Authority approves $209 million transportation infusion for Northern Virginia 

July 24, 2013

It seems like a simple enough act: to raise money from Northern Virginians and pay for regional transportation projects to get them to work and school and soccer games and home to their families and friends.

Since 2002, state and local officials have wanted to do just that, through the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. But for more than a decade, as the population grew and congestion remained an ever-present complaint, the commonwealth’s intense politics of taxing and spending, and legal challenges, left the authority without the money to do its job.

On Wednesday night, that bit of government congestion was finally eased.

Members of the authority approved their first batch of projects since a bipartisan transportation funding deal was reached earlier this year.

The authority voted to spend more than $116 million on road and transit improvements using money from new taxes that began kicking in July 1. They also approved more than $93 million in borrowing for an additional batch of projects.

Bob Holsworth, a longtime political observer and former professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, said ending the “clumsy and awkward” efforts to get the authority off the ground sends an important signal about how to address major problems.

“We haven’t really done a very good job of empowering regions and empowering the organizations that exist in these regions to really solve the challenges the people want solved,” Holsworth said. “This was a place — finally — where transportation gridlock had become so onerous that it actually overcame the political gridlock to which we have become accustomed.”

The approved projects include $5 million for a power upgrade on the Orange Line, $12 million for improvements along Columbia Pike, nearly $20 million for VRE rail cars and $31 million for widening Route 28 in Fairfax County.

Over several months spent shaping their first list of road and transit improvements, authority members heard comments from state officials, business representatives and various advocacy organizations seeking to nudge the authority toward their own priorities.

The authority’s members, most of whom are elected officials, initially said they were eager to start with a bang. They were girding for public grousing about the new taxes and wanted to show quick and far-reaching results to reduce the sting. But they heard from some advocates who insisted that focusing on a narrower and more targeted array of projects would be smarter in the long run.

Authority members ended up embracing a hybrid approach. They combined both direct financing and the issuance of bonds, and reserved a pool of money to be spent later after they have a chance to prepare for more complex projects.

“We can’t solve every problem right away,” said Martin E. Nohe, the authority’s chairman. “We’re going to start with those projects we can resolve quickly, then start prioritizing things that are going to take a longer time and are going to require funding in multiple years.”

Authority officials said they expect to collect $190 million for regional projects in the next year. The authority decided to keep some of those funds in reserve so they can be allocated later this year or early next year after taking more time to develop a long-term, six-year plan for projects and after the authority itself becomes more established.

“$190 million was too much to take on in one bite,” Nohe said, adding that authority members “want to have some capacity” to fund projects “that haven’t been considered yet.”

Authority members were interested in funding a host of medium-sized projects — such as $28 million in improvements along Route 28 in Prince William — but avoided some of the bigger ones.

“We don’t want to take on a $100 million project because we’re not there,” Nohe said.

One thing authority members want to do before taking on such scale, he said, is to make sure the authority is protected from legal challenges.

Authority members endorsed a plan to essentially take themselves to court in a maneuver known as a bond-validation suit. Once such an effort is launched, other challengers have a limited time to join in themselves before thelegal window shuts, officials said.

The total value of all projects funded Wednesday night, both through direct, pay-as-you-go funding and through bonds, is more than $209 million, according to authority officials.

Authority members also appointed John Mason, the former mayor of Fairfax City, as the body’s interim executive director.

Mike Laris came to Post by way of Los Angeles and Beijing. He’s written about the world’s greatest holstein bull, earth’s biggest pork producer, home builders, the homeless, steel workers and Italian tumors.
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