At VDOT hearing lawmakers try to save local projects from grim future


With state budget dollars only getting harder to come by, lawmakers from Northern Virginia saw the May 14 public hearing on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s proposed six-year budget as their last chance to save vital projects from the uncertain future of 2015 and beyond.
“There’s been a dramatic decline in the value of transportation dollars in Virginia,” said Chris Zimmerman, head of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority.
Earlier this year, state funding shortfalls forced more than $1 billion in cuts to VDOT spending, pushing many projects outside the six-year timeline. Gas prices and construction costs are only expected to keep rising, so road projects with start dates beyond 2014 may as well not exist.
“We have $1.1 billion less than we thought even a year ago. … We have to make tough decisions about which projects survive and which do not,” said Virginia Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer, speaking as chair of the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
For the representatives of various Northern Virginia localities who spoke at the hearing, the focus was on preserving the projects that are closest to being completed, or closest to having sufficient funding.
For Fairfax County, a specific  concern is VDOT’s plan to seek federal funds to cover funding gaps for several projects already close to construction, including the Fairfax County Parkway/Fair Lakes Parkway interchange project and the Route 29 widening project, which has been removed from the current draft budget.
“To federalize these projects … would cause significant delay since federal requirements would now have to be addressed,” said Lee District Supervisor Jeff McKay (D), speaking on behalf of the county.
Transit-related funding was also a big issue at the hearing. McKay described the Dulles rail transportation management program, a project to mitigate traffic impacts from the construction of Dulles rail, as a “very critical need” that is currently only half funded by Fairfax and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. With the rail project clearly moving forward, McKay urged the Commonwealth Transportation Board to “ensure adequate funding for the remaining projects necessary” for the project’s success.
Representatives of Alexandria, Arlington and Loudoun all criticized a proposed CTB policy that would cut state aid to local transit operations that don’t receive consistent rates of local funding year to year. The policy is designed to improve transit service throughout Virginia, but many lawmakers say they feel that it unduly penalizes Northern Virginia, which has a high rate of local investment in transit.
“This is a one-size-fits-all approach,” complained  Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille (D).  After the hearing, Homer was brutally honest about the flexibility of VDOT’s budget  under current circumstances.
“We have no additional funding,” he said. “We’ll consider the issues and concerns expressed and decide what the necessities are.”