By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
RICHMOND -- For a state that has struggled for years to find road and transit money, Virginia would seem the least likely candidate to be the last one to ask for federal stimulus money for transportation.
But state officials started submitting lists of shovel-ready projects to the federal government last month after the other 49 states had. The final list will be sent Thursday.
"It's the number one issue in Virginia," Del. Christopher B. Saxman (R-Staunton) said. "And we are dead last in doing something about it."
Several Republican legislators are questioning why Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's administration lagged behind the other states and the District, particularly because the money is designed to give the state's economy a much-needed boost.
"Of everything Virginia receives in its package, the one item that would stimulate the economy is the money for transportation," Sen. Ryan T. McDougle (R-Hanover) said. "It's difficult to understand why we would not be moving faster."
Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer said state officials worked as quickly as they could to devise a list of projects after consulting with localities, legislators, Congress members and the public.
"They have done a lot of outreach to be sure that everyone is involved," Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax) said. "We could have probably speeded it up if we had . . . not been as collaborative, but I don't think that would have worked."
Some projects financed with federal stimulus dollars have started across the state, Homer said. In Northern Virginia, the first projects will begin this summer with the paving of nine thoroughfares in Loudoun and Prince William counties.
Other states were able to provide the federal government with a list of projects immediately because they had construction underway or about to be started. But in recent months Virginia has lacked the money to spend on such undertakings. The state has concentrated on maintenance, such as fixing potholes and cutting grass in medians, which are not covered by the stimulus.
For years, state lawmakers have tried, but repeatedly failed, to forge an agreement that sets out how to pay for millions of dollars in transportation needs, including proposals aimed at the most congested area of Northern Virginia.
In December, state transportation officials sliced $2.2 billion from Virginia's $10.6 billion, six-year spending plan because state revenue was declining and the inflow of federal tax revenue remained unpredictable.
"This delay is [due] in part, to a large degree, that Virginia is failing to adequately fund transportation," said Bob Chase, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a business-supported group that lobbies for transportation funding.
President Obama signed into law in February a $787 billion stimulus package designed to create millions of jobs through investments in energy, transportation, education and health-care projects. About $4.9 billion of that will flow to Virginia over 27 months. It includes $810 million that will be used to reimburse the state for road, transit and rail projects.
The state has sent the federal government a list of transportation projects totaling $766 million, Homer said. The remaining $44 million in proposed work will be sent Thursday. The complete list includes projects that have been priorities for nearly two decades in Northern Virginia but were never funded: interchange work on Route 50 in Arlington County and Route 18 in Manassas and two additional phases of the Fairfax Parkway in Springfield.
"We have committed 95 percent of stimulus funds," Homer said. "I suspect we are where most states are. We are starting to see results."
As of June 5, the federal government had given Virginia permission to proceed on 39 projects, costing $167.4 million, according to the U.S. Transportation Department. By comparison, Maryland had received approval for 75 projects, worth $227.6 million, and the District, 11 projects, costing $1.4 million.
Homer said his tracking shows that, this week, the amount of work receiving a federal green light rose to $200 million.
Jeffrey Southard, executive vice president of the Virginia Transportation Construction Alliance, which represents 350 companies that design, build and maintain the state's transportation network, called criticism of the delay premature.
"The key is going to be the next couple weeks, how fast they can get that work on the street," he said. "They did a very good job identifying projects. How quickly can they get that work awarded?"