The Public Policy

Question Authority

Northern Virginia traffic bureaucrats couldn't plan their way out of a paper bag.

By 3.26.08

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. -- You're pulling out of the office parking lot as usual when a car careens into your fender. Airbags deploy. A crowd gathers. And as the driver's side bag slowly deflates, you wonder, Did this have to happen? You wonder because there's no way you or drivers of oncoming cars can see each other, because vehicles parked at city meters along the street obstruct the view, and because the city's bureaucracy has grossly delayed a stunningly simple, cost-free safety solution.

Thankfully, it hasn't happened yet, but it's probably only a matter of time. A few close calls in my office inspired a request that our building manager order a convex mirror, pronto. About that same time (February 2007), the Northern Virginia Transportation "Authority" (NVTA) was recommending carving out at least $50 million for an "ongoing revenue stream" (through more taxes) for transportation funding.

There was no doubt we'd need city approval to mount a mirror. Our office sits in the heart of Old Town, where permits are a must for even minor projects. The manager notified the proper authorities immediately after receiving the mirror but the powers-that-be didn't respond. And, unfortunately, the city's apparent gridlock on such a small task was not our only transportation-related problem.

The Virginia House of Delegates had just passed House Bill 3202, granting NVTA taxing "authority," and in June 2007, NVTA "authorized" staff to hire bond counsel for up to $10,000 to address financial, legal and logistical issues and begin the process of hiring an Executive Director.

It was clear from the words of NVTA Chairman Christopher Zimmerman, a member of the Arlington County Board of Supervisors, that he and other NVTA members were deriving their "authority" from somewhere other than the state Constitution.

"I believe that the actions we take and the decisions we make tonight and in the coming days, weeks and months will be among the most important that any of us will be called upon to make as public officials," Zimmerman said, according to a June 7 press release.

THERE WAS ONE huge problem with that. NVTA is not a directly elected body. Twelve of the members are indirectly elected, two are unelected citizens with voting power, and two are bureaucrats without voting power.

The body even drew skepticism from local government officials who understand the region's traffic and transportation woes. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors last May unanimously voted to research a potential challenge of NVTA's new powers. "I am desperate to see some roads built," then-Loudoun Supervisor Mick Staton, Jr. told the Washington Post, "but we cannot let our desperation for a solution -- any kind of solution -- lull us into accepting something that is, on its face, unconstitutional."

Nonetheless, NVTA's business-as-usual approach continued into last summer -- and with it, mounting opposition from public officials and private citizens. Hundreds of concerned taxpayers attended a NVTA hearing last July during which it adopted seven new taxes totaling $300 million annually.

Virginia Delegate Robert C. Marshall, who represents part of Prince William County, didn't agree with his neighbor, county Supervisor Martin Nohe, the NVTA Vice-Chairman. Marshall, who had voted against HB 3202, filed a lawsuit last August against the Commonwealth and the public officials who recklessly handed over taxing powers to NVTA.

The Virginia Supreme Court handed Marshall and the 17 other plaintiffs -- including my colleague Kristina Rasmussen and ATU president Bud Miller -- a deserved victory on February 29 by unanimously ruling that the General Assembly may not delegate its taxing authority to an indirectly elected board. The Commonwealth's highest court also declared all taxes and fees collected by NVTA "null and void."

Instead of deferring to the Court's decision, NVTA members are encouraging politicians of all stripes to legislate a new fix to keep NVTA and its tax-dependent projects afloat. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is expected to call a special legislative session to do just that.

Meanwhile, localities are justifying large tax hikes on businesses to jumpstart their NVTA-planned projects because they "lost" funding that was constitutionally questionable from its inception.

WITH THAT BEHEMOTH transportation tax package stalled, my colleagues and I were hoping to jumpstart a transportation issue closer to home: our convex mirror.

Surely, the city's bureaucracy should be able to manage a permit inquiry if it had been expected to handle much larger projects (the local share of that $300 million per-year) -- especially if the permit in question is directly related to public safety. One would think.

After hearing no response to our initial request, I submitted another one via the city's new online request system and promptly heard back from a city employee, who referred me to another employee. A few games of "tag" later (including a strongly worded e-mail to both bureaucrats), I received another begrudging, vague referral -- this time to Dominion Virginia Power, which owns the pole on which said mirror would be mounted. (In two weeks, I have yet to hear from the state's electric monopoly, but that's another story altogether.)

I wish I had more faith in those trusted with overseeing transportation development in Alexandria. I wish I had more faith in the mayor's ability to establish bureaucracies that could accomplish major transportation goals. Sadly, I don't.

The governor, however, seems poised to reward this kind of incompetence with more tax dollars -- even now. And I still cringe and hope for the best every time I have to blindly exit the office parking lot.

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