Area governments, having shortchanged maintenance budgets for their roads and bridges for close to a decade, now find that the pavement is crumbling faster than they can fix it.
Lawmakers are scrambling to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from new gasoline taxes and federal grants to reverse this steady deterioration. But it remains unclear if they will have the money to get the job done.
The District cut back routine repairs of its 1,000-mile network in the 1970s in favor of Metro and other capital projects. Now, with gateways like New York Avenue and South Capitol Street a maze of cratered pavement, the city hopes to coax $280 million in road and bridge rehabilitation funds from a frugal Congress over the next five years.
Roads in Maryland and Virginia have suffered, too, squeezed by repair costs that more than doubled in the past decade and dwindling yields from the gasoline taxes that pay for them. Both states are now taking the politically difficult step of raising those taxes, hoping to generate a combined $300 million in new funds in the next two years. But that still falls well below what state road officials had hoped for.
Here are some of the reasons people are concerned:
* Ninety-four percent of the interstate highways in the District, 81 percent of non-interstate highways and 31 percent of major arteries such as Rhode Island Avenue were rated "poor" by federal standards in 1978, the last year for which figures are available. Poor roads need to be resurfaced immediately or torn up and completely rebuilt, federal officials say.
* A 1980 consultants' study concluded that 34 of 133 major bridges in the District need to be rebuilt and four replaced altogether. Those four are: New Jersey Avenue over the Pennsylvania railroad tracks, Park Road over Rock Creek, 12th Street over the Pennsylvania rail tracks and South Capitol Street over Oxon Run. Construction is unlikely to begin on any of them before the mid-'80s.
* By federal standards, 25 percent of the bridges in Maryland and 18 percent in Virginia are "structurally deficient," usually meaning weight limitations are required, or "functionally obsolete," poorly designed to handle their current traffic.
* The Beltway in Prince George's County is among the roughest stretches of Interstate 95, the East Coast's busiest traffic artery. Potholes are so bad on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge that highway officials describe it as a continuous patched hole.
* The Virginia state highways budget for rebuilding of roads and construction of new ones was cut from $447 million in fiscal 1980-81 to $351 million in the current fiscal year.
The decline of roads is part of a nationwide pattern, caused by a tapering off in gasoline tax revenues and governments' focus on other public works projects. Road repair is always a relatively simple item to gut at budget time. If surfaces are in good state to begin with, holes won't appear in a big way for five to 10 years, by which time new people will be in office.
"It's an awful lot like having a leak in the roof in your house. You can either pay some guy to come out and fix your leak or you can let it drip," says Ed Moore of The Road Information Program (TRIP), a study group financed largely by highway contractors and suppliers. In the end, the cost of a new roof and ceiling will far exceed the cost of plugging that one hole.
In D.C., "road projects as a whole fell from favor" in the late 1960s and 1970s, according to city Transportation Department Director Tom Downs. Millions went to build new schools and other public structures in an effort to rejuvenate the city's aging physical plant. After canceling $2 billion in interstate highways, the city began diverting most of that money into Metrorail construction.
City roads got only 5 percent of D.C.'s capital improvement budget in 1975, while Metro got 16 percent. Road crews rehabilitated only 10 to 12 miles of roads that year, the lowest in memory. All the time, asphalt was weakening and foundations were breaking apart. By the late 1970s, the evidence was everywhere, as the winter freeze-thaw cycle was spawning holes in epidemic numbers.
Roads became a political issue, forcing the city to take a new tack. Roads' share of the city capital budget has grown to 14 percent this year and would reach 26 percent next year under Mayor Marion Barry's capital proposals. To Metro's consternation, the city plans to use the last $150 million available from cancellation of the interstate highways not on subways but on a five-year plan to rebuild 30 to 35 miles of roads and two or three major bridges per year. Other federal programs, city officials hope, will provide an additional $130 million in aid.
