- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 26, 2007

In a region as polarized and politicized as Washington, few will disagree about the one experience that unites us all: traffic.

No matter the setting — a water cooler, a waiting room, a supermarket line — you can break down any and all age, socioeconomic, racial, sex and ethnic barriers by the mere mention of someone”s latest harrowing encounter on an area roadway.

Be it road rage or gridlock, we are replete with similar horrific stories.

A friend who commutes daily from Northwest through the Springfield Mixing Bowl kidded about how he makes sure to leave his job in Northern Virginia before 3 p.m. if it”s his turn to pick up his child from an after-school program to avoid late fees assessed after 6 p.m.

At $10 a minute, who can blame him? Facing sudden traffic tie-ups that can pop up around any corner and are capable of burning up a tank of gas, his rush-hour situation, like those of so many working parents, is no laughing matter.

These days, it may take you three hours to creep through that confusing traffic maze at the Mixing Bowl — where Interstates 495, 95 and 395 converge — or figure out how to retrace your travels to get back on the oddly redesigned exit you missed to go in the direction you intended. As work crews put the finishing touches on the project — all 24 lanes at its widest point, 30 ramps, 41 miles of roadway and 50 bridges — after eight years of construction delays and detours, motorists are faced with a stone soup of new laws carrying fines, fees and taxes dubiously designed to pay for even more roads to clog.

Will the new traffic laws that take effect Sunday in Virginia really help alleviate long-standing traffic woes? Will those anticipated fines and fees only add to the state”s dwindling coffers and add cache to the upcoming campaigns of state politicians? “Roads cost money, and there”s no road fairy,” Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, told the Associated Press.

Surely, the no-tax conservatives up for re-election in the General Assembly in November will spin their messages to convince voters that they provided $525 million in new money for transportation projects without imposing new taxes.

Their campaigns will conveniently gloss over the fact that someone, primarily bad drivers, will be paying the freight. And those dedicated funds will barely make a dent in the mammoth load of infrastructure projects, especially in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, that the state desperately needs for commerce even more than commuters.

However, there is also the danger that law-enforcement officers will be more interested in writing tickets than improving road safety, which might cut down on accidents that cause congestion.

We have seen this so-called unintended result in the District, where exorbitant mountains of motorists” monies were confiscated through the city”s excessive speeding and red-light ticketing stings. In fairness, D.C. officials say the devices have reduced vehicle accidents and fatalities.

The new Virginia transportation laws will allow local jurisdictions to use similar photo cameras at intersections to catch red-light runners. No doubt the area”s motorists would welcome more initiatives and projects that permanently ease congestion and bad driving if they didn”t feel like they were being forever fleeced.

Members of the transportation authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, sanctioned during the last General Assembly session in a compromise with the governor and regional representatives, are holding public meetings this summer to solicit comments about road projects exclusively in those areas and the accompanying taxes to pay for them.

This authority is bound to get a tankful of impassioned suggestions from unwitting road warriors. Though helpful, this weighted board is bound to tackle only a small sector of a larger network.

For example, even though Fairfax and Loudoun County officials acquiesced and stopped their risky follies by finally approving the share of funding that will provide 14 new Metro stations along the Dulles corridor through Tysons Corner, it will be 10 years or more before that transit option is available. What happens to working parents stuck in traffic in the meantime? What happens if Loudoun backs out of its commitment again? Nowhere evident is the political will to regulate growth, generate transit funding or provide economic initiatives that will drive motorists out of their cars.

Just as many cars congest westbound Interstate 66 on Saturday afternoon as do those headed eastbound on Monday morning. Most of us can”t walk to work because most of us cannot afford to live anywhere near our workplaces. Even when we can walk, we won”t, not even to the drugstore down the block.

High gas prices and new revenue-generating traffic laws aside, the regional government initiatives needed to curb gridlock are still many moons beyond the horizon.



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