When Prince William officials decided to place an $86.7 million bond proposal for local roads on this fall's ballot next to the highly publicized Northern Virginia sales tax plan, they knew it would be a challenge to get people to notice.
But they didn't know that the weeks leading up to the election would be dominated by a sniper terrorizing the area, further diverting attention away from the bond. Now, with just a little more than a week before Election Day, county officials say those two factors are making it very difficult to reach voters. "It's amazing how many people don't know about it," said County Executive Craig S. Gerhart. "I think it's fair to say that the sniper has distracted folks' attention from this sort of thing."
To wit: One person showed up for a community meeting Thursday night about the local bond package. "We had a PowerPoint presentation, maps, ballots and the whole nine yards," said county spokeswoman Liz Bahrns, who is spearheading Prince William's efforts. "We stayed set up until 7:25, and one woman came in."
On a hopeful note, Bahrns added, "We convinced her family to vote for it."
The road bond would pay for:
- Extending Sudley Manor Drive ($23.9 million).
- Widening Route 15 ($16.7 million).
- Improving Route 1 ($12 million).
- Widening Minnieville Road between Cardinal Drive and Spriggs Road ($9.5 million) and between Caton Hill and Old Bridge roads ($17 million).
- Extending Benita Fitzgerald Drive ($1.9 million).
- Improving the Prince William Parkway at Minnieville and Old Bridge roads ($5.7 million).
Unlike the regional proposal, the county bond plan does not require a tax increase. But debt payments would cost the county $2.3 million in fiscal 2005-roughly equal to 1 cent of the real estate tax rate. The annual cost also would escalate, to $4.7 million in fiscal 2006, $7 million in 2007 and more than $10 million in 2008.
The county bond made its way onto the ballot after months of debate among officials. Many feared that the public would ignore it or be confused by it because of the regional sales tax proposal and argued that it should be delayed a year. Others proposed waiting a year in case the regional plan failed so they could include roads, such as Route 28, that depend on the sales tax increase for funding.
County leaders ultimately reasoned that traffic is so bad that roads need to be addressed immediately and that Prince William's solid road-building record would ensure the bond plan's passage.
Recently, those initial fears about voter confusion resurfaced, and leaders are worried they are running out of time to inform voters. "I think we are finding initially that folks may not be aware of the county referendum, and they may not in their own minds be able to differentiate" between it and the regional proposal, Gerhart said.
Despite the discouraging turnout at Thursday's community meeting and the lack of news about the bond package, county officials said they remain hopeful the measure will pass. Another community meeting is planned for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Ferlazzo Administration Building auditorium in Woodbridge. "It's fine if people don't come out," Bahrns said, "as long as they go and vote."