Va. House Puts Onus on Counties for Road Crisis

"The easiest job in the world is to be a supervisor approving subdivisions," Virginia Del. C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr., right, said at yesterday's news conference. House Republicans propose shifting responsibility for local roads to the counties. Del. Jeffrey Frederick is at left. (By Lindy Keast Rodman -- Richmond Times Dispatch Via Associated Press)
By Michael D. Shear and Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 28, 2006

RICHMOND, Dec. 27 -- Virginia House Republicans on Wednesday blamed county supervisors, particularly those in Northern Virginia, for the state's transportation crisis as they proposed laws to shift responsibility for neighborhood roads to the local officials who approve subdivisions.

The House GOP offered the proposals and the tough rhetoric as lawmakers prepared to do battle again next month over how to fix the state's transportation crisis. In the process, they laid out the main debate for elections next November, when all 140 lawmakers and most of the state's local officials will face voters: Who's to blame for the traffic?

Speaking in blunt terms, House leaders said an eagerness by local officials to approve development was "an abdication of responsibility" to plan for the impact on traffic, and that supervisors in growing counties "have done a less-than-stellar job" in planning for the future.

"The easiest job in the world is to be a supervisor approving subdivisions," said Del. C.L. "Clay" Athey Jr. (R-Warren), who leads the House GOP effort to design land-use legislation. "You can approve it, and as soon as it's over and done with, you can say any impacts to the roads you don't have to consider at all and you can just start blaming the state."

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said the current debate about traffic congestion and road construction boils down to this: "What it's really about is accountability. What this bill . . . does is ensure that accountability."

County supervisors, Democrats and Republicans alike, reacted angrily to the accusation that their planning decisions are why the state's roads are such a mess.

"It just shows how desperate they are to find somebody to blame rather than themselves," said Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D), who was singled out by name during the news conference. "This is all yet another attempt to sidetrack the public discussion from their unwillingness to put any new money on the table for transportation infrastructure."

The GOP legislation unveiled at the Capitol largely takes aim at future development by requiring local governments or homeowners associations to maintain new subdivision roads. It does not give local governments greater authority to deny subdivision developments because of traffic impact, a power supervisors have requested for years.

Loudoun Supervisor Stephen J. Snow (R-Dulles), a vocal backer of developers rights, said his county is building homes as a response to the region's roaring economy while the state is failing to do its part by constructing a road network to match.

"Why the Republican family wants to fight about this is a wonderment to me," Snow said. "We've done our part. We use the tools they've given us. But we don't need consternation and bony fingers pointing at us. We need solutions."

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and the Republican-controlled legislature spent most of 2006 arguing over how to add money for road construction and maintenance. The drawn-out debate nearly forced a shutdown of state government and prompted a week-long special session that ended in failure.

All sides have said they will use the 2007 General Assembly session to try again, although there is little indication that anything has changed.

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said Wednesday that the governor and House Republicans are "generally rowing in the same direction" in regard to the newly proposed legislation. But Hall cautioned that the governor had not seen any specifics.

"I would observe that it does little to nothing to address sprawl that has already occurred," Hall said. "And we need to be mindful that we are not simply shifting the state's responsibility to local governments."

The proposal also would require local governments to encourage development in urban areas and would give them the option to take over road maintenance in exchange for the right to impose fees on developers building projects in more rural areas.

The Republican lawmakers said the bills could have a profound effect on traffic by making localities responsible for their development decisions. Shifting some road responsibilities would also free state money that could be used to widen interstates, repair bridges and build interchanges, they said. Under the proposal, counties would be given some state money and equipment to maintain new subdivisions.

Howell called the proposed changes "nothing short of a complete revamping of the relationship between state and local government when it comes to land use and transportation."

Slow-growth advocates did not endorse the legislation, but praised Howell and Republicans for recognizing the need for changes to the way the state plans. "What is most important is the fact that there's bipartisan support for smarter growth in Virginia," said lobbyist Stewart Schwartz, president of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Howell said the proposed legislation is part of a broader attempt by House Republicans to change the way the state plans, builds and pays for its roads. He said the House GOP will continue to push for new money without raising taxes to pay for "critical projects" that could ease congestion.

The House GOP attacked supervisors even as local officials in Northern Virginia have been aggressively pursuing novel ways to limit growth, control sprawl and reduce traffic.

Several Northern Virginia supervisors noted Prince William's recent plan to put new housing on hold until the state provides more transportation money.

"Apparently, some things we do touch a nerve down there," said Loudoun Supervisor James G. Burton (I-Blue Ridge), who plans to introduce a similar resolution before the board this week.

Loudoun approved a plan this month to curb development in the county's rural west, replacing a more restrictive one that was thrown out in court. The ruling by the state Supreme Court last year underscored local governments' limited powers to restrict growth.

Corey Stewart (R-Occoquan), the newly elected Board of County Supervisors chairman in Prince William, said his predecessors "approved too much residential development," but he blamed Richmond lawmakers for failing to build an adequate road network.

"The state needs to give us more authority to slow down residential development and more assistance in terms of road construction," he said.

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