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Road Funding Not Enough for N.Va., Some Say

By Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2005; Page B01

The Virginia General Assembly yesterday approved the largest increase in spending on transportation in two decades. But transportation officials said it is not enough to begin construction on any major new projects in Northern Virginia and, at best, will ensure that some previously advertised ones are built on time.

The biggest boon to the region will come from tens of millions of dollars for Metro and Virginia Railway Express, both of which plan to use the money to buy rail cars to alleviate crowding on trains.

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The $848.1 million package agreed to by the General Assembly will translate to about $35 million for Northern Virginia road projects. Where that money goes will be determined by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, but members and state transportation officials said they will choose from a list of already agreed-upon projects.

At the top of that list are widening Interstate 95 south of the Springfield Mixing Bowl and I-66 near Gainesville. State officials said $13.5 million would guarantee that the I-95 project would begin in fall 2007 and the I-66 one in fall 2008, as planned.

"This will ensure they get built when they're supposed to get built," said Bill Cuttler, a manager for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

A portion of the remaining money probably will be put toward revamping the Route 29-Interstate 66 interchange in Gainesville and completing a carpool link through the Springfield interchange, transportation officials said. But those projects are underfunded by a combined $197.4 million, so any new dollars would help close that gap rather than lead to any relief for drivers.

"These major, big-ticket items is what we're focusing on," said Julia A. Connally, a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, who added that the funding package "hardly puts a dent in our long-term needs."

Whatever money remains for primary and secondary roads will be split among local jurisdictions, officials said.

Lawmakers said other parts of the package would benefit the region. Those include about $30 million to pay off debts on projects that have been built on Route 28, Route 29 and elsewhere, which officials said would free some primary road money for other projects.

The deal also includes $75 million to help localities across the state build their own road projects, part of an effort to encourage more local control of road building.

But Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) said that by the time the funds are divided among localities, it "doesn't get you an intersection. In the grand scheme of things, it's not a great deal of money."

State and local officials also said $23.2 million that was set aside for rail projects and $50 million that was put in a public-private partnership account could benefit Northern Virginia. But those programs are as popular downstate as they are in Northern Virginia, and none of that money is guaranteed to come north.

The remaining money is divided among maintenance needs, rest-stop improvements, debt payments and administrative costs.

The plan is similar to one proposed late last year by Gov. Mark R. Warner (D), who said it was a significant step in solving the state's mounting transportation needs and would "jump-start" projects in Northern Virginia. Warner said paying off project deficits fulfills a commitment to restore fiscal sanity to the Transportation Department, while the local and private funds support new approaches to road building.

"It puts the most amount of new money into transportation in Virginia history," Warner said. "Every new interchange, every new road that's finished on time and on budget does help improve the problem."

But Warner acknowledged that much more will be left undone. "It's not a long-term financing plan," he said.

Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R), who is running for lieutenant governor, said the state would be better off committing to a couple of high-profile projects.

"It's all spread out, and nobody feels like anything is happening," he said.

Staff writer Michael D. Shear contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company