Va. Expects Major Job, Funding Cuts

Because of projected revenue declines, a Virginia board is expected to cut another $1.1 billion from new road and project budgets. The state will evaluate its level of services, and the Transportation Department will be smaller.
Because of projected revenue declines, a Virginia board is expected to cut another $1.1 billion from new road and project budgets. The state will evaluate its level of services, and the Transportation Department will be smaller. (2006 Photo By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
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By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

Virginia's transportation revenues are expected to decrease by more than $2 billion over the next six years, forcing significant cuts in projects, jobs and services and an overhaul of the way the state Department of Transportation does business, officials said yesterday.

After cutting the budget for new road and transit projects by $1.1 billion in June, the Commonwealth Transportation Board will meet next month to slash another $1.1 billion -- or more, depending on economic conditions.

David S. Ekern, Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner, said the agency will make service and personnel cuts to reflect the poor revenue outlook, including reducing the number of employees by 900 over the next two years. Layoffs are also being considered.

Changes also could be made in the way VDOT mows grass, clears snow and maintains rest areas.

"In the future, VDOT will be a smaller agency. We cannot afford to administer and deliver our services, programs and projects the same way we have in the past," Ekern said. "Safety, emergency response and maintenance of existing roadways will be our top priorities, but we will have to make some difficult decisions to live within our means."

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said yesterday that most of the job cuts will come from VDOT's central office rather than regional offices.

"VDOT will get smaller. . . . With less money, you don't need the same number of people managing projects that are disappearing or getting smaller," Kaine said.

Kaine said the number of VDOT employees had been reduced from 10,000 to 8,500 under former governor Mark R. Warner (D).

Transportation funding in Virginia relies on a 17.5 cents-a-gallon gasoline tax, sales taxes, taxes on motor vehicle sales and license and registration fees. Gas tax collections are lagging, despite the recent decline in prices, the number of vehicles sold in Virginia is expected to drop and lower prices for new cars are weakening the used-car market. More than three-fourths of transaction fees in Virginia are on used cars, Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said.

"These changes are structural and long-term in nature. They are not cyclical," Homer said. He also said that the prospects for large increases in federal funds, which pay for 60 percent of new projects, is unlikely.

VDOT's plans include evaluating its level of services, including roadside maintenance, lighting, mowing and signage. Ekern said that snow removal services will not change this year but that service levels will be reviewed in the future.

Yet despite plummeting revenue, officials insist that the state will come up with $50 million a year in matching funds for Metro, which are necessary for the transit agency to receive $1.5 billion in federal funds.

Tough economic times for state and local governments are hurting Metro, which is the region's largest transit agency and has a $1.9 billion operating and capital budget, because local and state governments pay a significant portion of that budget. In anticipation that local jurisdictions will be hard-pressed to increase their contributions, Metro General Manager John B. Catoe Jr. said yesterday that the agency has eliminated 100 vacant positions, which he estimated would save "a few million dollars." None of the positions are in key operating areas, such as bus drivers, train operators or rail mechanics, he said. Metro has more than 10,000 employees.

Department heads have been asked to cut nonessential spending, such as travel, supplies and consultants, he said.

In addition, the transit agency's officials are resurrecting ideas suggested a few years ago to raise revenue. These include charging certain retailers, such as car washes, car detailing and dry cleaners, to provide services in Metro parking lots, he said. The ideas are preliminary, he said.

"Given what's happening in the jurisdictions, with the Maryland cutbacks and reductions in Northern Virginia, we're not immune, and we can't wait until the sky falls before we take some steps," Catoe said. Metro typically presents its budget in December, after receiving revenue estimates from contributing jurisdictions.

Staff writers Anita Kumar and Lena H. Sun contributed to this report.

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