Work on the new program began last year. The D.C. approach to the 14th Street bridge was closed off for a $13 million redecking and repair of superstructure. Crews erected barriers at Chain Bridge and are now giving it a new deck. Selected local roads were rebuilt, such as 16th Street between H and K streets.
This year like last, however, the program is feeling the pinch of federal budget cuts. It had counted on getting $36 million in interstate transfers but Congress approved only $7 million, forcing postponement of the largest bridge rebuilding planned, the Anacostia Freeway bridge over the Pennsylvania railroad tracks. Road mileage was cut back from 30 to 20 miles.
The reduced funding will still allow work to begin this summer on the New York Avenue bridge over the Anacostia River and the Franklin Street NE bridge over the railroad tracks between Seventh and 10th streets, city officials said.
This summer, 16th Street NW will be resurfaced between Alaska Avenue and Emerson Street, consuming about $5 to $6 million. (Much of the road has no concrete base, engineers say, causing its curb lanes to break open continually under the weight of buses.) Eastern Avenue between Georgia Avenue and 16th Street will also be rebuilt.
Streets around the convention center will be reconstructed, too: eastbound lanes of New York Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets, H Street NW between Ninth and 11th, Ninth and 11th streets between H and New York Avenue.
D.C.'s program is designed more to keep its backlog from growing than to eliminate it. But even that goal is uncertain because it depends for more than three quarters of its funding on the federal government, which now is fighting to reduce spending. City officials, however, are assuming the money will be there and are laying their plans.
Among the next bridge rebuildings they hope to accomplish: The Anacostia Freeway railroad bridge, Key Bridge, the southbound Potomac span of Interstate 95 at 14th Street and South Capitol Street over Oxon Run. Targeted roads include Southern Avenue from C to H streets, Arizona Avenue from Canal Road to MacArthur Boulevard and New York Avenue from Bladensburg Road to the Maryland line and the Whitehurst Freeway.
Virginia's 53,000-mile state highway system emerged from the 1970s under heavy financial pressure, too. The Road Information Program rates 71 percent of the state's most heavily traveled roads as substandard and says the stops and turns they forced drivers to make wasted $575 million in fuel in 1980.
State highway officials, however, contest such findings, saying there is some backlog in long-term rebuilding and new construction but routine maintenance has been kept up. State officials say their concern grows out of the long-term potential for degradation if the backlog of capital projects continues.
Like most states, Virginia taxed gasoline at a flat per-gallon markup, which did not rise automatically with inflation. Gas consumption declined in recent years as people switched to fuel-efficient cars. The state's solution to the crunch was to give priority to routine repairs and put off new construction and heavy rebuilding.
This year, following dire warnings from the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation, the legislature voted to add a 3 percent tax to the wholesale price of fuel this summer to supplement the existing 11-cent state-wide tax on fuel at the pump, a politically unpopular move. The new tax, which will generate increasing revenues as fuel prices rise, is forecast to generate a total of $174 million in new funds over the next two years.
"The majority of the money will be for improving what's already there," said department spokesman Albert W. Coates Jr. There will be "some widening, some replacement or strengthening of obsolete bridges, improvement of intersections, straightening of curves."
State highway officials say they are unsure how the new money will affect northern Virginia. For the present, officials said they plan to resurface southbound lanes of Interstate 95 from the Newington interchange to 1 1/2 miles north of the Occoquan River and northbound lanes from Newington to Springfield. They also plan to repair Rte. 193 between the beltway and Rte. 7.
The Maryland legislature played out its own gas-tax debate this year. Revenues from the state's 9-cents-per-gallon fuel tax, established in 1972, and truck fees peaked in fiscal 1979 at $200 million, declining to $187 million in 1980 and 1981.
The legislature, rejecting a 4 percent wholesale tax, voted to raise the pump price by 2 cents this year and an additional 2 1/2 cents next year. The measure awaits Gov. Harry Hughes' signature. It will yield $110 million in new revenues for transportation over the next two years, about half of what the governor wanted.
