Shortage of state road funding leaves upkeep undone in Fairfax

Sidewalks have deteriorated at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station and elsewhere.
Sidewalks have deteriorated at the Franconia-Springfield Metro station and elsewhere. "It's a countywide issue and one that will only continue to get worse," says the county transportation director. (Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

The broken-down section of pavement outside the Franconia-Springfield Metro station can best be described as a pit, a sinkhole, even a crater. But whatever you call the spot -- hidden by a clear tarp and surrounded by orange traffic cones, yellow police tape and dirt -- you can't call it safe.

Pedestrians maneuver around it every day to reach the Metro stop's entrance off Frontier Road, where entire patches of concrete have all but disintegrated. Situated in a crowded section near the Springfield Mall and several big-box retail stores, Frontier Drive has one of the most heavily used sidewalks in Northern Virginia. It's also one of the most dangerous, one that Fairfax County officials have highlighted in recent weeks during public transportation meetings as one of the region's worst hazards for commuters.

"The sidewalks that are the most critical are around our Metro stops and schools," said Kathy Ichter, Fairfax's transportation director. "It's a countywide issue and one that will only continue to get worse."

Ichter said February's record-setting snowstorms caused some sidewalk pavement to rut and pit even further, especially in several older areas of Fairfax, including Baileys Crossroads, Mount Vernon and Springfield. Transportation officials monitor potential "tripping hazards" based on complaints received, but Ichter likened the agency's response to treating a flesh wound: "Sometimes the more you pick at it, the worse it gets."

State and county planners have long called for improvements to sidewalks and crosswalks near the Joseph Alexander Transportation Center, which includes the Metro stop, a Virginia Railway Express stop and a hub for Circulator bus routes. The county's comprehensive plan for Franconia-Springfield calls the area around Frontier Drive "hostile to pedestrians" and recommends adding bicycle lanes, building wider sidewalks, installing better lighting, and painting brighter and larger crosswalks.

But continued funding shortages for secondary-road projects across Northern Virginia have put many sidewalk and trail projects on hold, leaving aging infrastructure in increasingly poor condition.

"It's criminal. People just want the stuff we've got properly maintained. We're not building new things, we can't keep up with the things we've got," said Fairfax County Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee), chairman of the board's transportation committee. "It's just outright deterioration."

McKay has been Fairfax's most vocal critic of Virginia Department of Transportation funding -- or the lack of it -- for secondary roads, and he did not hesitate to let members of the state's newly assembled Government Reform Commission know that this month. He told one VDOT staff member by phone that he was considering repainting road and crosswalk stripes near the Franconia-Springfield and Van Dorn Metro stops; he was told that any vigilante painting could be met with arrest and a fine.

State officials have said they are required by law to prioritize projects based on traffic volume and the availability of matching federal funds. Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton said he has been forced to make "judgments not on need, but on the sources of funds." In 2004, Fairfax 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.

Robert Michie, 61, a citizen member of the county's trails and sidewalks committee, spends much of his off hours documenting the deteriorating conditions of pedestrian sidewalks and trails across the region on his Web site.

"It's hard to even find who has jurisdiction to fix some of these things sometimes, and even then there's no money," said Michie, who commutes 30 miles round trip by bike each day between his home in the Alexandria area and the District.

One of Michie's chief concerns is how the lack of state funds might affect subdivisions. Fairfax's traffic-calming program -- which pays for the installation of speed humps and speed tables, raised pedestrian crosswalks, traffic circles and median islands -- will soon be broke, and dozens of projects probably will be suspended, officials said this week.

Neighborhood roads that qualify for such devices are required to have posted speed limits of 25 mph or less and traffic volume of 600 to 4,000 vehicles a day (15,000 vehicles or less for arterial roads). Since the program started in 1997, Fairfax has received 342 requests for such projects. About 111 have been constructed. It typically takes 12 to 30 months for traffic items to be approved and constructed.

As of July 1, the program had $366,407. About two dozen approved and developing projects are in the pipeline, and 24 others have qualified or are being studied. Those remaining projects are unlikely to be built, officials said, unless other sources of revenue can be found.

The county Board of Supervisors is set to approve its transportation recommendations for the Virginia Government Reform Commission on Tuesday.

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