One of Warner’s failures came on transportation, an issue that bedevils every Virginia governor. In 2002, he persuaded the legislature to allow Northern Virginia and the Hampton Roads area to vote on a half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for new roads and transit. In the DC suburbs, this would have yielded nearly $5 billion for new roads and mass transit over 20 years.
The referendum bombed in both regions. In Northern Virginia, it was attacked by antitax conservatives along with smart-growth activists who argued persuasively that more roads equaled more sprawl.
Voters also bristled at the idea that they would pay a special tax for what they saw as a state responsibility.
“We got whupped,” Warner says.
Richmond and Northern Virginia have sparred over roads for more than 40 years. When the state moved in the 1960s to build I-66 under President Eisenhower’s interstate-highway program, an Arlington citizens group sued, citing potential noise and pollution. A compromise was forged—the highway would run only four lanes in the county—but the years-long fight drove up construction costs and antagonized state officials. One told Til Hazel: “Never again will I send money or highway help to Northern Virginia. There are plenty of places in the state that want our money and our help.”
After Robb’s 1981 election, Northern Virginia’s delegation arrived in Richmond hell-bent on getting new funds for Metro and roads. “We’re bound and determined that, by God, our urban needs are going to be recognized,” Annandale delegate Vivian Watts told the assembly. Within a few years state money for Fairfax roads had doubled along with Metro funding.
House of Delegates speaker A.L. Philpott, a power broker from Southside, marveled at Northern Virginia’s clout. “That’s the third political party here,” he said.
In 1986, Northern Virginia helped punch through the largest spending package in 20 years, all dedicated to transportation. Bill Thomas, Til Hazel’s law partner, organized businesses behind the plan. Vivian Watts—whom Governor Gerald Baliles had tapped as secretary of Transportation—led a traveling road show that detailed the new blacktop planned for each legislative district.
The result? A half-penny sales-tax increase, a one-cent tax increase on car sales, a 2.5-cents-a-gallon increase in the gas tax, and $422 million a year in new roads and mass transit. Northern Virginia leveraged the cash for key projects such as the Fairfax County Parkway, I-95 HOV lanes from the Beltway to Triangle, and the Greenway from Dulles airport to Leesburg. The money also helped expand congested routes such as Braddock Road in Annandale and Routes 7, 28, and 123.
The victory was seen as a coming-out party for Northern Virginia in the legislature, but that was premature. The package won in part because Baliles smartly packed it with something for everybody, upstate and down.
Funding plans since have tried without success to re-create this magic. To much of the state, transportation is a problem for the rich people up north. In a 2006 Washington Post survey, only 9 percent of Southside residents rated transportation as an “extremely important” issue.
“Transportation is a priority for you folks in Northern Virginia,” says John Garner, the Democratic Party leader in Galax, “but it’s not a priority for anybody else.”
Since 1986, the legislature has passed nothing that rivals the Baliles plan. The gas tax remains at 17.5 cents a gallon, ninth-lowest in the country. It generates about $900 million—a figure that, factoring in inflation, equals the yield in the first year of the Baliles plan. Since then, Northern Virginia has added a million new people and even more cars. The number of miles people in the region drive is up 79 percent. Northern Virginia advocates say we’re years into a crisis that will hurt the region’s economy—and slow the revenues flowing to state coffers. By refusing to pay for new roads and transit, they say, Richmond is cutting its own throat.
Lawmakers have trotted out lots of revenue schemes to pay for more transportation. But debate turns ugly when it comes to the question of who pays: the state as a whole or Northern Virginia.
Last year the Virginia Senate—which Democrats have controlled since the 2007 elections and is fairly responsive to Northern Virginia needs—endorsed a plan by majority leader Dick Saslaw of Fairfax to raise the gas tax statewide by six cents. The Republican House backed a plan to allow Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to tax themselves—a revised version of legislation passed in 2007 but ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court because it created a taxing authority that wasn’t elected.
Governor Tim Kaine split the difference. He pushed new levies that included higher taxes on car sales, an increase in vehicle-registration fees, and a one-cent sales tax increase in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Debate spilled into a special session where lawmakers fought like toddlers in a sandbox. Neither side won, everybody lost a little dignity, and the split between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state seemed even bigger.
Judging by this battle, the differences between Northern Virginia and the rest of the state appear irreconcilable. Secession is the logical next step. Even Thomas Jefferson believed that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”
But Northern Virginia faces a few obstacles before it can follow the lead of West Virginia. The US Constitution prohibits secession without the approval of the state that’s left behind—a provision skirted by West Virginia thanks to wartime exigencies. If Richmond won’t let Fairfax regulate parking, it’s not likely to let Northern Virginia walk away.