More Road Projects on Chopping Block in Va.

By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 3, 2008

Just months after slashing $1.1 billion in road and transit projects from the state's six-year transportation spending plan, Virginia officials say the state's fiscal situation is so bad that they will have to hold a special meeting to cut even more projects.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board will meet in November or December to revisit the plan, Deputy Transportation Secretary Barbara Reese said yesterday. A midyear correction to the spending plan, although highly unusual, is necessary to make sure localities know what will, and will not, be funded.

"Keeping [the plan] where it is is not realistic," Reese said. "We're in a recession."

Already, estimates show a shortfall in the maintenance fund of $740 million over six years. Estimates for the state's transportation trust fund -- where money for new projects comes from -- have not been completed, but officials are not optimistic.

Yet despite plummeting revenue, officials insist that they will come up with $50 million a year in matching funds for Metro.

Congress this week passed a bill authorizing $1.5 billion for the regional transit agency that is contingent upon Virginia, Maryland and the District each dedicating $50 million a year for 10 years to Metro. The District has set aside a portion of its sales tax revenue for its share, and Maryland's portion is included in the state's capital transportation budget.

Virginia is the only jurisdiction that has not identified its share.

"We will find the $50 million," Reese said. "The governor has absolutely no interest in not providing Metro or other transit agencies the revenues they need. We've got to provide that option to folks."

Transportation funding in Virginia relies on a 17.5 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, taxes on motor vehicle sales, and license and registration fees. Gas tax collections are at a 20-year low, the Commonwealth Transportation Board said; the number of vehicles sold in Virginia is expected to drop to levels not seen since the mid-1990s; and the average price of a vehicle has fallen to spring 2003 levels. Lower prices for new cars are also weakening the used-car market, according to the board's revenue forecast.

"The gas tax is part of it, but nobody considered the dive in car sales and the types of car sales: SUVs are more expensive than passenger cars. Cheaper cars mean less taxes," Reese said.

The drop in revenue for the maintenance fund is critical to new projects because state law mandates that maintenance of existing roads receive priority over spending on new projects. In recent years, funding for new projects has been cut and money shifted to the maintenance account.

Although the six-year plan transportation trust fund is expected to be cut, is still contains more than $10.1 billion in projected spending.

The new forecast is more bad news for commuters in congested Northern Virginia. The result will be more jammed roads and crowded trains.

In a special session this spring, the General Assembly failed to come up with a spending plan for transportation improvements. Legislators also did not come up with an alternative to the regional funding boards in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, which the Virginia Supreme Court ruled did not have the authority to impose local taxes and fees. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority had planned to raise and spend more than $300 million a year on regional transportation projects that would have alleviated some of the region's most notorious bottlenecks.

Northern Virginia leaders said there is no backup plan, other than to get by with less and hope the problems get fixed later.

Meanwhile, Chris Zimmerman, who had been chairman of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, worries that the lack of a solution could give companies considering moving to the region second thoughts.

Another concern for the future is the bankruptcy of the federal highway trust fund. Although Congress put $8 billion into the account recently, that was only to cover the fund's current obligations.

"There is total uncertainty about our federal revenues," Reese said.

At a Metro board committee meeting yesterday, officials thanked Congress for passing the federal legislation and called on the District, Maryland and Virginia to back up their commitments to the local match.

Zimmerman, who is also chairman of the Metro board and a member of the Arlington County Board, said he hoped that when lawmakers gather in Richmond in January, "they will be convinced to move something along."

Maryland board member Peter Benjamin said the challenge to lawmakers will be to pass the necessary language changing the Metro governance agreement by the next legislative session, which in Maryland and Virginia is "only a few weeks away."

Staff writer Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

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