Motorists hoping for relief on some of Northern Virginia's most congested roads won't see it anytime soon after a state panel voted Thursday to again delay the construction and maintenance of dozens of transportation projects across the commonwealth.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board, during its monthly meeting, approved a six-year plan that is $1 billion less than the program approved last year, allowing for little or no new highway and road improvements. The cutbacks are generated by the rising costs of maintaining some the state's roads while paying off the construction costs of others.
In addition, the General Assembly's recent decision not to add money for transportation projects to the state's $60 billion budget that will take effect July 1 has made funding such work difficult.
Instead, the plan approved Thursday allocates $6.3 billion to study, design or build highway, rail and public transit projects. The transportation program approved last year was $7.4 billion.
The decreased funding means that planned road and rail projects in Northern Virginia will be either severely delayed or eliminated, including a long-planned link through the Springfield interchange between carpool lanes on the Capital Beltway and those on Interstate 95; improvements to the Beltway-Interstate 66 interchange; the widening of Route 50 in Loudoun County; and the rehabilitation of two crumbling bridges in Arlington County.
During the meeting, transportation officials expressed exasperation but said that in many cases, their hands were tied by the lack of state funding and their obligations to maintain roads and pay off debts.
"The facts really do speak for themselves," Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip A. Shucet said in an interview. "It's a precipitous decline in transportation money statewide. The outlook for the state is bleak at best, and there doesn't seem to be any total solution to begin to address some of these issues."
During this year's legislative session, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and lawmakers flirted with increased funding for more roads and public transportation. But as lawmakers bickered about how much to raise taxes and the marathon 118-day session dragged on, those plans were scrapped in lieu of funding education, social services and public safety programs, much to the chagrin of local and state leaders. Lawmakers wound up approving $1.5 billion in new taxes, none of it allocated to transportation.
And even though the General Assembly approved budget amendments by Warner that could add $70 million to the transportation budget, those dollars are likely to have a limited effect on the state's overwhelming needs.
Some of the region's bigger projects are safe from the funding cutbacks. They include the Springfield interchange completion, Woodrow Wilson Bridge construction and Route 28 improvements. But an improvement to the Springfield interchange that would have built HOV lanes from Interstate 495 will be eliminated, VDOT officials said.
Expressing dismay over the cutbacks, some local officials said the pressure will now be on them to make up the shortfall with local funds or go without projects.
"This is a direct function of the General Assembly session, no question about it," said Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "Some of these projects have been taken off the state's six-year program two or three times, and it puts all kinds of pressure on us because we don't have the money to make up for what the state can't fund."
Lawmakers have acknowledged that one of their failings this year was not including transportation money in the $1.5 billion tax plan ratified nearly seven weeks ago. Several said they were unsure how 140 lawmakers will come to a decision on another comprehensive tax plan after the bruising debate legislators engaged in this winter and spring.
"I certainly feel frustrated that we haven't been able to get further over the last several years," said Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), reflecting the discouragement of many state and local leaders over the lack of money dedicated to the growing costs of road and transit networks.
A measure in 2002 to raise the sales tax in Northern Virginia to pay for such projects failed at the polls. Whipple said she is pessimistic that things will change next year.
"I think the Senate would be open to thinking about addressing the transportation issue comprehensively, but with all 100 members of the House of Delegates up for election next year, I think it will be difficult," she said.
Meanwhile, local leaders said they will be forced in many places to manage a crumbling infrastructure.
"There's only so much that we can absorb," said Arlington County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D).