Gov. Gerald Baliles completed a grand tour of Virginia last week that should serve him in good stead when the state legislature meets in special session on transportation next fall. Though no one who has spent more than five rush-hour minutes in northern Virginia can fail to understand that transportation is a challenge of critical proportions, the tour is bound to have reinforced the urgency of the situation for legislators from the rest of the state.
It happened that one most important legislator, House Speaker A. L. Philpott, was also in the region -- to participate in Saturday's opening of Orange Line Metro service to Vienna. He is certain to have a major say is any legislation that the special session approves. In Richmond, where the talking and trading on transportation historically has pitted rurals against urbans and roads against rails, the understanding and clout of the house speaker could be pivotal. Though Speaker Philpott was careful not to commit himself to anything specific, he did pledge to work for "one package for your total transportation needs." Those are encouraging words.
Gov. Baliles, meanwhile, rolled into the region with a blitz of announcements, orders and ideas that won bipartisan praise. He approved a crackdown on unsafe and speeding trucks on interstate highways, with emphasis on the nightmarish Capital Beltway; the addition of "push bumpers" on all state police cars to allow them to shove stalled vehicles off the highways in a hurry; the start of a police motorcycle patrol unit to work the interstates and get to traffic delays more swiftly; and the widening of the Dulles Toll Road, along with new commuter bus ramps between it and the Dulles Access Highway. The governor reported he has reached a tentative solution to an insurance problem that has been delaying the start of an experimental commuter train between Fredericksburg and Union Station in Washington.
While this is a fine list, the hard part lies ahead in Richmond. Federal money isn't there the way it once was, but road needs are. The old revenue-raising techniques -- increases in the gas tax or the sales tax -- won't do it by themselves. The governor, armed with recommendations from a commission that will report this summer, will be talking bond issues in the fall. The legislators will be talking geography. The results will depend greatly on the quality of homework the governor delivers.