Delays in one of every five road-construction projects in Virginia have prompted complaints from lawmakers that funding and administrative problems are blocking highway improvements.
Legislators from Northern Virginia were among the strongest critics of state transportation officials during a hearing today. They were concerned about what they saw as delays in plans to widen the Capital Beltway, rebuild a key intersection on Route 29 and upgrade sections of Route 123.
But lawmakers from Southwestern Virginia and elsewhere also criticized the transportation officials, saying that job cuts during the administration of former governor George Allen (R) and other problems are causing unnecessary delays.
"People feel disenfranchised," said Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke) as he detailed how a highway project in his area was delayed without any public notice to the many community activists who lobbied for it.
Northern Virginia lawmakers asked about planned delays in several highway projects in the Washington suburbs but said they heard few answers that satisfied them.
"What they didn't want to say is, 'Give us more money,' " said Del. James M. Scott (D-Fairfax), who asked why an improved interchange for Routes 28 and 29 in Fairfax County has been pushed back. "We know that there is a huge revenue shortfall [for transportation projects] that's keeping these projects from going forward."
Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has been adamant in his opposition to new taxes as a way to fund transportation improvements despite calls for an increase in the state gasoline tax.
David R. Gehr, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation, portrayed the state's highway construction as robust, suffering from glitches natural to road projects. He told the House Finance Committee, which handles taxation issues, that nearly $2 billion worth of work is underway and that more than 1,100 projects are scheduled for the next six years.
Cash shortages are delaying only 90 projects; 145 others are delayed while environmental studies, drainage problems and other issues particular to those projects are resolved.
"I feel that the commonwealth does have a strong, healthy surface transportation program," Gehr told the committee.
Later, he disputed legislators' suggestions that the main problem is funding.
"What we're doing," Gehr said, "is managing our program within our means."
Complaints began when state transportation officials recently updated their six-year plan, a blueprint for highway projects that is revised every year as projects are planned, completed, delayed or added. The new plan details $7.3 billion worth of state projects through 2005.
Transportation officials also said that an apparent shortfall in cash reflects the department's policy of keeping less money in the bank. That way, they said, projects are done faster and lawmakers are less likely to transfer idle cash from transportation projects to other state needs. VDOT had a cash balance of $456 million in 1994 but now has only about $100 million in the bank.
They also noted that the General Assembly has siphoned $264 million from transportation projects in the past decade, slowing the pace of road construction.
Fairfax supervisors sent a critical letter to the state transportation secretary, Shirley Ybarra, expressing their concern about projects they consider to be of great importance, including the addition of a Capital Beltway lane, improvement of the interchange at Routes 29 and 28, and the widening of Route 123 through southern Fairfax.
Among the projects delayed in the new version of the six-year plan was the widening of Route 234 through Prince William County, which caught the attention of Del. Harry J. Parrish (R-Manassas), the Finance Committee co-chairman.
"I can't understand why it's been delayed," Parrish said after the 2 1/2-hour meeting.
CAPTION: David R. Gehr, transportation commissioner, said the construction delays are normal. He said the state has a healthy surface transportation program.