Northern Virginia expecting big infusion of road building and transit money

Northern Virginia officials are wrestling with an unfamiliar but welcome challenge: deciding how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to help commuters in one of the most congested areas of the country.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, set up by the General Assembly in 2002 to build regional projects, has been waiting for the money to carry out its primary mission for more than a decade. Because the authority had no funds, state legislators gave it the power to raise revenue. But Virginia’s high court ruled that the arrangement was unconstitutional, and the authority had to return the money.

Now, after 11 years in limbo, the authority expects to receive about $190 million over the next year alone. The flow will begin after new taxes kick in July 1, fruits of a long-sought bipartisan transportation deal reached this year in Richmond.

“There are a lot of things the government does well. There are a lot of things government does poorly. There is nothing government does quickly,” said Martin E. Nohe, authority chairman and a Republican supervisor from Prince William County. Given the years of delay, there’s pressure on the authority “to produce an outcome that was worth the wait.”

The authority is approaching its sudden relevance with a combination of speed and caution, with members caught between a desire to demonstrate fast results and an aversion to fouling up this rare opportunity.

In recent days, a group of authority members put forward a preliminary list of more than 30 projects totaling nearly $190 million that could be ready to go July 1. It included tens of millions of dollars for major improvements, such as widening Route 28 in Fairfax and Prince William counties as well as road and transit projects in Arlington County and Alexandria. The projects were culled from earlier plans.

The draft met some resistance, offering a reminder of the region’s varied transportation priorities and geography.

Del. James M. LeMunyon (R-Fairfax) told local officials at a business gathering that he had concerns about some of the items on the list, including bus shelters and improvements for bicyclists. “That’s not why I voted to raise taxes,” LeMunyon said. In a letter to the authority, he also called for more information on how each project would reduce congestion and said he couldn’t support the list as presented.

At an authority meeting Thursday, Sandra K. Bushue, who was appointed by Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), also raised concerns about how some of the projects were being categorized.

She said that some items on the draft list of the authority’s regional projects seemed better suited for pots of funding controlled by each jurisdiction. The legislation sets up a 70-30 split, with 70 percent going to the authority and the rest to Northern Virginia localities. In the next year, that means roughly $190 million will go to the authority for projects and about $80 million will go to localities for funding decisions, according to official projections.

Bushue said the authority should emphasize cross-jurisdictional projects with its money.

“I kind of feel this was business as usual, as opposed to taking the regional approach we’ve all been talking about,” Bushue said, citing proposed funding for buses in Alexandria and Arlington.

Others on the authority said some projects that may appear parochial have significant regional impact.

Arlington officials, for example, noted that new buses are part of a bigger picture: They will help make up for reducing the number of Blue Line trains, a step being taken to make way for Silver Line trains headed toward Tysons Corner.

Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bulova (D) agreed, citing the $7.9 million on the list for a second Virginia Railway Express platform in Lorton, which she said may seem local but benefits commuters from far beyond Fairfax. Still, Bulova and other authority members said public participation is crucial.

“We don’t want to start projects and have people say, ‘Why did you do that? It isn’t worthy.’ We have to have the community with us,” Bulova said.

Authority members did vote unanimously to seek public comment on a more comprehensive collection of about 50 projects.

The authority scheduled an open house and public hearing next month for public feedback on shaping the list. It will be held at 5:30 p.m. June 20 at Fairfax City Hall. A second public hearing will be held in July, after which authority members expect to vote to fund the first projects. Projects left off that initial batch will be in line for funding as part of a six-year plan the authority will develop next.

If all goes according to plan, projects could get going as early as this year. But given previous disappointments, some officials have resisted the urge to celebrate just yet.

“It’s painful to go back and look at what wasn’t done,” said Chris Zimmerman (D), Arlington County Board vice chairman and an authority member who was chairman when earlier plans were scuttled in 2008 after the legal challenge.

“I’m having a hard time letting myself get too excited. I want to see if this one really sticks,” Zimmerman said.

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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