In N. Va., so many roads, so little repair money from VDOT: $1,024 in one case

By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 26, 2010; B01

If you're a commuter in Northern Virginia this summer, your drive will get a bit longer.

Virginia officials have eliminated much of the commonwealth's funding for regional secondary-road programs -- in use since the state's Transportation Department was founded a century ago to maintain rural and suburban arteries -- because of another budget crunch. Now, dozens of road improvements and repairs across Northern Virginia, including some under construction, will grind to a halt by July and August, resulting in still-worsening congestion for many arterial roads that feed into the region's already clogged highways.

A Washington Post analysis of the delayed and canceled road projects throughout Northern Virginia, including lane widening and traffic-calming measures, shows that at least $67.7 million worth of road projects are slowing down or have been scratched because of the state's June budget decision to focus on existing primary road projects that receive matching federal money.

"This is the perfect storm we've been talking about for years," said Kathy Ichter, Fairfax County's transportation director. "There's a false perception out there that we have all of these new construction projects, but that's only the primary roads already in the pipeline. We have no new projects in the pipeline, and now you're going to start to feel it."

Some of the casualties: a new traffic light to reduce congestion on Wakefield Chapel Road near Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus; a $6 million tunnel on Franconia Road to run under South Van Dorn Street in Alexandria; and fixes to the century-old Aden Road Bridge in Nokesville, which has been deemed structurally deficient for years.

State officials say their hands are tied. "We are seeing the secondary-road pavements continue to age and deteriorate, and we simply do not have enough resources at this time to address those needs," said Jeff Caldwell, a Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman.

The traffic problems will be especially acute in Northern Virginia, home to 1.1 million commuters, as many primary and highway projects remain funded while nearly 44 percent of the area's 10,207 miles of secondary roads are still deemed deficient by the state, the highest in Virginia.

And the worst of it will slam Loudoun County, where more than 60 percent of suburban roads are deficient -- defined as pavement that is so deeply pitted and rutted that it should require immediate asphalt repair. The county's secondary-road budget from the state next year: $1,024.

"It is unconscionable that the fifth-fastest-growing locality in the United States will receive $1,024 over the next six years towards its secondary road system," Loudoun Supervisor Kelly Burk (D-Leesburg), the chairman of the board's transportation and land-use committee, wrote in a letter to the state. "Loudoun's needs alone will require tens of millions of dollars."

Among the Loudoun projects on hold is the planned widening of Belmont Ridge Road from two to four lanes from the Dulles Greenway to Route 7, one of the most dangerous stretches of in the region. In 2009, 73 traffic accidents were reported at Belmont Ridge Road and Route 7.

The budget shortfall will exacerbate some safety issues, said Lon Anderson, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, and the funding gaps will affect everything from the repair of traffic lights and signals to the installation of guardrails.

"If someone had stolen the zeros off of VDOT's budget, they wouldn't have been able to do their budget," he said. "What we're watching here is a disaster in slow motion. We're talking about years of neglect that have now gotten increasingly severe."

In Prince William County, fixes to a bridge on Aden Road and improvements to Balls Ford Road are being delayed. The 128-year-old Aden Road Bridge in Nokesville has been occasionally closed for repairs in response to failed inspections that measure its structural stability. About 1,750 people drive over the 78-foot bridge each day.

"We cannot start any new projects, and we can't feed the old projects," said Rick Canizales, Prince William's transportation planning manager. "It's tough."

In 2004, Fairfax County received $29 million for such projects. This year, Virginia's most populous jurisdiction got $238,000, and next year the amount will be $1,989.

"You can't do anything but maybe paint some markings in a lane with that amount," Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova (D) bemoaned during a recent meeting.

The lack of state funding for basic road maintenance, such as median grass mowing and road striping, has prompted Fairfax officials to consider converting the county to a city, a largely tactical move that would give it more control over its road network.

To make up the shortfall, Fairfax has tapped into about $52 million worth of revenue from a county real estate tax on commercial and industrial landowners.

But the funding issues will be most felt by drivers commuting between Virginia localities. Take Rolling Road in Alexandria: Some 20,000 government workers are expected to commute on that road with the Defense Department's anticipated base relocation along the Interstate 95 corridor. The cancellation of road improvements nearby and the additional people driving to work would result in more congestion.

"I never thought some of these projects would be built in my lifetime," said Andy Strojny, 63, of Alexandria. "You can be stuck for 10 minutes on a road out of your neighborhood and once you get out onto any of the county roads -- forget it."

In Arlington County, where the secondary-road system is largely built out, state money had been used to pay for bus stops and improve pedestrian sidewalks. But that money dried up two years ago. As a result, improvements to the congested Clarendon Circle and areas in Rosslyn could be delayed for one to two years, said Wayne Wentz, chief of Arlington's transportation engineering.

Primary roads are now getting most of the state funding because they handle more traffic and are eligible for federal funding, Caldwell said. Members of the Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board, which oversees statewide transportation funding, said at its June budget workshop that its legal obligation to focus on federally subsidized projects was limiting how it could pay for maintenance of suburban and rural roads. Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said he was forced to make "judgments not on need, but on the sources of funds." Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is still in the early stages of a plan to privatize 350 state-run liquor stores, which could bring in as much as $500 million for much-needed road improvements.

"We're beating the existing lane miles we have to death," said J. Douglas Koelemay, a member of the Commonwealth Transportation Board representing Northern Virginia from Springfield. "I don't know what to do about it, and it's frustrating."

The new statewide transportation budget takes effect July 1.

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