As Northern Virginia drivers spend more time in their cars on bottlenecked highways, money to expand the state's road and transit network is disappearing fast, transportation experts said yesterday.
The shortage is so serious that by 2014, Virginia will have trouble matching federal transportation grants, jeopardizing funding for construction and maintenance, a top state official told a gathering of the region's transportation leaders. And by 2018, so much of the state's transportation fund will have been shifted to maintenance and general spending that money to build new roads will be nonexistent.
"As I think you can see, we have a problem," Mary Lynn Tischer, special assistant on transportation to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), told about 150 road and transit experts, civic and county leaders, land-use planners and builders gathered in Fairfax County for a transportation summit.
The grim financial picture and how to turn it around dominated the half-day event at the County Government Center, where the agenda was as simple as the task of carrying it out seemed challenging: How can Fairfax and its neighbors climb out of gridlock?
Alan E. Pisarski, a Falls Church resident and expert on national and regional commuting patterns, offered these sobering statistics from U.S. Census data released last year:
Fairfax commuters take 31 minutes on average to get to work, a five-minute increase in the last decade, compared with 26 minutes statewide, an increase of one minute.
Eight percent of Fairfax workers take public transit to work.
Just 28 percent of Fairfax workers get to work in less than 20 minutes; more than 10 percent take more than an hour; and close to 6 percent leave home between 5 and 6 a.m.
"People are leaving [home] at 5 a.m. not because they have a factory whistle at 6 a.m.," Pisarski said. "This is not a factory town."
He and others noted that Fairfax, which has steadily created jobs in recent years, now needs to "import" workers to fill those jobs, a trend that creates more congestion.
"When you're stuck on the [Capital] Beltway, you're looking at those other people and wishing they were out of work," he joked.
The summit, organized by Supervisor Elaine N. McConnell (R-Springfield), was an installment in an ongoing examination of policy issues by the county board, ranging from affordable housing to early childhood learning.
Yesterday's participants received detailed briefings on a range of short- and long-term strategies to ease congestion and the challenges they bring. They discussed carpool lanes and why their occupancy limits are not better enforced; how spot improvements to intersections and roads can ease gridlock; how Fairfax could team up with private investors to build or improve roads faster and possibly cheaper than the state; how development can be clustered around Metro stations to discourage driving; and how bicycle lanes and trails could be built seamlessly to encourage their use.
"For years, the focus [of public officials] was: Why aren't we being more visionary and planning for roads and transit?" said Supervisor T. Dana Kauffman (D-Lee), who is chairman of the Metro board. "Well, we've planned it. Now we need to step up to the plate and fund it," he said.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said that with the failure of a regional sales tax referendum for transportation improvements in 2002, "we can't be a substitute for the state. The state has got to fix this."
Participants agreed yesterday that many Northern Virginians, though aware that their quality of life is suffering because of traffic congestion, are not aware of the dwindling resources to ease it. If they were, they might be willing to raise taxes for transportation, some participants said.
"Public education about the problem is the real key," said Harrison Glasgow, a member of the Fairfax County Park Authority Board.