N.Va. Road Funds May Yield Few Results
By Alan Sipress
The two most ambitious undertakings to be financed by the new borrowing, which still needs final approval in the legislature and the signature of Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R), are the widening of sections of Route 123 and Route 7. Although both projects are within Fairfax County, they could primarily benefit residents of Prince William and Loudoun counties commuting to Fairfax jobs.
Also included in the bond program:
"Clearly these projects and this kind of funding does not produce significant relief all over Northern Virginia to the traffic problem," said Ronald F. Kirby, chief transportation planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. But, he added, "every little bit helps."
The transportation bond package totals $208 million statewide, including half for Route 58, which runs along Virginia's southern edge. Northern Virginia's $104 million share contains about $34 million for transit, mostly to repair and replace Metrorail cars.
Although the proposed road improvements were welcomed by highway advocacy groups such as the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance and the Greater Washington Board of Trade, both said the bonds would do little to address the area's most pressing needs, such as replacing the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and widening the Capital Beltway. The Board of Trade estimates the area needs as much as $1 billion a year for 20 years to pay primarily for roads and bridges.
"One hundred million dollars to do spot improvements is the best we could hope for this year in the General Assembly," said Bob Chase, spokesman for the transportation alliance, a coalition of businesses and commuters. "But next year, we have to raise our sights."
It also is unclear how much relief the new borrowing would buy even on the targeted roads. Route 123, for instance, is projected to see its traffic quadruple in 20 years as development in Prince William races ahead.
The bond program includes $27 million to rebuild five miles of Route 123 now essentially a winding 200-year-old horse path that has been paved over as a four-lane divided highway from Lee Chapel south to Furnace Road, widening to six lanes from there to Occoquan. That would complete the funding for the planned expansion of Route 123 from the Fairfax County Parkway to the Prince William line.
The traffic volume on Route 123 is now about 32,000 vehicles a day, more than double what the two-lane road is designed to handle, according to Kathy Ichter, Fairfax County's chief of highway operations. She said construction on the stretch south of Lee Chapel likely would begin in 2001 and finish two years later. But by 2020, segments of the highway are projected to carry 65,000 to 119,000 vehicles a day.
"It'll be even more than a six-lane road can handle. There's only so much you can build," she said.
So, too, on Route 7, where the traffic projected within the next decade would outstrip the added capacity as residential growth in Loudoun and commercial development in western Fairfax continues.
The bond package includes $10 million to widen the 1.5-mile stretch of Route 7 between Rolling Holly Drive and the Reston Parkway from four lanes to six, plus an additional $3 million to design the expansion of Route 7 from Reston Parkway to the Dulles Toll Road. The total cost of widening Route 7 is about $50 million, according to Pierce Homer, an assistant Prince William county executive who has taken the lead in lobbying for Northern Virginia highway funds.
Construction on the highway west of Reston Parkway could begin in 2002. But by the end of the next decade, traffic will grow about 50 percent to 84,000 vehicles a day, exceeding the capacity even of six lanes, Ichter said.
Widening the portion of Route 7 east of Reston Parkway could be many more years away, depending on when additional funds become available. That has prompted some highway advocates, such as Chase, to suggest that new bond money would be better spent widening the thoroughfare closer to the Toll Road and Tysons Corner.
"That's the big bottleneck," he said. "It would get people out of Tysons Corner faster in the evening and get people into Tysons Corner faster in the morning."
One of the most unwieldy projects funded by new borrowing would be the planned widening of Lee Highway through the densely developed heart of Fairfax City. The road, which doubles as one of the city's main shopping streets and an overflow route for traffic on Interstate 66, often suffers from slowdowns as severe as those on the interstates. At rush hour, it can take a half-hour or more for drivers to traverse the four miles of Lee Highway within the city's borders.
The bonds would provide $3.1 million to widen a few portions from four to six lanes part of an estimated $12 million plan to expand the entire length. Design and environmental studies could require four years.
"This is just bits and pieces," said Alexis Verzosa, the city's transportation director. "By the time it's all done, traffic volume will have increased. The situation will be the same."
Despite the region's urgent need, the state has yet to tap about $98 million in borrowing for Northern Virginia projects approved by the General Assembly last year. In supporting that program, the legislature precluded the sale of new bonds before this July, said Jim Atwell, assistant commissioner for finance in the Department of Transportation.
He said the state plans to issue this summer about $33 million worth of bonds approved last year in addition to a fraction of those backed by the legislature this year if Northern Virginia counties and cities adopt resolutions still awaited to endorse the sale.
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