Not so long ago, Route 28 was a narrow two-lane road where people could park their cars on the shoulder and walk across. Today, it is a major throughway, connecting southwestern Fairfax County to Dulles Airport and Loudoun County. And it is about to get bigger once six projected interchanges are completed by Nov. 2006.
While the original project which included widening Route 28 to eight lanes and building 10 interchanges had to be scaled back for lack of financing, the project’s current incarnation is significant in that it represents the first major construction initiative by a public/private partnership.
At a formal signing ceremony Oct. 3 at Sully Historic Site, Gov. Mark Warner (D) called the public/private partnership an “innovative approach to address our transportation needs.”
UNDER THE 1995 Public/Private Transportation Act passed by the Virginia General Assembly, companies can offer unsolicited bids to construct major public works projects. After receiving competing bids, the state will then give a company the green light to work on the project from start to finish.
In the case of Route 28, the state Department of Transportation chose Shirley Contracting, a subsidiary of Clark Construction to build the interchanges.
“We truly are partners in this endeavor,” said Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet. “They will be expected to and will deliver in time, on budget, no excuses, no exceptions.”
Funding for the project will come primarily through a special tax levied on the commercial landowners along the Route 28 corridor. Since 1988, those landowners have paid an additional 20 cents per $100 of assessed value for infrastructure improvements along Route 28. Before it sunsets in 2037, the tax is expected to cover roughly 70 percent of the costs of the improvements with the state picking up the rest. An additional $50 million would be available for Route 28 if November’s transportation referendum passes.
“Clearly you’ve got to be a corporate citizen,” said Mark Hassinger, the development director for Lerner Enterprises. Lerner has been paying the tax because it owns land along the corridor on which it is building Dulles Town Center and the Dulles 28 Center. Hassinger added that most of the traffic along the road is pass-through traffic, which will not necessarily make stops at the developments being built by Lerner or other developers.
While much of the land along the corridor has yet to be developed, the shape of that development is already laid out in the county’s Comprehensive Plan, which governs land use, said Sully District Planning Commission Ron Koch. Koch, whose district includes the Route 28 corridor, said the future improvements had been taken into account when the county drafted the Comprehensive Plan for the area. The county will not allow higher density once the project is completed, he added.
“The projected densities were put into the Plan and we have to live by the Plan,” he said.
BUT THE PROJECT has suffered its share of setbacks. During the economic recession of the early 1990’s, the value of the then largely undeveloped land along the corridor dropped, dragging revenue from the special tax district down with it. As a result, the project was only able to float high-interest bonds which were expensive to pay off.
It was not until Fairfax and Loudoun counties stepped in this year and agreed to back the project with their so-called “moral obligation” that the project was able to sell low-rate bonds.
If the region’s economy experienced a recession so severe that revenue from the special tax district and from special reserve funds were not enough to cover the debt payments, the counties would step in and make sure the payments were honored.
But Supervisors said that was an unlikely scenario. Land along the Route 28 corridor is valuable enough that tax revenue should be enough to cover the debt payments, they said.
“Given the uncertainty in the bond market, there was not a way to achieve reasonable interest without the county stepping in,” said Supervisor Michael Frey (R-Sully).
“There are pools of money that will be touched long before we’ll have to come to the county to make payments,” he added. “That was the assurance that was needed.”
“Given the analysis that was run, we all felt comfortable with it,” said Supervisor Catherine Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill), who chairs the Board’s Route 28 commission. “It’s a very good model about tax districts partnership. We have been successful in showing it can happen.”
THE QUESTION OF a tax district’s viability is especially significant as the county considers establishing another one along the Dulles corridor to benefit the Dulles transit project. In the same way, commercial landowners along the Dulles corridor would be assessed a special tax to finance a rail or rapid bus line out to Dulles Airport.
A special tax district along the Dulles corridor could conceivably encounter the same tough times as the Route 28 tax district but the fact that the Dulles corridor is already largely developed unlike the Route 28 corridor indicates that it would be better positioned to withstand an economic recession.
But neither venture is entirely free of risk, said Hudgins.
“Those are just the nature of what we all have to do,” she said.