Virginia cuts $42 million more from transportation budget

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 18, 2009

The downturn in highway tax revenue has brought about yet another round of cutbacks in Virginia's transportation spending, a $42 million reduction that will curtail road repaving plans.

Tax revenue has tumbled by more than $4.6 billion since the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) began paring its six-year spending plan in spring 2008. The latest reductions bring to $893.5 million the amount eliminated from the budget through layoffs, service reductions and postponement of equipment purchases.

"We continue to reduce spending on a lot of things that the public doesn't see, like maintenance of our own buildings," VDOT spokesman Jeff Caldwell said. "And this time, there are some things the public will see, like reductions in paving projects and in payments to local governments that maintain their own roads."

Funding for highway construction, repair and maintenance comes primarily from the state gasoline tax, sales taxes on new and used cars, and titling fees.

"People are buying fewer cars, buying more fuel-efficient cars, and they're driving less," Caldwell said. "The $893.5 million amount is about $40 million more of a reduction from what we were told just a month ago."

Additionally, when the Commonwealth Transportation Board met Thursday, it reordered the priority list for 2,242 projects statewide to reflect the new reality.

"Basically, the project list itself did not change, but things were reshuffled," Caldwell said.

With several mega-projects underway, Northern Virginia fared better than other areas.

"On one hand, people who drive are seeing many dramatic construction projects underway," said Pierce R. Homer, state secretary of transportation. "On the other hand, however, they're not seeing our inability to maintain highways, particularly our secondary roads."

Several major projects are being built with a major boost in federal funding or through public-private partnerships outside the traditional state-fueled construction pipeline, Homer said. In addition, an infusion of one-time federal stimulus money has paid for smaller efforts to repair and refurbish streets and bridges.

"But the long-term revenue base is shrinking," Homer said.

The $4.6 billion revenue gap over six years is equal to the amount of the annual state budget for transportation, Homer said.

"Essentially, we've been asked to fund a six-year program with five years of revenue," he said.

One dramatic impact has been the reduction or elimination of money given to local jurisdictions to maintain their roads.

"Fairfax County used to get $22 million, and now they get zero," Homer said. "This has been a major change in the relationship between the state and local governments."

VDOT has laid off more than 1,000 full- and part-time workers this year, part of a plan to reduce the agency's staffing by 20 percent before July 1.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company