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Flash the Lights and Blow the Sirens

Northern Virginia Delegates Joe T. May, R-Loudoun, and Thomas Rust, R-Fairfax, were understandably quiet the night of July 10 as the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) convened in the wake of another special General Assembly session on transportation.

Both men were tired — the Assembly has adjourned in the wee hours of that same morning in Richmond — and talked out. Besides, neither May nor Rust, two of the most energetic and sensible Republican delegates on transportation finance and policy, had a real explanation as to why their colleagues had failed yet again to reach a compromise on solutions to a problem that is so self evident daily for commuters, travelers, shippers and freight movers.

Both men are engineers, born to solve problems, the kind of leaders even ideologues find useful from time to time. May is chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Rust, a voice for transportation investments as Mayor of Herndon for 19 years and since his election as a delegate in 2002, actually threw in with House Democrats in a failed attempt to approve a new financing plan.

But all the two delegates knew was that their caucus remained so splintered that it could agree on nothing new, not even a refinement of its work in 2007. Even in the face of lower revenue estimates for all state spending extending into 2010, factionalism and indifference again trumped common sense.

Or was it a cartoon-like lack of imagination and incompetence that had prevailed, such as that shown in “The Simpsons” when Springfield Police Chief Clancy Wiggum (the long, pudgy arm of the law) answers the “What do we do, Chief?” question from his deputies concerned with a serious situation they face.

“Have you flashed the lights and blown the siren?” Chief Wiggum suggests, then adds, “Well, I’m all out of ideas.”

Colleagues of the two delegates on the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, a mix of local and state government officials created by the General Assembly in 2002, however, were not so quiet on July 10. They knew that the failure to establish new, sustainable sources of revenue for transportation would delay or cancel 102 projects worth about $500 million in Northern Virginia over the next six years.

After first hearing representatives of Metrorail, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) and local governments reiterate their growing needs, authority members let loose a decade-long torrent of frustrations that must have had the ears of every delegate and state senator in Virginia burning.

“The VRE had seven of its top ten ridership days in June as people got out of their cars,” VRE chief of staff Dale Zehner explained. “Yet VRE is looking at a fuel bill that will top the $3.7 million we have budgeted by another $3 million.”

“We are no better off than we were last July,” Prince William Supervisor John Jenkins told the panel.

“We have carried 800,000 riders a day on Metrorail eleven times in recent weeks,” WMATA general manager John Catoe added, “but much of our system dates back to 1976 and is nearing the end of its useful life. We need to add capacity, but without a dedicated revenue stream we have to struggle just to meet our daily operational and maintenance needs.”
“Prince William County already devotes five cents of its property tax revenue to support the transportation bonds we issue locally because the state fails to provide adequate funding,” authority Vice Chairman Marty Nohe of Prince William County observed.

“I tremble to think of the repercussions of commuters being turned away from transit because there is no space and turned back from bridges that are crumbling and, as congestion gets even worse, of the flight of capital and businesses out of our region,” reflected Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly.

“This is the most stunning abrogation of responsibility in the history of the General Assembly,” NVTA Chairman and Arlington County Board Member Chris Zimmerman concluded as he reviewed the history of the authority. “We have done everything we can to prepare the way for effective and efficient use of new revenue for regional transportation projects. But the message is clear: We are not going to get any funding from the state for transportation.”

Zimmerman’s suggestion was to finish its business, close up and turn out the authority lights until the Assembly provides funds to support the body it created.

At least one authority member was mindful of the larger consequences of Virginia’s powers-that-be ignoring the needs of a growing region. That history shows that the non-responsiveness of Virginia leaders to infrastructure investment needs of the western part of Virginia in the early 1800s sowed the frustrations that would grow and split the state in two.

“It is one thing to be a donor region,” Loudoun County Board Chairman Scott York commented, “but through its inaction, the state is rendering it impossible for local governments to deliver the public safety, economic support and quality of life our residents and businesses expect.”

York suggested that rather than turn out the lights, the authority should consider reconstituting itself as a “Northern Virginia Statehood Commission.”

The NVTA will hold what could be its final meeting for sometime on September 11, a date already assured of a place on any list of days that will live in infamy. Whether the authority is put on hold or has the plug pulled, the powerfully long list of $500 million worth of Northern Virginia projects canceled or delayed will endure.

The 102 projects are spread across every jurisdiction and delegate district in Northern Virginia, which guarantees that the list in the 2009 elections for Governor and the House of Delegates will serve as a critical bill of particulars for new transportation investments — unless it is Virginia, itself, that is all out of ideas.

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