Transportation funding is a perennial hot topic in the Virginia General Assembly. But as the 2012 session approaches, the battle is shaping up to be different from the taxes vs. bonds debates of the past two years.
Some state officials, including Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, are backing the concept of devolution — having localities assume responsibility for the maintenance of local roads, potentially freeing up scarce cash for larger projects.
Fairfax County and other local governments, including Loudoun and Prince William counties, are rallying support to fight the proposal in the state legislature.
Although Fairfax had in the recent past considered assuming control of its roadways, county officials said maintenance costs would overwhelm the budget. Officials said they also have little confidence the state would kick in enough funding to support local road maintenance.
The county estimated it would cost at least $100 million a year for it to maintain its roads. Fairfax is working to close a projected $114 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2013.
“The cost is a very scary reality,” said Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee).
It also doesn’t take into account maintenance work that was deferred in the past several years because the funding pool shrank, he added.
There also is a lack of local expertise in road maintenance, said Tom Biesiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. The Virginia Department of Transportation has maintained practically all roadways in the state since the 1930s, and the county does not have the equipment, staff or facilities to maintain its own roads.
VDOT also benefits from economies of scale when purchasing materials, such as sand and salt for the roadways, because it buys massive quantities to serve the entire state, Biesiadny added.
Not all county board members think devolution would be such a bad thing. Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said he supports local control of roads, because the county could do a better job keeping up with maintenance needs.
“Something has to be done here,” he said, because the state system is becoming unsustainable from a lack of funding.
However, Cook added, the key is to not “just dump it on us” and ensure the county has mechanisms to get the funding it would need for roads.
Much of the county’s legislative delegation, which recently met with the board, said they would fight the proposals.
Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) compared the devolution proposal to Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s attempt to privatize liquor stores and put the money from license sales into transportation. That proposal did not pass the General Assembly.
“It’s slick, it’s fast, and the numbers aren’t going to work,” she said.
Local legislators said they also will continue to seek pathways to additional transportation dollars. None, however, expressed optimism the General Assembly would provide new road funding anytime soon.
Del. Vivian Watts (D-Fairfax) said she again will propose a package of taxes and fees that would generate an additional $400 million per year for Northern Virginia transportation projects.
Del. Mark Sickles (D-Fairfax) said that as a last resort, he is considering revisiting the concept of a voter referendum on new taxes for roads, something that was unsuccessful in 2002.
“It’s been 10 years,” he said. “We’re all driving on these roads. They’re terrible. . . . At some point, someone has to act.”
Local elected officials said they hear many complaints about faded paint at crosswalks, and lines, potholes, crumbling sidewalks, unmowed grass in medians and other basic maintenance tasks that VDOT is not keeping up with.
Some Democratic legislators complained that the expanded bonding authority for transportation that they helped approve last year had come with the promise that McDonnell would revisit new revenue streams in the next year’s session.
“I guess that new revenue stream was us,” said Sen. David W. Marsden (D-Fairfax).
Although tax-averse Republicans in the General Assembly often have opposed increasing taxes and fees to put more money into transportation, such as Watts has proposed, Biesiadny said that devolution, in essence, amounts to a local tax.
To maintain roads at the higher standard that county residents probably would demand, he said, could amount to as much as a 10 percent increase in real estate tax bills, because that is the county’s primary revenue source.