TRIP also gave bad marks to Maryland roads: 2,500 miles of main paved roads need resurfacing, at a cost of $438 million, it said in a recent study. Highway officials there generally agree their roads do need more work.
State highway administrator Slade Caltrider can tick off a list of roads in suburban Maryland that he says have suffered from lack of money--in particular the beltway in Prince George's County, where joints between concrete sections broke down years ago. "We could hit this thing all at one time and get it done," he said. "We are slowed tremendously by the lack of adequate funding."
After long delay, Maryland now plans to begin the job of resurfacing the beltway, starting with bids this August for the section between U.S. 50 and Maryland 214. In addition, the state will handle the planned redecking of the Woodrow Wilson bridge, for which Congress recently approved $60 million.
Other roads Caltrider hopes to get to soon: Veirs Mill Road between Wheaton and Rockville, Riggs Road between University Boulevard and the D.C. line, Maryland Rte. 4 in Prince George's County from Andrews Air Force Base to the Anne Arundel County line, and U.S. 29 from University Boulevard to Industrial Parkway.
Roads and bridges maintained by suburban counties, meanwhile, also have suffered because of the dwindling gas tax revenues and property tax resistance from home and business owners. Property taxes pay for most county government.
Here is the situation in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs around Washington:
In caring for 1,700 miles of roads, it now resurfaces streets every seven to eight years instead of every six. Its highway maintenance budget fell from $8.9 million in fiscal '81 to $8.5 million this year.
The county will resurface only 15 lane-miles of major roads this year, as opposed to 30 that its highway department wants. Staffing has been reduced by 25 positions, most of them in the field.
Prince George's County
The budget for its 1,360 miles of county roads, feeling the bite of TRIM, the voter-imposed limit on spending growth, is holding almost steady, a net loss when inflation is considered. Its Bureau of Roads & Bridges budget for this fiscal year, $6.22 million, is only $15,000 higher than last year's.
About 68 miles of county roads got new asphalt tops in fiscal 1980, 25 miles in fiscal '81. Only 17 are scheduled for this year. The county has cut back on preventive maintenance and now stresses pavement that is already breaking, according to bureau official E.V. Dorsey. "We're in water, but we're not going under yet," he said.
Planners are stretching funds by buying modern equipment needing fewer operators and by using "free" labor provided by county courts and jail. About five crews of prisoners work under guard. On weekends, up to 75 people do light road work to satisfy misdemeanor sentences.
Politicians there long have complained of poor service from the state highways department, which maintains all 1,850 miles of public roads in the county. "We've got crowded roads, inadequate highways and we haven't been able to do much about it," said Joseph Alexander, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, who photographs potholes in an attempt to get action on them.
Last year, faced with state delays, county voters approved a special bond issue of $30 million to supplement the state's budget. Among the first projects scheduled for work: Widening of Gallows Road from Idylwood Road to Rte. 7 and widening of and intersection improvement along Chain Bridge Road in downtown McLean.
Using funds from bond issues approved by the voters, it has worked to upgrade many of the older streets in its 376-mile system. The largest job planned this summer is rebuilding of the badly scarred Arlington Ridge Road, perhaps as far as between Glebe Road and Shirley Highway.
Road repair has not emerged as a significant political issue; by most accounts, county roads are kept in good repair, though county officials say their budgets have not quite kept up with inflation.
With 300 miles of roads, it also appears to be keeping motorists satisfied, though it, too, is suffering a cutback. The city has budgeted about $1 million this year for roads, a $250,000 reduction from the year before. Major work is planned on North Beauregard and North Howard streets, Seminary Road and at selected intersections along Duke Street.
For Washington area drivers, this all means they'll get hit coming and going in the next few years. Where repair work is under way, barricades and flagmen will often mean single-lane, walking speed traffic. In areas where it isn't, potholed pavement will mean more and more rubber-tired slalom runs.