Counties Near Fredericksburg Trying Out Road Building

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2005

When Mark W. Osborn became a Stafford County supervisor in 2002, he thought the state Department of Transportation could fix the county's festering traffic problems. But those days are gone.

"You learn how your government works, and there is just no way," said Osborn (R-Falmouth), whose district includes the parking lot that Route 17 becomes most days.

So, like other officials in the fast-growing Fredericksburg region, Osborn has become an advocate of another way to solve traffic problems caused by growth: Do it yourself.

Stafford's decision to fund a portion of a new interchange on Interstate 95--which will open this summer at Mountain View Road--marks the first time the county has stepped into the road-building business. The county also has quadrupled its transportation fund for the coming fiscal year, to $8 million, and intends to fund a significant portion of road-widening projects on Route 17 and Garrisonville Road.

Stafford and neighboring Spotsylvania County are launching a process that communities to their north began 10 to 20 years ago for the same reasons: too much traffic and too little state action. Fairfax County voters approved hundreds of millions of dollars in bonds to plan and build the $600 million Fairfax County Parkway, and Prince William County voters have approved bond issues for road projects since 1988. If approved, the $170 million road bond issue proposed for the November ballot would be the largest in Prince William's history.

But local road funding has moved into a new phase. Since Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) took office, the state has encouraged localities to pay for and manage their own transportation projects. In the legislative session that just ended, lawmakers increased VDOT's matching funds for local projects from $15 million to $75 million. They also set aside money to give communities 5 percent of the cost of a project for technical guidance--so they can do it themselves.

"We want local governments--who are closer--to take on a more active role in construction of new transportation," said Barbara Reese, VDOT's chief financial officer, who called this shift "one of the major initiatives under Warner's administration."

Although 60 percent of new road-project money comes from the federal government, VDOT's spending plan for road construction has been reduced by billions since 2002, and the agency has cut 1,000 jobs, one-tenth of its salaried positions, in the past two years, spokeswoman Tamara Neale said.

Communities have managed the shift differently. Fairfax and Prince William counties have sold bonds to pay for roads and rail projects and have small transportation staffs to help with design. They hire contractors to do the work, and VDOT maintains the roads.

In Stafford, money has come from the federal government, the county transportation budget and state matching funds, and officials are considering creating several special taxing districts to pay for roads in specific areas. Spotsylvania last year created a transportation fund for the first time with revenue from car decals, about $3 million this year.

The $8 million in Stafford's newly increased transportation fund could have gone a long way toward solving other problems, including a $13 million gap between the schools' proposed budget and what the supervisors say is available. However, officials say traffic congestion is one of residents' top priorities.

"I think people have acknowledged that transportation is a very significant issue, and you have to give local thinking to it. You can't just sit back and say, 'That's a state problem,' " County Administrator Steve Crosby said.

Robert F. Hagan (R-Courtland), chairman of the Spotsylvania board, said the same is true in his community, where motorists headed to or from I-95 sit for miles along Route 3, which turns quickly from rolling Civil War battlefields into big-box stores.

"With over 60 percent of the workforce of Spotsylvania traveling outside every day, transportation is a primary focus. So there is nothing but appreciation for the fact that the county has decided to take upon itself some way to alleviate traffic," Hagan said. "The only other alternative is to point your finger at VDOT, but that doesn't help in any way."

Since 1932, Virginia has been responsible for most roadways, one of only a handful of states to play that role. Some say a shift back to local control could raise problems if municipalities don't have the expertise.

Reese said VDOT is still responsible for the quality of the roads under federal law, "and so we have tried to address that." That is why the state is trying to give more money to localities, she said.

In the near future, Stafford is considering taking over all its secondary roads, Osborn said.

Hagan said he wants to make sure the funding system for transportation--based heavily on gasoline taxes--works before the responsibility for road building is handed to localities.

"I've told legislators that the system needs to be fixed first before anything else," he said. "I don't want them to wrap up a broken gift and then try and tell me why it's good for me."

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