RICHMOND, OCT. 25 -- Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder proposed today giving local governments greater control over state roads, an idea Northern Virginia officials have long supported as a way to eliminate state red tape.
"I believe that we must make local governments responsible for what are truly local issues and concerns: traffic signals, speed limits, sidewalks, truck restrictions," Wilder told the Commonwealth Transportation Board at a conference in Lexington.
Currently, the state Department of Transportation sets speed limits and decides where sidewalks will be built and traffic signals will be located. Local officials historically have bridled at what they see as the excessive time it takes to get the state to make routine improvements.
Wilder's speech left unanswered what would certainly be the major question if his idea gains momentum: How much of the cost of the projects the state would pay if it gives local governments expanded authority.
Transportation Secretary John G. Milliken said today that if local governments choose to take over more roads, the state would continue to help pay for improvement projects. But the size of the state's share has not been determined, he said.
Nonetheless, Northern Virginia officials said the notion of more control was appealing. "Any additional local opportunities for traffic management would be most welcome," said Fairfax County Executive J. Hamilton Lambert.
Virginia cities, as well as Arlington County, already have local control over their roads and receive an annual payment from the state to help with the costs. Elsewhere -- including Fairfax, which has the most road miles and traffic in Virginia -- highways are run by state government.
Wilder's plan envisions giving more local governments the option of control if they want it. Milliken said he will prepare a preliminary study of the proposal by the end of the year.
"While there are a great many wise people in Richmond, not all of the state's wisdom resides in the Holy City," Wilder said. "The needs of local communities can often be best understood by those individuals living and working day-to-day in those communities."
Prince William County Board Chairman Robert L. Cole (D-Gainesville) made the same point. "The process stinks," he said of the "maze of bureaucracy" and lengthy delays now required to get improvements made.
Cole said he had to "raise hell" with the Department of Transportation for months and finally engaged in a curbside argument with a state traffic engineer before the agency agreed to put a new stop sign at an intersection in his district.
State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Springfield) said Department of Transportation bureaucracy may still be cumbersome, but that it is far better than it was 20 years ago, when there was no local office in the Washington suburbs and "there was nothing but animosity toward Northern Virginia."
Saslaw said he probably would support Wilder's proposal, and noted that the new scheme would remove a favorite whipping boy for local elected officials. "They wouldn't be able to blame Richmond anymore," Saslaw said. "There would be more accountability."
Shiva Pant, Fairfax County's transportation chief, said he would be wary of accepting more accountability unless local governments also get sufficient state money to get the job done.
"We can't take over the roads and take on a tremendous financial burden," he said, "just so we can control our traffic lights."