Roads and transit tab now at $9.8 billion

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Roads and transit tab now at $9.8 billion
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First, the facts.

Northern Virginia is first in the nation in carpooling and second only to New York City in transit use. Every state except Virginia has increased its gas tax since 1987, and as a per gallon levy, it has lost more than 60 percent of its buying power to inflation and fuel efficiency. Metro is more than 40 years old, and maintenance needs are more than $1 billion.

Despite the passage of a historic and massive transportation spending bill in March, some Northern Virginia  legislators are claiming that they need more dollars if they’re going to unclog the region’s roadways. “The plan as passed puts only $200 million into Northern Virginia roads, ” said Del. Vivian Watts (D-49, Annandale).

On Monday,  the Commonwealth Transportation Board addressed the problem when it released a draft version of a six-year transportation program, reflecting an additional $500 million a year in new revenues and  bonds. Pierce Homer, the state’s Secretary of Transportation said, While the 2007 General Assembly provided more than $500 million a year in new revenue and bonds to our program, this working draft primarily reflects our ability to put existing projects on a  quicker schedule. The focus will be on completing those projects on time, on budget and with quality. 

The Richmond board reported that for the next fiscal years of 2008 through 2013, statewide public transportation funding will increase 44 percent, rail by more than 40 percent; highway construction dollars will increase by 35 percent. 

In its entirety, overall highway construction funding available for allocation totals $7.8 billion, and for public transportation, total funding is around $2 billion. We now have significant new statewide funding to dedicate to

public transportation, rail and highway construction through our six-year transportation plan, Gov. Tim Kaine said in a statement. I continue to be impressed with the focus on project delivery and transparency by the Board and our transportation agencies.”

But Watts, who once served as the state’s Secretary of Transportation, said the funding is not enough, given  the region’s pressing, immediate needs. “I’m certainly not going to sneeze at it,” she said Tuesday. “But a billion dollars over a 20-year period [from the state] is not sustained enough.”

In March, the General Assembly passed a plan that supplies Northern Virginia with $95 million per year for roads construction, in addition to the $105 million already going into Northern Virginia roads under the state’s six-year plan. An additional $400 million would be raised by local taxes and fees.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which held its monthly meeting last week in Falls Church and heard from a chorus of constituent voices with questions about the plan, estimated that $664 million would be needed for

roadway, rail and other improvements through 2030. Bob Chase, the NVTA’s director, estimates that only $120 million of the $400 million could be counted on for regional roadway improvements, given the needs of Metro and Virginia Railway Express.

Chase said the regional package would not negate the need for issuing local bonds. 

NVTA officials and legislators argue that only 18 percent of regional  funding is being allocated to Northern Virginia construction projects, and another 11 percent is being diverted to roadway maintenance. The rest is being gobbled up by rail improvements and construction, and by debt service. “The General Assembly’s action only puts a small dent in maintenance funding,” Watts said, arguing that more than $250 million was siphoned off for regional road maintenance last year alone. “Not only are we losing money in Northern Virginia for roads maintenance, we’re giving away 40 cents on the dollar for statewide maintenance. When you don’t adequately fund the state program, you hurt Northern Virginia.”

By end of the ninth year of statewide funding, she said, maintenance will have so cut into the funding source that “everything by then will be used for debt service.”

Lawmakers are particularly concerned that with 22,000 new jobs being established in southern Fairfax County at Fort Belvoir and the Engineering Proving Grounds, the significant commuter growth rates were not factored in to meet

transportation needs. Like the Wilson Bridge and the Mixing Bowl, which were 90 percent federally funded, Watts feels the Defense Department should bear the costs of road constructions and improvements at Fort Belvoir.

“The state share is substantially below what it needs to be,” Watts said. Therefore we really don’t have any long-term  fix.”

The Transportation Board will conduct five public hearings between May 16 and May 31 in Fairfax and four other cities around the state. The Northern Virginia hearing will take place Wednesday, May 23,  starting at 7 p.m. at the

Fairfax Government Center, 12000 Government Center Parkway in Fairfax. The six-year plan will be voted upon and go into effect July  1. 

In a series of public hearings to be held over the next month, the Richmond board will take the pulse of commuters by examining and prioritizing projects related to public safety, congestion, corridors and other mandates, including

transportation impacts expected as a result of the base realignment and closure process.   

The working draft of the FY 2008-13 Six Year Improvement Program is available for public review at www.VirginiaDOT.org and www.DRPT.Virginia.gov .

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