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Beltway Toll Plan May Need Va. Funds

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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 23, 2006

A privately backed plan to build express toll lanes on the Virginia portion of the Capital Beltway, which was promoted as a way to ease traffic without using taxpayer money, has become so expensive that the firms behind the project could require more than $100 million in public funds to make it work, according to state transportation officials.

The 14-mile Beltway project would be the first section of what is expected to be a network of express toll lanes in the Washington region, and Virginia transportation officials said they are committed to it, although it is unclear where they would find the money.

Virginia's willingness to contribute money to the project is a change of position. The project was designed in 2003 as a public-private partnership, with the state providing some of the funds. But because money for state transportation projects is tight, officials then said they couldn't help. A second private partner signed on to the project, and 18 months ago the firms and state officials announced a plan to widen the highway without public funds.

Virginia transportation officials say the Beltway project, which would add four high-occupancy toll lanes between Springfield and Georgetown Pike, is a good deal even if it requires a considerable amount of public money.

"We are fully committed to building and funding the HOT lanes through a combination of state, federal and private resources," said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary. "We'll find a way to make this project work. It's too important to the region to do anything less.

"We have an opportunity to obtain a billion-dollar facility with a fraction of that put in by the public sector," Homer added.

Virginia and Maryland leaders have been counting on privately funded highways as a quick, cheap way to ease congestion when there is little public money to build big projects. Now the changes in the Beltway plan, as well as delays in a similar project on Interstates 95 and 395, have politicians and transportation officials wary.

"I think it demonstrates the risks involved in seeing privatization as a panacea," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We can't simply hope that the tooth fairy, in the form of the private sector, will make all of our problems go away."

Public investment in the project would call into question the state's control over its spending priorities. The Beltway proposal was not in the state's plans until it was proposed by Fluor Enterprises Inc. in 2003, and any public financing would divert money from projects that have gone unfunded for years.

"These projects come out of the blue, and then they jump to the front of the line," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We need to ask a lot more questions."

It is unclear where Virginia transportation officials will come up with the money to make the Beltway project a go. All year, state lawmakers have argued over how to provide additional funding for transportation, and a special session of the General Assembly ended last month without a solution.

Virginia officials said possibilities include using surplus money from the general fund or from a continuing state subsidy, although no plans have been formulated.

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