Prince William County's top elected official is promoting a plan to have local government take over road construction and maintenance from the state, a measure she said would speed up highway building and other road projects.
Under the plan envisioned by Board of County Supervisors Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt (D), Prince William would not only install traffic lights and stop signs but also plow snow, pave and widen roads, fill potholes, even remove dead animals, jobs that are now done by Virginia's Department of Transportation.
With county workers, rather than state bureaucrats, responsible for the work, needed projects would get done more quickly, said Seefeldt, who faces a Republican opponent in her bid for reelection this fall.
"It's local accountability and rapid response we're looking for," the chairman said. "We can't make serious decisions like where to put stop signs and traffic signals because we have to wait for VDOT's bureaucracy, and that takes time. People are very frustrated."
Furthermore, Seefeldt said, Prince William has proved it can build roads. A decade ago, the county financed and built a cross-county parkway, which is largely complete.
The longtime board chairman has seized on an issue close to the hearts of Northern Virginia voters fed up with clogged roads and impatient for solutions to gridlock. But several officials warned yesterday that such a plan would not be simple to implement.
Virginia's transportation secretary and officials in neighboring counties that have considered, then abandoned, similar plans, said local control could burden Prince William with millions of dollars in equipment costs and annual maintenance.
"What they have to weigh is: What are the costs they need to absorb to enjoy the benefits?" state Transportation Secretary Shirley Ybarra said. "I don't think we're going to give our equipment away."
Ybarra said the move would not require approval of Prince William voters or the state legislature.
Under the plan envisioned by Seefeldt, the state would continue to pay for road construction that the county would oversee. But if the county were to maintain its roads, it would need to buy trucks, snowplows and other equipment, build facilities to store them across the county and hire engineers and laborers to do the work.
In Loudoun County, where officials considered similar plans, costs would have been "overwhelming," according to Supervisor David G. McWatters, (R-Broad Run). "We're scared about the long-term effect of those costs on taxpayers," he said.
Fairfax County, also frustrated by the slow pace of road work, nonetheless decided against a local takeover after a study conducted in 1990 put startup costs for maintenance at $200 million a year, according to Young Ho Chang, director of transportation.
"We're talking about big equipment and big costs," Chang said. "You don't just say, 'Tomorrow, we'll take over the system, and the state will pay for it.' "
In fast-growing counties such as Loudoun and Prince William, maintenance costs could end up competing with schools and other services for funds, officials said.
Seefeldt said her plan is in its early stages and needs further study. It would need approval by the Board of County Supervisors, which would hold public hearings.
Her Republican opponent, lawyer Sean Connaughton, said the county has no business taking over road work from the state when such high costs are involved. "Right now, we're not getting schools built," he said.
Since VDOT was created in the 1930s, all cities in Virginia have overseen their roads. But just two counties, Arlington and Henrico, have opted to maintain their secondary roads.
In Arlington, the system has worked well, officials say.
"It frees you from the bureaucracy and enables you to do things much quicker," said Paul F. Ferguson, chairman of the Arlington County Board.
CAPTION: Board Chairman Kathleen K. Seefeldt wants roads out of state control.