Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney
Columnist

N.Va. battles seen over spending road funds

On July 1, Virginians are almost certainly going to start shelling out for one of the largest tax increases in state history to pay for roads and transit. Now the fights begin over how to spend the billions.

Should the money go to build new highways or fix old ones? Which bridges or intersections should get priority?

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Will Richmond let Northern Virginia spend as much as it would like on mass transit, busways and bike lanes rather than pouring concrete? (The answer could depend on whether Ken Cuccinelli wins the governorship in November. A longtime transit skeptic, he opposed building Metro’s Silver Line to Dulles Airport.)

Should outer counties such as Loudoun and Prince William build new roads even at the risk of triggering just another outburst of suburban sprawl?

These battles are going to last for years. The outcomes will play a large role in shaping the future of traffic, economic development and quality of life in our region.

To get an early look at the debates, I interviewed top transportation officials in Northern Virginia’s four largest counties: Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Arlington.

Their comments surprised me. I was expecting an outpouring of gratitude and relief that after 27 years of paralysis, the Virginia legislature had finally approved the money they desperately needed to fund the projects they’ve dreamed of doing.

Instead, some of these powerful but unheralded public servants seemed anxious about their newfound riches. If they don’t deliver visible improvements in commuting and travel time, they feared, then voters would erupt over getting nothing in return for the increased taxes and fees.

“Obviously, we have to take the responsibility very seriously. The public is going to be investing very significant amounts of money in transportation, and the public deserves results,” Fairfax Transportation Director Tom Biesiadny said.

Unless a constitutional challenge sidetracks it, the package approved by the General Assembly on Saturday would add well more than $1 billion a year for transportation by 2018.

The good news, according to the county planners, is that money will now be available for some projects certain to eliminate choke points and provide relief that the public will readily appreciate.

One is the orphan stretch of the Capital Beltway between Interstate 95 and Telegraph Road, which will be improved and probably widened. It was left behind when other parts of the interstate in Northern Virginia were overhauled in other projects.

Prince William is thrilled to be able to widen Route 1 from four lanes to six from Featherstone Road in Woodbridge north to Route 123.

“It will help a large majority of our population commute to Belvoir. It would be a bailout for I-95 when it’s having a tough day,” Prince William Transportation Director Tom Blaser said.

Although these and other projects fall in the category of “obvious must-dos,” many others will be controversial.

The new bill has an unusual feature requiring most of the money coming to Northern Virginia to be spent on projects that can be shown to reduce congestion. That sounds great, but it’s not clear yet how the language will be interpreted.

One battle will be over a set of proposed roads west and south of Dulles Airport in Loudoun and Prince William. Environmentalists and other activists are strongly opposed, saying there’s no need now and the construction would just fuel speculative development.

A tug of war also is likely between auto-friendly projects and those favoring rail transit, buses, bicycles and pedestrians. Arlington, in particular, has a long (and successful) history of promoting alternatives to cars. It hopes Richmond grants it lots of flexibility in parceling out money.

“Discretion really should be left to the region,” Arlington Transportation Director Dennis Leach said. “The package of tools has to be broader than just automobile” solutions.

Northern Virginia should be happy that help is in sight for its biggest single problem. At the same time, the public should get involved and pay close attention to ensure it gets the kinds of solutions it truly wants.

I discuss local issues Friday at 8:50 a.m. on WAMU (88.5 FM). For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

 
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