Loudoun and Fairfax counties and the state plan to back the Route 28 corridor expansion project, shifting it into at least the slow lane.
The expansion hit a wall three months ago when a bond-rating agency gave the contractor’s funding proposal a low bond rating for the Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) project. The PPTA combined the efforts of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Route 28 Transportation Taxing District of commercial properties along the corridor to fast-track the project.
VDOT, the contract manager for the project, accepted a proposal from Clarke-Shirley Route 28 Corridor Improvements, LLC to build 10 interchanges and widen Route 28 from Route 7 in Loudoun County to Interstate 66 in Fairfax County, paid with taxes raised from the tax district.
The tax district tacked on another 35 years until 2037 to fund the second phase of the project and to continue paying $86.6 million in debt service for the first phase, which included widening the corridor from two to six lanes.
“I have a problem with this whole PPTA process. It’s gone sour,” said Loudoun Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Mercer). “Why do we have to get in a risky 35-year situation if the PPTA is not involved? … I don’t understand why county governments have to get in the business of moral obligations.”
Standard & Poors’ triple B minus rating meant a higher interest rate and less funding available for construction, cutting the PPTA project to six interchanges, eliminating the widening of the corridor and deferring the remainder of the project, which also includes improvements to the parallel roads of Atlantic and Pacific boulevards.
“We have to take action soon on improving that corridor,” said Supervisor Chuck Harris (D-Broad Run) at Monday’s board meeting, speaking in reference to development expected there and the lack of a metro transit system.
“People are spending more and more time in traffic,” said Supervisor Drew Hiatt (R-Dulles).
THE BOARD OF SUPERVISORS for both Loudoun and Fairfax counties agreed in separate meetings Monday to provide a moral obligation pledge to back the Route 28 corridor project, essentially giving a promissory note. The counties, along with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), plan to fund a portion of the revenue if debt services fail.
The tax district earns $11.5 million a year from a 20-cent property tax imposed on properties along the corridor. The state’s refinancing of existing bonds is expected to lower the interest rate and decrease the debt service from $8.5 million to $6 million a year, leaving $5.5 million a year for new projects, Mays said.
The extra funds, about $69 million in 30 years, could be used to purchase new bonds, with another $69 million coming from the Virginia Transportation Development Plan, the state’s primary roads fund. Loudoun County would be responsible for backing about $34.5 million, half of the $69 million expected from the bonds. Additional bonds can be issued for any revenue increases generated from the tax district.
Backing the bonds would provide the quickest option for completing the expansion with the least amount of financial risk to the county, said Ben Mays, budget officer for Loudoun County.
A supervisor asked whether the moral obligation backing could impact the county’s debt services. Mays said no, unless the county was required to carry out the moral obligation.
Chairman Scott York directed staff to work with Fairfax County staff on the moral obligation bond. The board approved the bond option with a 8-1 vote with Burton voting against.
“It’s time to get these improvements in now. They were much needed in yesteryear,” York said. “We’re falling way behind. If we can work things out with Fairfax and the tax district, we’re better off.”
The project is expected to be completed by 2018 or as early as 2007, depending on the amount of taxes raised. A current estimate of the project’s costs has not been determined. The county has asked the state to estimate how many interchanges can be completed with $138 million in funds from both the tax district and state.
The county also plans to seek the attorney general’s advise on whether the PPTA can remain a part of the project, since the financing method has changed, and will find out whether the PPTA wants to remain involved, Mays said.
IN OTHER BUSINESS:
* The board supported implementing a pilot Farm Viability Grant Program to provide $200,000 in grants for the development of profitable farming alternatives, including those for traditional and alternative forms of farming. The grantee is required to be a landowner, operate a farm-related business for three years and have a business plan, along with access to funds for the program before receiving a partial reimbursement. The grantee is expected to pay at least 30 percent of the total project’s costs.
“This program encourages new ideas for farmland activity and requires landowners to spread ideas to other landowners,” said Jeff Browning, chairman of the Loudoun County Rural Economic Development Council.
In exchange, the grantee agrees to restrict subdivisions on the land where the grant is focused. The grantee is expected to place restricted open space easements on the land for five years if the grant is $10,000 or less and increase the easement to 10 years for grants of more than $10,000.
“It has the affect of protecting the property,” said Louis Nichols, agriculture development officer.
The grant program, patterned after a program in Massachusetts, aims to stimulate the rural economy while conserving farmland. The Rural Economic Development Council and Department of Economic Development staff will manage the program. The rural council will review the applications and forward recommendations to the board. The funds will be distributed during the next fiscal year.
* The board tabled approval of the public participation process for remapping and zoning ordinance revisions, required with the July 2001 adoption of the county’s 20-year comprehensive plan.
The process includes public overview sessions of the existing zoning ordinance, the Facilities Standards Manual and the Land Subdivision Development Ordinance, along with overview presentations of the revision process and several public information sessions. Focus groups will be assigned to give input on specific aspects of the revision process. They will be expected to ask questions, react to the work and make recommendations related to the rural economy incentives, the process for conservation design and the different districts outlined in the plan, including the suburban and overlay districts.
Board members requested staff compile a more representative and inclusive list of members for the focus groups than the list presented at the meeting, which excluded representation from suburban homeowner associations and others in the community.
* County Administrator Kirby Bowers announced the fire and rescue system was converted last week to a 800-megahertz system for operations and that the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office was converted to the system a month ago.