With money tight and traffic becoming worse, Northern Virginia has asked the state for $20 million to pay for fast, if small, ways to combat congestion by adding bus service, filling gaps in sidewalks and extending turn lanes to prevent backups at intersections.
Local governments and organizations accepted an invitation from Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to recommend projects to relieve traffic and reduce air pollution that would cost $2 million apiece or less and could be completed within a year.
The catch is that money will be diverted from state and federal transportation funds that Northern Virginia already receives. Instead of giving the region new money, the state plans to prioritize what little money will be available for new projects and devote it to those that would bring relief quickly.
"The fiscal situation is unchanged," said Pierce Homer, Virginia's deputy secretary of transportation. "There's no new money. Our job is to find projects that have the biggest bang for the buck. . . . We're not going to be able to afford large new projects, period. So the question becomes: What's a way of doing small, affordable projects that make a difference?"
Warner issued the invitation to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in December, one month after voters in both areas rejected ballot measures that would have raised sales taxes to provide more transportation funding.
At the same time, Northern Virginia governments were struggling along with the rest of the Washington region to reduce the amount of vehicle exhaust contributing to the area's pollution problems. The federal government has classified the Washington region as being in "severe" violation of clean air standards, meaning the area could lose federal money for new road and transit projects if it doesn't take steps to improve air quality.
But some local officials said they are leery of having the state choose which traffic-fighting projects to fund if that means money might be redirected from other local projects, such as road widening. Some said they might prefer to use that money to restore major projects cut last year because of the state's financial crisis.
"I've got a few bridges that need replacing, and those might be a higher priority for me," Arlington County Board member Chris Zimmerman (D) said. "The point is that we need to know what tradeoffs we're making, and that's what we've not had clearly delineated."
J. Kenneth Klinge, who chairs the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, said money should be targeted to curb vehicle exhaust to ensure that federal money isn't cut off for new road and transit projects.
"We want to make sure the money [for traffic relief measures] is not being taken out of projects that are going to give us a bigger bang on clean air," Klinge said.
Klinge, who sits on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which must ultimately approve the projects, said the state doesn't know how much money will be available for new congestion relief. He said the winter's hefty snow removal and pothole repair costs ate up much of the money that the state was counting on for traffic relief.
The proposed congestion relief projects, which the transportation authority approved last month, are hardly on the massive scale that Northern Virginians have seen lately, such as the rebuilding of the Mixing Bowl interchange in Springfield and replacement of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. Many aim at keeping traffic moving through local intersections and making it easier for people to walk and ride transit.
If the requests were granted, Arlington would have more bus service along Columbia Pike, and Alexandria would see improved signal timing on Duke Street. In Fairfax County, turn lanes would be added or extended to prevent backups at busy intersections, Richmond Highway would have more bus service and intersections within a half-mile of the Huntington Metro station would get new or improved pedestrian crossings.
Prince William has requested money to resolve the traffic bottleneck at the Route 28 bridge over Broad Run, and Loudoun County has asked for money to improve commuter bus service. Money would also go to expanding parking at crowded Virginia Railway Express commuter train stations and for more marketing of Metrobus service.
Katherine K. Hanley (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, said that the projects might sound minor but that "quick hits," such as extending turn lanes at interchanges, would go a long way toward improving traffic flow.
"Sometimes, we get so focused on the Mixing Bowl that we forget the intersections that people drive through every day that cause delays," Hanley said.
As Klinge put it, "If I can put in a turn lane that moves a couple thousand cars per day quicker, they're not sitting still spewing out exhaust."
Virginia Transportation Secretary Whittington W. Clement is to recommend some congestion relief projects to the transportation board, which will include them in the state's six-year transportation spending plan to be released in mid-May.
Some Northern Virginia officials said they didn't understand until late last week that the smaller traffic-fighting measures would compete for money with other local projects. Still, they said, they'd like anything that would get traffic moving and reduce pollution.
"It's nickels and dimes in the grand scheme of things," Zimmerman said. "It's not the same as building rail to Dulles or any of the kind of projects we were talking about last fall. It's real small, short-term stuff.
"It still begs the question of how you deal with the large transportation and air-quality crisis we're facing."