A top Virginia transportation official, under criticism over the pace of road-building in Northern Virginia, is suggesting that Fairfax County and other rapidly growing jurisdictions take care of their own roads, rather than rely on the state.
No thanks, say Fairfax officials, who believe they'd have to raise property taxes to help pay for such a plan.
Thomas F. Farley, the Virginia Department of Transportation's chief engineer for Northern Virginia, said in an interview that Fairfax, along with Prince William and Loudoun counties, should consider taking responsibility for all but the major state roads. He said that local officials know best how to deal with the explosive growth that state road-building programs have struggled to keep pace with throughout the 1990s.
"Fairfax County is one of the richest, smartest counties in the nation," Farley said of the region's most populous county, with more than 900,000 residents. "Does it make sense for the state to take care of their roads?"
Farley's comments come as VDOT is under increasing criticism from some Northern Virginia officials, who complain about a lack of oversight, lengthy delays in projects, budget overruns and personnel shortages at the state transportation agency. He said his recommendation is not an attempt to lash back at critics but a sincere proposal for counties to consider.
Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, and county transportation chief Shiva K. Pant said that as much as they'd prefer taking over most state roads so they could be more responsive to residents' demands, the cost would be too high. Voter approval also would be required for a local takeover of most roads.
"We've looked at this pretty carefully, and the cost to Fairfax County is enormous," Hanley said, referring to a 1990 study by a private consultant that said Fairfax would have to come up with an additional $72 million a year, which would mean a property tax increase of 3.6 cents for each $100 of assessed value.
Prince William Public Works Director Robert W. Wilson is more open to the idea of local control, though, and said he believes the county could do it without having to draw from its general fund. Loudoun officials said they have not discussed the idea and could not comment on it.
VDOT builds, maintains and operates nearly all of Northern Virginia's interstate highways such as the Capital Beltway, primary roads such as Route 1, and secondary roads such as Braddock Road and the Fairfax County Parkway. Secondary roads represent about 90 percent of the total number of miles in Fairfax.
Only a few other states give as much authority to their transportation departments. Maryland is typical of most states, overseeing interstates and primary highways and leaving everything else to the counties. That's what Farley is suggesting for Northern Virginia.
Arlington County and Henrico County in the Richmond area maintain their secondary roads. Those counties, which did not join the state road system when it was established in the 1930s, receive a yearly allocation from state funds to spend on maintaining their secondary roads.
Since the late 1960s, Fairfax officials have considered breaking away from VDOT. County officials believed they could make road improvements faster than the state agency, which has to consider needs across the state when it allocates limited transportation dollars.
Fairfax officials dropped the idea of seceding from VDOT after the 1990 study estimated it would cost $72 million annually, but today they continue to believe that the county is slighted when the state distributes money for secondary roads. Prince William has a smaller road system than Fairfax, so the cost of taking over its roads would be lower, although Prince William officials have not determined that cost. Fairfax has 2,424 miles of secondary roads, compared with 804 miles in Prince William and 794 miles in Loudoun.
Although he is confident that Prince William could assume control of secondary roads, Wilson said, "we've had so much on our plate that we've just never really gotten to it."
In recent years, Farley said, Fairfax and Prince William have shared in the financing, design and construction of several roads, such as the Fairfax and Prince William parkways. Prince William is building a new interchange with VDOT at Routes 123 and 1. As the counties take on more responsibility for road work themselves, Farley said, it makes sense for them to consider an expanded role.
"I'm not suggesting it would be an easy thing to do," Farley said, acknowledging the counties' added cost. "Maybe at first it wouldn't be a complete transfer of the secondary road system. . . . Even if we had some agreement, we'd still have to phase this in."
Pant said he doesn't see that happening as long as the money issue is unresolved. He added that with the state government's recent efforts to cut costs by shifting various responsibilities to local jurisdictions, Fairfax officials are suspicious that Farley's plan would simply transfer a huge road bill to the county.
"The experience of all this reinventing government' so far is, move the operation to some other place without providing the funding," he said.