Prince William County officials are scheduled to meet this week with their counterparts from seven other Virginia jurisdictions to discuss the formation of a regional organization that would attack transportation problems in the outer counties.
The organization would be independent of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which deals with problems in the state suburbs closest to Washington.
The eight jurisdictions are seeking to combine their new taxing power to help fund a commuter rail system and build access roads or bridges and tunnels to it. Officials said that joining forces to form a transportation district in an area that has never been considered a region will give the jurisdictions a stronger voice in making transportation recommendations to the state government.
The seven other jurisdictions are Loudoun, Fauquier, Stafford and Spotsylvania counties and the cities of Fredericksburg, Manassas and Manassas Park.
Prince William officials said their move was prompted partly because the thrust of the Northern Virginia transportation system is the Metro bus and rail system. "While our focus may someday involve Metro, and the two groups may merge in the future, right now we have to concentrate on commuter rail to help solve our problems," Prince William County Executive Robert Noe said.
Northern Virginia officials contacted said they do not believe that the new district would adversely affect their region. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman John F. Herrity said, "I'm a strong proponent of the outer counties working together and with us to fund commuter rails, bus lines, car pools and high-occupancy vehicle lanes. It's in our best interest to get them coming through our county on mass transportation."
Rick Taube, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, said he thought that the new group will have no impact on that commission. "The new district will have the positive effect of providing more revenue to establish the commuter rail system," he said.
Because of the apparent commuter rail focus, Loudoun County officials are holding off on a decision on joining the new district, saying the widening of Rtes. 7 and 28 is currently of greater concern to Loudoun commuters. "Besides, we don't have rails available to us," said Loudoun transportation planner Art Smith. Prince William plans to use existing rails belonging to the Fredericksburg, Richmond and Potomac Railroad and the Southern Railroad.
According to Prince William County Attorney John Foote, legislation passed by the General Assembly this year authorized the formation of a transportation district among interested jurisdictions, as long as either Prince William or Loudoun County, each contiguous to the area covered by the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, becomes part of it.
The General Assembly empowered the jurisdictions joining the new alliance to impose a 2 percent gasoline tax to finance its projects. While one bill would have set no limit on what the transportation district could focus on, the gas tax may be used only for what is termed "mass transit," Foote said.
Officials estimate that Prince William could receive from $1 million to $1.5 million annually from the gas tax. The language of the legislation could rule out using the funds to improve existing roads and building new ones.
Prince William County Board Chairman Ed King said the board's original intent in requesting the legislation was to find new ways to fund road improvements and construction in Northern Virginia's fastest growing county, where rush-hour traffic jams are becoming a way of life. Said King, "Certainly it can be argued that moving large numbers of people from one place to another on roads is a form of mass transportation. I believe if we needed to build a road with gas tax funds we could do it."
Foote has drafted a set of goals for the other jurisdictions to consider, which would determine the direction of the proposed district. Prince William transportation chief John Schofield said the goals could be expanded to include airports, tunnels, bridges and roads. "We can't rule out roads," he said. "If a commuter station needs an access road, I believe we can argue that a road is a part of mass transit."