Transportation issues consistently rank among the top concerns of Northern Virginia residents. But with Metro in financial crisis and the region's motorists wasting hours stuck in some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, Virginia's gubernatorial candidates have said little of substance on the issue — less than a month from Election Day.
"Virtually no one is talking about transportation," Prince William County Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said at a recent conference of the nonprofit Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance — not to be confused with the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which he chairs.
"I'm surprised that transportation hasn't been more of a topic," Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said earlier this month.
Metro needs at least $500 million annually in additional funding to support its safety and reliability or it risks further decline, agency officials say. INRIX, a leading traffic data firm, recently named a segment of Northern Virginia highway the worst traffic "hot spot" in the country. Southbound Interstate 95 between the Fairfax County Parkway and Fredericksburg, according to the study, averages 23 traffic jams a day. Researchers say that if congestion doesn't ease over the next decade, that stretch of I-95 will cost local motorists $2.3 billion in wasted time, lost fuel and additional carbon emissions.
What's more, the most recent report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Virginia a C-minus grade for its infrastructure, including roads, rail and transit.
So how would the two men vying to lead the state address these problems? The answers have sometimes proven elusive.
Republican candidate Ed Gillespie has laid out a transportation platform on his website, but his campaign declined repeated requests for interviews about the subject.
According to the platform, Gillespie says Metro must get a handle on its labor costs and reform its governance structure before he can consider new funding. He also stops short of pushing for dedicated funding, an annual, bondable source of revenue to support the agency's capital needs.
Gillespie says Metro must institute a "major reform roadmap," including improving on-time performance, creating a capital investment plan that ties funding directly to performance metrics, and developing a plan to determine where competitive bidding on contracts can be "most helpful."
"Virginia already provides hundreds of millions of dollars each year for the Washington Metro system, but much of this investment is wasted on bureaucracy and costs that do little to improve safety or the rider experience," Gillespie spokesman Dave Abrams said in a statement. "We cannot throw good money after bad, and Metro must make reforms."
Democratic candidate Ralph Northam has not outlined a transportation plan, but campaign staffers discussed the lieutenant governor's vision in a 40-minute interview. The campaign said Northam supports dedicated funding for Metro — provided the transit agency improves its governance, safety and reliability.
It's an approach similar to that of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) who has said he will propose dedicated funding for Metro in his final budget in December. Northam's campaign declined to say whether he would see the proposal through if elected, because there are no specifics.
"Ralph's position has always been that he wants to find a dedicated revenue source," campaign spokesman David Turner said. "The political reality is you can only get that done in Virginia once there is a level of trust from the public to [Metro] to spend the dollars wisely."
Both candidates favor restructuring Metro's unwieldy board.
Northam's campaign said he supports former U.S. transportation secretary Ray LaHood's proposal for a temporary reform board that could swiftly usher in changes and — ideally — win the confidence of the region, without reopening the agency's governing compact. Gillespie supports a permanent restructuring with executives "who will be open to innovation, improved performance standards and structural changes," Abrams said.
Northam's campaign said he is opposed to any solution that does not amount to dedicated funding. That includes Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan's (R) proposed four-year, $2 billion stopgap funding plan — which would see Maryland, Virginia, the District and the federal government split the bill equally.
"A stopgap plan is not what is needed and is not going to be effective — especially a stopgap plan that relies on federal funding that is . . . shaky at best," Turner said.
The Gillespie campaign did not respond to requests asking it to outline its stance on dedicated funding. Nor did the campaign address a question about whether it thought Hogan's plan to be an acceptable approach.
Neither candidate has said whether he would be willing to increase taxes to pay for Metro, the approach favored by D.C. officials.
On his website, Gillespie's vision includes improving Metro, turning to technology to reduce congestion, continued expansion of tolled express lanes on Interstates 95 and 395, and rigorous oversight of the widening of Interstate 66.
Interstate 81, the aging highway that straddles the western part of the state, also is a focus for Gillespie, who calls for an improvement project involving legislators, the private sector, bordering states, planners and the federal government. Gillespie says the group would work to "ensure that I-81 is made a priority."
"Virginia's transportation system must meet the needs of each region," Abrams said. "The congested urban crescent and our rural communities need the same things out of their transportation systems: convenience and reliability."
But Northam's campaign has criticized Gillespie for — in its view — not adequately spelling out how the improvements would be paid for, given that the Republican's proposed tax overhaul would cost more than $1 billion, according to estimates.
Gillespie has proposed a tax cut that he says would provide an additional $1,285 in disposable income a year to households of four, according to the campaign — by taking $1.3 billion from projected state revenue growth. (Some have questioned the campaign's math, pointing out that the household in question would have to be collecting far higher than state median average incomes to collect the amount Gillespie promises.) Northam has proposed a more modest tax cut that would cost the state $381 million, according to a recent estimate from the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis.
Layne said the two biggest transportation issues facing Northern Virginia relate to transit funding, and neither candidate has spelled out how they would be paid for: Metro's financial bind and an upcoming $130 million transit funding cliff that affects rural and urban commuter transportation. The candidates need to devise specific plans to tackle those and other issues, he said.
"My point would be: If you're going to say a project's going to get done, you're going to have to tell us how you're going to pay for it," Layne said. "If you just go, 'I'm going to fix this' and don't say how you're going to do it, I don't think that's very credible."
Gillespie, meanwhile, has attacked Northam for raising taxes as a state senator by supporting Virginia's $6 billion transportation bill in 2013, which garnered broad bipartisan support and has been hailed as then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell's signature accomplishment.
Gillespie called Northam's vote an endorsement of "the largest tax increase in Virginia history" — a line of attack that also could be viewed as criticism of the former Republican governor's policy. (Gillespie was general chairman of McDonnell's 2009 campaign,)
Complicating matters, Gillespie pledges in his platform not to repeal the transportation legislation, which raised the state sales tax to 4.3 percent from 4 percent to fund highways, railroads and transit.
Still, the campaigns have found common ground in some areas: their support of public-private investment, their acknowledgment of the problems facing Metro, and their commitment to "Smart Scale" prioritization of projects that provide the most congestion relief.
On roads, Gillespie pledges to work toward modifying signal timing to improve traffic flow and apply smarter infrastructure — such as movable barriers on bridges — to increase capacity.
"Generally speaking, those are all positive points," said David Birtwistle, chief executive of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which advocates for additional spending on roads and transit. "Specifics are necessary in order to understand where this is going to go."
"We're disappointed that both campaigns haven't been more forthcoming with information on solving our regional transportation issues," he added.
In response to a separate question about whether Virginia would provide funding for rebuilding the decaying American Legion Bridge, which is overseen by Maryland but links the states, Northam's campaign pointed to his answer from a primary debate.
"They need to be at the table," Northam said of Maryland. "They haven't been. When they are ready to sit down at the table, Virginia will be there."
Gillespie did not respond directly to the question.
"He would work with Governor Hogan on all projects benefiting the national capital region," his spokesman said.
Robert McCartney contributed to this report.