Transit funding: State officials plans to bypass Northern Virginia commission

Virginia officials plan to send state transportation funds directly to local governments rather than through the three-­decade-old Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, a decision regional leaders called a political power play by the administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R).

State officials denied the claim and said the decision, which is scheduled to be endorsed by the statewide Commonwealth Transportation Board on Wednesday in Richmond, is simply a matter of providing clarity and transparency to commonwealth funding. But local leaders say it will do just the opposite.

“This administration is on the verge of abandoning 30-plus years of efficient transit administration,” Jay Fisette, NVTC chairman and an Arlington County Board member, said Tuesday while briefing the board. “This unilateral policy change is ill-conceived, punitive, probably violates the law and makes transit funding more obscure. It’s an unnecessary overreach.”

Thelma Drake, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, said in an interview Tuesday that her decision is intended to let voters know how much money the state government provides for transportation projects and that Northern Virginia wants to be the exception to the rule.

“This is the only region the state treated differently,” she said. “The money would go directly to the jurisdictions and WMATA [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority], the ones who provide transit. There is no change in the amount of money they’re receiving . . . and there’s no reason that the local jurisdictions couldn’t send it [to NVTC] if they wished. Why is that so disruptive?”

Currently, cities and counties make requests to the state for various transportation projects. The money goes to NVTC, a state-created entity that manages transportation for the counties of Arlington, Loudoun and Fairfax, for Fairfax City, and for the cities of Alexandria and Falls Church.

The local governments, which all have a say on the NVTC board, have created a funding formula that governs how the pool of money will be spent and managed. Their budgets have been set, and changing how they handle state transportation funds would add costs, they said.

Drake’s May 15 letter announcing the change originally gave the governments 10 days to agree or lose their funds for the next six years. She said Tuesday that she gave Northern Virginia officials two extensions and that the Commonwealth Transportation Board will take up the proposal Wednesday. She added that no money will be disbursed before July, so if Northern Virginia officials can show how the proposal is disruptive, the board can reconsider it.

Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman called the state’s initiative “an attack on regionalism in Northern Virginia.”

The region has not been a strong political supporter of the Republican administration, and McDonnell (R) has tried to take control of several seats on the WMATA board.

Fisette added that his own reputation is not that of a “bomb thrower,” but he called the state’s effort “a wholesale waste of time whose only outcome will be to make [funding] less efficient.”

The Arlington County Board voted unanimously to endorse a letter to Drake that was also signed by the other NVTC mayors and county board chairs.

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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