Plan Would Cut Roads Funds 44%

"Localities will have to make difficult decisions," VDOT Commissioner David Ekern said. (Michaele White - AP)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 17, 2008

State lawmakers' failure to increase funding for transportation improvements or come up with a way to allow Northern Virginia to raise its own taxes for such projects will result in a 44 percent reduction in statewide spending for roads over six years, according to projections released yesterday.

Under a revised statewide plan for transportation spending, Fairfax County would receive $54 million over six years, down from an estimated $96 million. The $24 million Loudoun County expected would be cut to $10.5 million, and Prince William County's share would decrease to $20 million from $36 million. Transit funding would be cut 10 percent.

"This is bordering on the catastrophic," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "Fifty-four million dollars is like half an interchange. I don't know if the public or the General Assembly know just how dire this situation is."

All told, the Virginia Department of Transportation's six-year statewide road and transit plan was cut by $1.1 billion. The reduction includes $300 million from the repeal of the abusive-driver fees, which were approved last year.

"These reductions will seriously challenge our ability to jointly move projects forward," VDOT Commissioner David Ekern said in a letter to local officials across the state. "Localities will have to make difficult decisions as to which projects are advanced in the secondary and urban systems."

VDOT officials said the cuts were prompted by a slowing economy. Virginia's gasoline tax is set at 17.5 cents a gallon, not as a percentage such as the sales tax. So the state treasury has not benefited from the spike in gas prices. Although gas tax revenue remains flat, contractors bidding on transportation projects must take into consideration the skyrocketing price of fuel, materials and labor. The result is that fewer projects are started.

Motor-vehicle sales and use taxes also are down, as are vehicle license fees, retail sales and recordation taxes, according to the draft VDOT released yesterday.

The public will be allowed to comment on the proposal at meetings across the state, including a May 14 hearing at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale. The Commonwealth Transportation Board is scheduled to approve the plan at its June meeting.

By law, VDOT must prioritize maintenance over new construction. Construction costs are far outpacing policymakers' ability to find the money to pay for the fixes needed to keep pace with growth.

The reasons include the rising cost of petroleum for asphalt and construction vehicles, the high prices of cement and steel, and the weakening dollar. According to the Associated General Contractors of America, federal statistics show that the cost of road and highway construction materials rose 49 percent from December 2003 through January, while consumer inflation was 14.5 percent.

"Soon, VDOT will be called the Virginia Department of Maintenance," said Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-funded group that lobbies for transportation spending.

Northern Virginia leaders have long considered VDOT's spending plans inadequate for the region's growing population and gridlock. The lack of adequate state funding for the region's priorities has led to a multiyear effort to raise taxes and fees locally for projects. Last year, the General Assembly allowed the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority to raise about $300 million in local fees and taxes, but the state Supreme Court ruled the process unconstitutional.

Legislators are trying to come up with an alternative.

Meanwhile, high-priority projects that were to be built using transportation authority money have been removed from regional spending plans or delayed by years. For example, the widening of the Prince William Parkway and Route 1, designed for 2013, has been downgraded to an engineering study only. In Loudoun, the construction of the Route 7/Route 659 interchange has been pushed back five years.

Chase said that even if lawmakers come up with a way to allow Northern Virginia to tax itself for transportation projects, the money will only replace dwindling state funding. That underscores the need for a statewide funding fix, he said.

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