Tired of Waiting on States, Counties Fund Roads on Their Own

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Local governments in the Washington region have given up on getting additional state money for major transportation projects and are instead going into debt to embark on an unprecedented half-billion-dollar road-building boom to try to ease some of the area's worst jams.

In most cases, the money will go to build or expand roads that are the responsibility of the state governments in Richmond and Annapolis, which have failed to fund projects promised for years.

"We're tired of waiting around," said Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large), a member of the Montgomery County Council. "Our people are crying for relief, and we want to provide it."

Montgomery officials agreed in April to put up $160 million to accelerate state road projects. Prince William County is placing a $300 million bond before voters today that would improve Route 1, Route 28 and several other roads. Loudoun County has $51 million on the ballot -- the county's first transportation bond -- that would expand such roads as Routes 7 and 50.

Fairfax County is in the middle of a $160 million construction plan that voters approved two years ago.

"This is the great state shift -- or the great state shaft," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. "You are seeing that in Loudoun, Prince William and Fairfax -- all of us are taking on more debt because of the state's failure to invest in any fashion."

Funding and building roads locally have advantages. County governments can be quicker, less bureaucratic and more responsive to changing needs. Local funding also ensures that tax money will be spent where it originates rather than being spread across a state.

But local construction plans are isolated and work against a growing regional desire to coordinate development. The results might be new highways and wider roads but even worse bottlenecks.

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said the growing role of local governments in road-building makes it more difficult for state officials to keep an eye on the big picture. "The state has a responsibility to ensure that major transportation corridors are developed in a coordinated fashion," he said. "Without adequate state resources, that state role is diminished or in some cases nonexistent."

Prince William, for instance, is spending $42 million to widen Linton Hall Road, the main connector between several new housing developments, such as Sudley Manor, and major commuter routes. On Friday, workers graded part of the road as construction trucks rumbled in and out of the new housing sites.

But no matter how many lanes the county adds, Linton Hall commuters will still run into one of the biggest bottlenecks in the region, at Route 29 and Interstate 66. A state project to redo the interchange has been a top Northern Virginia priority, but a lack of funding has delayed it for years. The state now has the $182 million interchange penciled in for construction -- beginning in 2013.

"They're just moving the traffic from one place to another. You still can't get on 29," said Jim Lemmon, 44, of Prince William, buying coffee Friday morning at a Wi-Not Stop on Linton Hall Road. "The state's not going to do anything about it. They make promises they can't keep, and we're the ones who have to live with it."

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