As the two lanes of Route 123 slither up from the forested banks of the Occoquan River and then roll through southern Fairfax County, they still carry the old name of Ox Road. It evokes a pastoral past still present in places: The roadside stands hawking tomatoes, apples, and live rabbits and chickens, the crescendo of crickets in fields long ago carved from woods.
But new names are being added, the constructed glamor of subdivisions with titles like Hollymeade and Crosspointe. And the bumper crop of homes is churning ever more cars on to Route 123, which already carries about 32,000 vehicles daily over repeatedly patched asphalt. Drivers trying to squeeze out of driveways and side streets often languish while waiting for a gap. In 20 years, the number of vehicles along some stretches is expected to reach 120,000.
As traffic slows, many critics complain, so have the efforts of the Virginia Department of Transportation. Now, with transportation a hot campaign issue ahead of the November legislative elections, much of the frustration over congestion along Route 123 and countless other roads has been directed at the department.
Across the state, 235 road projects--one out of five--are delayed, state officials reported. But the question ultimately remains whether VDOT is to blame for the failure of Northern Virginia's transportation network to keep pace with traffic, as many local officials and state lawmakers suggest. Or rather, is a cash-strapped department taking the fall for the failure of the governor and legislators to pay the freight?
Fairfax County has been pushing since 1995 to widen Route 123 and add shoulders where grass, weeds and gravel now press against the roadside. The project entered the state plan in 1997 and enough money has been set aside to perform the work. But construction is not scheduled before 2002.
"That just makes me crazy," said Fairfax Board of Supervisors Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D).
Yet state transportation officials say there is nothing untoward about this time frame. "You're talking about an eight-mile section of roadway with a lot of properties that are going to be impacted," said VDOT spokesman Joan Morris. "It is a cumbersome process."
Precisely, say critics. At a time when racing development across Northern Virginia has brought traffic grinding to a halt, they say the planning, engineering and acquiring land for roads across the region has become excruciatingly sluggish. VDOT has been buffeted by criticism from both parties, from business groups and environmental activists. Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) has fired the department's commissioner, David R. Gehr, and ordered an audit.
"Everything they do seems to take longer than it should," said Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. (R-Fairfax). "Their planning is poor. Their management is poor. And I think that is because their attitude is archaic. There needs to be a dramatic overhaul of the whole operation."
Critics say VDOT remains mired in the rural past, more accustomed to building country byways than grappling with the complicated projects required by a fast-changing metropolitan area. They say the agency does not take seriously the evolving environmental regulations that now apply to highway construction, opening VDOT projects--such as the planned widening of the Beltway--to federal objections that could cause years of delay.
Members of both parties also say the department's expertise was sorely sapped four years ago when 1,000 employees, many of them senior managers, left during a buyout. General Assembly auditors last year found that VDOT managers who supervise design work have too many projects to handle, resulting in errors and delays.
In Fairfax, an analysis by the county transportation department this spring reported 46 VDOT road projects in the county were running behind. Particularly troubling, Hanley said, are setbacks in the widening of roads like Woodlawn Road, delayed six years, and Centreville Road, nine years.
Similar gripes are heard in Prince William County, where a top priority--the widening of Route 234--has slipped four years.
"From what I hear, all of the projects are taking longer than they're supposed to and they are all costing more than they're supposed to," said Del. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax).
VDOT officials reject such sweeping accusations. They say the agency is prone to criticism because of its visibility compared to transportation agencies in other states. In Virginia, unlike elsewhere, virtually all roads are built and maintained by the state.
"It makes [VDOT] a very big target," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Shirley J. Ybarra.
In the face of mounting discontent, the department released a list last month of 11 road projects in Northern Virginia that have been accelerated in the most recent six-year plan and a second list of 18 new projects added to the longterm program. These include widening Route 7 in Fairfax, safety improvements to Route 15 in Loudoun and three park-and-ride lots in Prince William and Fairfax.
The department has also detailed 29 construction projects underway in Northern Virginia: about $257 million in new highways and interchanges, widened roads and rebuilt bridges.
Within the last year, moreover, VDOT reports completing 22 highway projects in the region. These include improvements to Interstate 66; widening the Dulles Toll Road; Routes 1, 28 and 50, and deck repairs to the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
Asked to provide initial cost estimates and the dates by which VDOT had first promised to finish its work, officials agreed to supply the information for a sample of six Northern Virginia projects.
Three were finished after the projected date. The widening of Route 50 in Fairfax was completed more than a year behind schedule, and the widening of Route 1 in Dumfries finished two years late. Most dramatic was a five-year delay in widening Route 28 and Manassas Drive in Prince William.
Of the six projects, four cost at least $1 million more than projected, adding together $26 million to the final price tag.
VDOT spokesman Andy Farmer said special circumstances required the delays, including considerable design changes, local funding difficulties and, in the case of Route 28 and Manassas Drive, a wholesale reengineering of an intersection to eliminate chronic problems with the asphalt.
"Sometimes the roads don't move as fast as we like them to. That's the process," Ybarra said. "When you have an exciting economy like we have in Northern Virginia, it outpaces the lane miles we can add."
State officials say some delays occur because plans must be reworked in response to local demands. They also attribute many delays to funding shortfalls beyond VDOT's control.
That explanation gained some credence last month, when Gilmore announced he could advance 90 projects previously postponed because of cash shortages by tapping $590 million in federal funds ahead of schedule.
Delays of those projects had provoked renewed condemnation of VDOT among legislators. But the Gilmore-appointed Commonwealth Transportation Board, not VDOT, made the initial decision to knock the projects off schedule. And it took a funding initiative by Gilmore to advance them.
Moreover, even this accelerated financing, combined with an additional $2 billion in new funding proposed by Gilmore, would still leave Northern Virginia desperately short of money, planners say. The bipartisan Transportation Coordinating Council reported this summer that the region needs an additional $11 billion for roads and transit by 2020 just to keep traffic from getting much worse.
"I think the administration is trying to distract attention from the funding problems to VDOT and use it as a whipping boy," said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). "The problem is we don't have funding for the transportation needs of Northern Virginia."
CAPTION: Transportation Secretary Shirley Ybarra says her agency is blamed because it is a "big target."
CAPTION: "Their management is poor," Del. Vincent F. Callahan Jr. says of VDOT.