The Virginia Highway Department recently had some good news for the 296 residents of Stanardsville, a small county seat on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, 70 miles from Washington.
The state will soon build a bypass around the town as part of a $12 million project to widen Rte. 33 to four lanes.
But what is good news for rural towns such as Stanardsville, Center Cross (pop. 200) and Saluda (pop. 300), all of which were allocated big highway projects recently is bad news for Northern Virginia. Many of the Washington suburbs' roads are clogged during rush hour and as narrow and winding as they were when they were laid out for ox carts in the 18th and 19th centuries.
While millions of dollars are poured into road projects in lightly populated and traveled area of virginia, projects in Northern virginia, especially fast-growing Fairfax County, routinely are shelved for lack of funds.
"I think we're getting screwed," said William B. Wrench, Northern Virginia's only representative on the 11-member Virginia State Highway Commission, which dispenses money from a construction and maintenance trust fund supported by the state's 9-cent gasoline tax. "How else can you put it?"
"We're being ripped off -- there's no question about it," agrees Fairfax Board Chairman John F. Herrity.
The reason: Northern Viginia lawmakers lack the clout to push through lesgislation that would abolish an archaic distribution formula or the force reapportionment of the highway commission in favor of urban areas. o
The result, according to Wrench, Herrity and other Northern Virginia officials:
Fairfax County alone accounts for 22 percent of all traffic on secondary roads in Virginia, yet it gets less than 10 percent of state allocations for improvements on those roads.
Fairfax accounts for 11.6 percent of all traffic on Virginia's interstate, arterial and primary roads, yet in the current fiscal year it received less than 6 percent of the state allocation for those routes.
Even within its own highway district, Fairfax received less than its share this year, based on traffic. The allocation to the 13-county Culpeper highway district was $73 million. Fairfax, which accounted for 45 percent of traffic in the district, got only 27 percent ( $20 million) of the district's interstate, arterial and primary allocations.
State highway department officials argue that Northern Virginia, including Fairfax, that state's most populous jurisdiction, gets its fair share. Donald B. Hope, who heads the Culpeper district, says "The needs of the district have been ignored to take care of Culpeper's funds."
Fairfax officials cite a string of long-planned projects, which they say have been shelved in favor of projects like the Stanardsville bypass that will carry only 3,100 vehicles a day, far less than many subdivision streets in the county. The stalled projects include:
Adding third lanes on I66 west of Fairfax City, a major commuter route that carries 40,250 vehicles daily.
Adding bus lanes to Rte. 50 west of Seven Corners, another major commuter corridor. Traffic is 30,770 vehicles daily.
Adding bus lanes to Rte. 7, another major commuter route, west of Tysons Corner. Traffic there is 34,965 vehicles daily.
Despite an announced shortall in highway construction revenues in the state, Fairfax transportation officials say they are amazed that the state continues to spend much of its highway money in rural areas.
For example, they point out that the state has appoved four-lanes for Rte. 17 between Brays Fork (no population) and Center Cross on the Northern Neck at a cost of $5.4 million.The road now carries about 5,100 vehicles a day, the state estimates.
Saluda, another small Northern Neck town, is getting a 5-million project and even western, still-rural Loudoun County is completing a $4 million interchange at the junction of roads that have declining traffic counts.
The Loudoun intersection at Rtes. 7 and 9 west of Leesburg handles about 11,850 vehicles a day, according to current counts.
Ideally Fairfax transporatation officials would like a similar interchange at Little River Turnpike and Columbia Pike in Annandale, an interchange that handles 53,000 vehicles a day.
But Shiva K. Pant, the county's transportation director, says he's convinced what the state would say: "There no money . . . It would be out of the question".
Part of the problem, some officials say, is the different standards the various highway districts apply to road needs. "When a road gets 4,000 vehicles a day, we get ready to four-lane it," says MacFarland Neblett, an assistant resident engineer in the rural Middlesex district.
Northern Virginia's highway commission member Wrench laughs at such arguments. "When they talk about problems on a primary road handling 3,000 or 4,000 cars, why, Queensberry Avenue, a road in my (Fairfax) subdivision, handles that much traffic."
"We've got secondary roads in Fairfax that handle more traffic than 90 percent of the primary roads in the state," Wrench says.
Even so, he says the reality of being the only representative from the Washington suburbs on the state commission forces him to support projects he might otherwise question.
"You're dealing with realities," he said. "If I voted against a project in one district, they (the other members of the commission) could vote to put all of Northern Virginia's funds in the Stanardsville bypass."
Rising construction costs, now estimated at upwards of 15 percent a year and a drop in gasoline tax revenues because of more fuel-efficient cars have not made Wrench's job easier. Because of those factors, highway officials have warned that state road building may have to be cut by $175 million over the next two years.
Gov. John N. Dalton, who has resisted pressures for higher state taxes during the first two years of his administration, has conceded that he is so worried by the prospect of a cut in highway construction that he may recommend a higher gasoline tax. The governor has said he won't announce his position until shortly before the opening of the General Assembly in January.
Northern Virginia officials claim the state's road spending formulas are another example in a long list of state expenditures that favor downstate rural interests at the expense of urban areas. There are imbalances, they say, in state spending for police, education, and the handicapped.
The region's legislators repeatedly have tried to change the road allocation formula, but rural legistators have successfully fought back the challenges.
Even Northern Virginia efforts to split the Culpeper highway district in two and establish one with headquarters in Fairfax have been rebuffed. Culpeper highway chief Donald Hope sees no merit in such a move. Sitting in his office about 60 miles southwest of Fairfax City, he says: "They know where to get me."
During the recent legislative campaign, however, Democrats and republicans agreed that the state isn't doing enough to meet transportation problems in the Washington suburbs. Their answer was simple: More state money needs to flow north from Richmond.