Priorities Shift From Easing Commutes to Patching

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.

Homer got some blowback from a couple of rail skeptics. Chris Walker challenged him, saying state transportation officials should rank the congestion-relief benefits of projects and end "boondoggles" before going "around and crying poor, as you're doing now."

"You haven't made your case," Walker said. "I think you've made a good case, but you haven't closed the deal."

Some in the real estate industry said they are concerned that strained budgets at the state level could end up squeezing local development. They fear, for instance, that county governments will seek higher payments from developers to cover transportation improvements associated with their projects. That could undercut deals in an already tough economic environment.

"I do worry about the pressure it will continue to put on the private sector," said Charlie Turner of Gaithersburg-based commercial developer Buchanan Partners. Turner said there are concerns that state traffic analyses can be redundant and slow down projects.

Others, such as Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said the bleak financial picture is a reminder of the cost-effectiveness of building in compact communities and around Metro stations, as Arlington County has done.

Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax), who served as transportation secretary in the 1980s under Gov. Gerald L. Baliles (D), said Homer is right about the severity of the problem. She said she only wishes more officials had seen this coming a decade ago, when it became clear the commonwealth was headed for this breakdown.

Moving money from new construction to crucial fixes saps resources from traffic-clogged Northern Virginia, she said. "You are driving money out of this area to fund statewide maintenance needs."

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