Northern Virginia leaders are becoming increasingly concerned with some state proposals that would give local government a greater role in maintaining the region's most frequently traveled roads.
As state lawmakers prepare for next year's legislative session, several key senators have said that part of the solution to transportation problems might lie in reducing the number of new roads that fall into the commonwealth's maintenance system.
They have said rapid growth in such counties as Loudoun and Prince William creates hundreds of miles of roads annually for new developments. After a year, maintenance responsibilities are then turned over to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The lawmakers said shared responsibility might make more sense.
"We have no control in the placement of those roads, and we have no control on anything but how they're constructed -- then all of a sudden, we inherit them whether we want them or not," Senate Finance Chairman John H. Chichester (R-Stafford) said last week. Chichester, the Senate's chief budget writer, will outline his own transportation initiative when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 12.
"Allowing [localities] to have the privilege of maintaining these roads . . . may be a good way for them to have an impact on transportation," he said.
But local officials said proposals to turn the job over to their jurisdictions would only postpone real solutions to Virginia's transportation problems.
"This is a way of passing off the buck," said Scott K. York (I-At Large), chairman of the Loudoun Board of Supervisors. "The state need not be a deadbeat parent and pass off responsibility to the child."
Meanwhile, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has proposed another form of increased local control, suggesting that jurisdictions could have a larger role in road construction. Virginia Department of Transportation officials said that participation in the initiative could be voluntary and would not burden localities with extra costs.
"We can ease administrative burdens, build up local road-building capacity and . . . speed up the completion of important projects," Warner said.
The ideas are part of a patch job on transportation that state leaders are considering as they look to the 2005 General Assembly session. Warner and leaders in the Senate and House of Delegates said last week they do not expect the assembly to approve an increase in the gas tax, the state's primary source of road-building funds.
After a lengthy debate this year, the legislature approved a sales tax increase, mainly to support increased spending on education. Next year, all 100 House seats are up for election.
Warner suggested last week that a big part of the extra revenue that the state expects to raise through its strengthening economy could be used to jump-start some transportation projects. Chichester, however, disagreed with that approach.
The state's discussions about giving localities more responsibility and more authority could emerge as a major theme in the debate over transportation improvements.
VDOT is responsible for repairing most roads in each of the state's counties. Since 1926, only Arlington and Henrico counties, helped by state funding, have assumed the responsibility of their own road maintenance. Arlington was given $14 million last year, though county officials said they spent more than that to maintain roads.
Lawmakers said the commonwealth's road-building and maintenance burden is becoming too heavy as suburbs spread out.
"The state can no longer continue to accept every single road and say we're going to take care of them forever," said Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), a Finance Committee member, referring to local roads. Under approaches that shed state responsibility, routine maintenance of Braddock Road in Fairfax County or roads build for new subdivisions could become a local matter.
"We must find more comprehensive solutions than this," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors. Referring to 1986, when Virginia last passed a gas tax increase for transportation, he said: "We cannot wait another 17 years to deal with these problems comprehensively."
Under the governor's proposal, the details of which are being developed, localities would be allowed to directly supervise smaller road-construction projects by using some state resources. A transportation department official said the proposal would give localities more flexibility when a road has been earmarked for construction. But local officials said they were skeptical.
"This is something that the state is going to have to maintain," Arlington County Board Chairman Barbara A. Favola (D) said.