BY SUMNER WIDDOES
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
RICHMOND – Imagine the Northern Virginia road network as a system of extensions off a major highway, much like the human body's collection of arteries and capillaries stemming from larger highways of blood coming from the heart. Now imagine how devastating and far-reaching an effect a blood clot in one of the major arteries has on the smaller roads throughout the body.
Such is the daily dilemma of Northern Virginia residents, who are consistently faced with one or two options their commutes, all of which lead to nothing more than gridlock and frustration.
And it may just seem like an unaesthetic trend throughout Fairfax and Prince William Counties, but the rising grass levels in medians is likely the sign of a much larger, more pressing issue. Road maintenance and land development have been neglected for the last few years, and, as the Virginia General Assembly begins its 2007 session, it is apparent that transportation issues will be near the top of the agenda.
Sen. Toddy Puller (D – Mt. Vernon) and Del. David Bulova (D – Fairfax) both agree that it is imperative to address the strains on the transportation budget during this winter's session. Both see the wide range of detriments of a department whose trust fund has not been updated in more than two decades. According to Bulova, if the Virginia Department of Transportation continues to operate at its current budget without further supplements to its trust fund, it will run out of money by 2010.
In Puller's eyes, this legislative session is crucial in getting new funding for Northern Virginia's roads and public transit because it is an election year. After helping to pass a hefty transportation package in 2004 that was eventually defeated in the House of Delegates, Puller believes that delegates will finally be put on the spot to fix these pressing issues, or face a defeat at the polls.
"Many delegates have sworn to never, ever raise taxes, no matter how dire the circumstances," Puller said.
The last time taxes were raised, in 2004, when sales taxes were increased half a cent, "many people did not pay any more on taxes, and most people didn't even notice it," she said.
Puller, who is in her second term in the Senate after serving in the House from 1992-2000, believes that "most senators feel like if we pass something over there (to the House of Delegates), it will die." This is mainly because of the statewide funding, as opposed to local fundraising, that she believes is necessary to properly rehabilitate the transport system.
Along with senatorial pressure, Puller said many Fairfax- and Arlington-based companies are pressuring those who remain opposed to tax increases for road maintenance.
"If those companies can't get their employees to work," she said, "then they are going to leave."
Bulova, though, sees the transportation issues affecting more than just the Northern Virginia economy. He is concerned with the environmental impact of more cars sitting in traffic longer, and the impact of longer commutes on the quality of his constituent's lives.
"We need to have the ability to step up to the plate," Bulova said. "There is trepidation statewide to let us raise and keep money locally [for transportation issues]."
While he recognizes that road maintenance and construction is a problem across the state, Bulova contends that the statewide plans "don't fit Northern Virginia's needs." For example, Fairfax needs to build roads, complete the construction of unfinished roads, and completely revamp its public transport system, while Arlington is more concerned with accommodating mass transit and road maintenance.
Bulova commended the Northern Virginia Transit Authority's TransAction 2030 plan, which it approved last September.
"It was a great example of everyone sitting at a table and hashing out a good regional plan," he said.
The plan calls for "more than $16 billion in unmet transportation needs," according to an NVTA press release.
Bulova also supports a constitutional amendment recently introduced by Del. David Albo (R – Springfield) that would appropriate funds to necessary transportation projects and prohibits borrowing transportation funds for other purposes. This bill has been referred to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections.
But for all of the necessary repairs and maintenance on existing roads, there is still the blood clot analogy that paralyzes Northern Virginia towns. Bulova stressed that planning and development is directly tied to transportation funding, and that "the money will all go to waste if we don't fix land use planning." He aims to empower localities to refuse rezoning from state or county legislatures if it can prove that it will disrupt transportation.
There are a number of potential solutions to the Northern Virginia transportation crisis. But for Puller and Bulova, it all begins with convincing a majority of delegates who hold the keys to the necessary funds of the region's dire circumstances.