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Rail Spending Applauded; Overall Maintenance Booed

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Maryland and the District have done a better job than Virginia in spending federal stimulus dollars earmarked for transportation, according to a report released yesterday by a smart-growth advocacy group.

Virginia gets high marks for its investment in rail but has not adequately addressed the maintenance backlog for transportation projects, according to Smart Growth America, a coalition that advocates smart-growth policies that avoid urban sprawl and encourage compact communities that are transit-oriented, walkable and bicycle-friendly.

Smart Growth America examined the $26.6 billion in flexible transportation money distributed to the 50 states and the District of Columbia, taking a snapshot of spending reported to the federal government by June 1.

The group ranked Maryland and the District higher on a scale that credited states that decided to spend fewer dollars on new roads and more on maintaining existing roads and bridges, improving pedestrian and bike paths, and enhancing transit options. The group cited research showing that highway maintenance projects create more jobs and can be completed faster than new construction.

By that measure, Virginia ranked 39th among the 50 states and the District. According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, the state has a $3.7 billion backlog in repairs for aging bridges and $1 billion in interstate pavement repair needs.

Virginia scored high marks for the transparency of its spending process and for spending stimulus money on freight and passenger rail projects. It ranked 12th in rail spending.

"The process has given us some snapshot of maintenance backlogs and indicated that we need to put a higher priority on structurally deficient bridges and other maintenance needs," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which works in Virginia, Maryland and the District.

The group found that the District, whose road network is already built out, invested no money in new construction and instead devoted 58 percent of its flexible stimulus dollars to maintenance and 41 percent on projects that improve pedestrian and bicycle options. Maryland, meanwhile, reported spending 94 percent of its dollars on improving existing roads.

States are still deciding how to spend their stimulus money. The organization timed its report to appear 120 days after the stimulus package's enactment, when states were required to have committed 50 percent of their funding.

Figures more current than those used by Smart Growth America show that Virginia has now spent more money on pedestrian, bike and rail projects than reflected in the document. For that reason, state Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer suggested that an analysis of spending priorities would be more appropriate next spring or summer, when the entirety of the state's $694.5 million in surface transportation money has been committed.

"I think you need to be careful in infrastructure financing with these snapshots," Homer said.

He noted, too, that much of Virginia's new highway spending is on projects associated with job shifts occurring as part of the military's Base Realignment and Closure Act relocations. Other new projects to ease traffic have been on priority lists for years but have been delayed because of lack of funding.

In February, U.S. Reps. Gerald E. Connolly (D), James P. Moran Jr. (D) and Frank R. Wolf (R) wrote Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) asking that some stimulus money be earmarked for long-sought construction projects and not devoted entirely to the state's road maintenance backlog.

"What we do is balance competing needs, and I think we've done an outstanding job and done it very transparently," Homer said. "These projects have been on the books for decades, and they're finally getting done because of stimulus dollars."

In Maryland, Erin Henson, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation, said officials decided to spread money around to many small maintenance projects rather than devote funding to fewer large projects.

"Maryland is pleased to be recognized for our proactive approach to make the most of economic recovery dollars," she said.

D.C. Department of Transportation Director Gabe Klein said the District has used its stimulus money to invest in alternatives to driving while improving existing roads and bridges.

"The District recognizes the need for a balanced transportation system, and our stimulus spending reflects that," he said.

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