledge that "public-private" can be more problematic than first envisioned and that rising costs on individual transportation passions usually result in trade-offs elsewhere.
In other words, an incoherent transportation policy ought not to be Virginia's default position. But that doesn't happen. No one concedes anything inconvenient or off-key. That's why there are highways such as Route 288 west of Richmond, a comparatively empty but highly expensive dual-laned road that stretches over hill, vale and river. It was built on the promise of a silicon chip manufacturer's arrival. Only the company changed its mind and guess what? Virginia built Route 288 anyway and now it quietly sits while Interstates 81, 64, 66 and 95 become monuments to transportation inadequacy and neglect.
Outside Munich last weekend, traffic crawled nearly to a halt on the southbound lanes of the autobahn as caravan-hauling vacationers made for the mountain and lake resort regions. Highway congestion bedevils life in Europe as well as the United States. At least here they are realistically trying to make provisions by raising money directly and building roads where people want to drive.
In Virginia, where new sources of road money have not emerged in nearly 20 years and the American Highway Users Alliance has highlighted aging I-64 as the second-worst bottleneck in the nation for beach-longing travelers, relief remains unavailing.