The competing traffic congestion solutions for Northern Virginia put forward by the state's campaigning Republicans and Democrats would both fall far short, according to independent analyses, with each providing only about a tenth of the money planners say is needed just to keep current suffocating conditions from getting worse.
With traffic congestion emerging as the hottest campaign issue in Virginia's legislative elections, Republicans and Democrats have scrambled over the last week to position themselves as the saviors of beleaguered commuters.
But even if the money called for in the plans materialized -- both sides have failed so far to provide key financial details -- it would be far less than the $11 billion in new spending called for by Northern Virginia's top transportation panel.
A report coming this month from the bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council, composed of three dozen elected officials, says that even after spending $11 billion, most main roads would be as congested in 2020 as now. And some highways, such as Interstates 95 and 395, and Routes 50 and 123, would be worse.
"It's startling," said Fairfax City Mayor John Mason, a member of the coordinating council. "It's clear that one of the major lessons is we've got to do better to relate our transportation planning and our land-use planning."
Under the council's program, Northern Virginia would add 46 miles of Metrorail, including lines along the Beltway and to Dulles, Centreville and Fort Belvoir, and an additional 33 miles of light rail. The plan also calls for widening the Beltway, Interstate 66 and 10 other routes as well as building or rebuilding 75 interchanges and adding two new highways: a Route 234 bypass extension north of I-66 and the proposed Tri-County Parkway.
The funding plans rolled out by the two parties in recent days, Mason said, "only scratch the surface of what Northern Virginia's needs are."
At a news conference last week, Republican legislators proposed financing $3.5 billion in highway and transit projects across the state, including $870 million for Northern Virginia. All but $6 million of this share would pay for the state's portion of a nearly $2 billion project to extend Metrorail through Tysons Corner and along the Dulles Access and Toll Road.
Del. John H. "Jack" Rust Jr. (Fairfax) and fellow Republicans said their 20-year bonds could be financed from state budget accounts worth $225 million that this year are paying for items they say are not expected to recur. The GOP legislators referred questions about specifics to finance officials on the staff of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R). Administration officials did not respond to repeated requests for that information.
Virginia Democrats, meanwhile, have offered a plan that involves using half the state surplus and $71 million a year in money from recordation taxes -- paid when property deeds are recorded -- for road and transit improvements.
They said the recordation taxes could be used to back 10-year bonds that would produce $710 million statewide. Democratic legislators, however, provided varying estimates of how much money would come back to Northern Virginia -- projections ranged from $200 million to $470 million -- and none of the officials said he had actually researched the specific amount. They said the region would receive about $70 million next year from the budget surplus. If the surplus remains constant, the two measures could produce about $1.5 billion over 20 years.
A rough comparison of the rival plans shows that each would provide about $125 million a year to Northern Virginia if all the bond money were spent over seven years and the surplus held constant.
"If it's spent as well as possible, it might make some difference," said Bob Chase, spokesman for the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. "There is no way you can say it erases most of the problem."
Gilmore continued to draw fire from both Democrats and Republicans in Northern Virginia, who accuse him of paralysis in the face of the region's traffic crisis. His spokesman, Mark A. Miner, said the governor has a commission working to prepare his own plan but was not ready to offer details or say when they would become available.
Business leaders have thanked legislators in both parties for suggesting new sources of funding but have added that the proposals so far remain sorely inadequate.
"If it's one component in an overall plan, that's great. If that's all we're going to see, it's not going to get the job done," said Tony Howard, public affairs manager for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, referring to the Republican initiative.
Several legislators have expanded on their party's initiatives, suggesting additional sources of transportation money.
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) said the proceeds from a Democratic plan to return increasing portions of the state income tax to local governments over the next decade should be dedicated to transportation. Though Howell would not specify the amount of money involved, party officials said this could ultimately provide Northern Virginia with about $150 million a year to spend on local priorities.
On the Republican side, Sen. Warren E. Barry (Fairfax), chairman of a key transportation committee in the legislature, has urged his party to go further, repeating his call to direct part of the budget surplus to roads and transit, as Democrats are now recommending. Even that, he acknowledged, would hardly meet Northern Virginia's need.
Unlike many of his GOP colleagues, Barry left the door open to a possible increase in the gas tax.
"We reached a point in time, if we can't find any other solution, that would probably be something I could support," he said.
Some Democrats also evinced a willingness to consider increasing the gas tax. Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said he might support a two- or three-cent hike if other elements of the Democratic transportation plan were adopted first.
But the limits of a gas tax are clear. Each cent produces only $44 million statewide a year. If Northern Virginia receives one-third of that, it's barely enough to widen a mile and a half of Route 1 in Fairfax County from four to six lanes. Meeting the funding shortfall identified in the coordinating council's report would require pumping up the gas tax by at least 35 cents a gallon.
The council calls for $9.7 billion in new money to expand the region's transportation system and $1.15 billion to operate and maintain it, beyond the $15.8 billion that is already planned over the next 20 years.
Even that massive investment cannot completely keep pace with the region's sprawling development, the study concluded. That has prompted some local officials and community activists to urge a major departure for Northern Virginia: aggressive land-use planning to focus development around Metro stations in places such as Vienna and Springfield, much as Arlington County has done at Ballston.
Staff writer Dan Grech contributed to this report.