Virginia Thinking Locally On Roads

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 30, 2007

After years of building multibillion-dollar megaprojects such as the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and the Springfield interchange, Virginia transportation officials plan to spend hundreds of millions of new dollars on small, local fixes that have been ignored for years as congestion has escalated.

A left-turn lane here, a ramp there, an eliminated light, a new interchange: By focusing spending on the region's overburdened secondary roads -- such as Braddock Road and the Fairfax County and Prince William County parkways -- the proposed new funds have the potential to eliminate many of the day-in, day-out trouble spots that drive so many commuters mad.

"Those are the kinds of projects that would make a huge difference in commutes as soon as [drivers] get off the highway and onto smaller roads," said state Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites Davis (R-Fairfax), a member of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which is in charge of choosing many of the projects that will be built.

Spending the money locally also speeds the process of putting asphalt on the ground because the projects don't have to go through some state and federal reviews.

Over the past decade, Virginia has guided much of its transportation money to major projects, such as the $2.4 billion Wilson Bridge and the nearly $700 million Springfield Mixing Bowl. Those projects are nearing completion, and funding sources have been identified for the next megaproject -- a $4 billion effort to extend Metrorail to Tysons Corner, Dulles International Airport and Loudoun County.

The state has partnered with the private sector to build other major projects, signing deals with companies to widen the Capital Beltway and a 36-mile stretch of interstates 95 and 395. Those projects would be funded by tolls.

That allows leaders to spend the money raised by a host of new regional fees and taxes, expected to produce about $400 million a year, on secondary roads that have become overwhelmed. As congested as most major highways are, the secondary roads they connect to are often worse.

Transportation analysts say the biggest impact can be made on projects such as the widening of the Fairfax County Parkway from Route 123 to the Dulles Toll Road and raising the parkway to go over Monument Drive and Fair Lakes Parkway, two of the most traffic-choked intersections in the region. Other possible fixes include lengthening the left-turn lane at routes 123 and 50/29 in Fairfax City, upgrading the intersection of Braddock Road and Route 29 and re-timing traffic lights throughout the region.

"We haven't, for the last decade, had a reasonable secondary-road program for Northern Virginia, and this money is a huge plus in addressing a problem that has many, many sides," said Pierce R. Homer, Virginia's transportation secretary.

The new money comes from a General Assembly agreement this month that allows Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise a menu of regional taxes and fees to pay for transportation improvements. The way the legislation was written virtually guaranteed that the money would go to smaller projects.

Of the $400 million that is likely to be raised in Northern Virginia, 40 percent, or about $160 million, will be distributed to the region's nine jurisdictions, to be spent on projects of their choosing. Localities also get to keep every dollar raised by commercial real estate tax increases and new car registration fees.

Of the remaining $240 million or so, about $75 million a year is earmarked for Metro and Virginia Railway Express. That leaves roughly $165 million a year for other projects, to be chosen by the authority.

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