Va. Transportation Secretary Says Priorities Have Shifted From Easing Commutes to Keeping Roads From Crumbling

By Michael Laris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Virginia's top transportation official came to a stark black glass technology center near Dulles International Airport yesterday and offered an unusually grim, and at times alarming, rundown of a transportation system he said is crumbling, starved of funds and slated to get worse.

Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer can strike an upbeat tone in the long slog against snarled traffic, but yesterday he sounded more like Darth Vader on the Death Star.

The state is facing a massive potential drop-off in transportation funds from the federal government, Homer told state legislators, business leaders and transportation advocates at the Center for Innovative Technology. The recession and financial crisis have also dramatically decreased state funding, he said.

The situation is so bad that the state's transportation priorities have shifted from trying to alleviate horrendous commutes to trying to maintain existing roads.

"I've got to be honest. Congestion relief has fallen as a major priority of our transportation program," Homer said. "We're trying to keep bridges from falling."

He said road surfaces across Virginia are in danger of crumbling, and the state lacks the money to cover the billion dollars in immediate needs.

"We have a ticking time bomb, which is concrete pavements," Homer said. Interstate 66 west of the Capital Beltway is among the areas that need an overhaul, he said.

Bright spots exist: Construction of HOT lanes and the Beltway widening program are continuing, as is work on extending Metrorail to Dulles. But the big-picture concern is that money is being diverted from vital new projects to perform basic upkeep, Homer said.

The state's six-year highway construction budget has tanked. It was $8.6 billion last year, but draft revisions slashed it to $5.4 billion, starting next year.

A threshold has been crossed, Homer said, and many in his audience agreed. This is not simply another Chicken Little moment, they said.

Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, which invited Homer up from Richmond, said the region's economy was built around transportation projects that were being advanced more than a decade ago. Similar future projects are being pushed out of the picture, he said.

"It's gone from not being able to build what we need, to not even being able to maintain what we already have," Chase said.

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