State and Local Leaders Clash Over Responsibility of Secondary Roads

State and Local Leaders Clash Over Responsibility of Secondary Roads

State responsibility of secondary roads dates to Great Depression.

The state would like Fairfax County government to take financial responsibility for the maintenance of all secondary roads in the county.

The state would like Fairfax County government to take financial responsibility for the maintenance of all secondary roads in the county.

Who is responsible for fixing potholes on Fairfax County roads? State leaders in Richmond want to hand over control to transportation officials at the Fairfax County Government Center. But Chairwoman Sharon Bulova is joining with leaders in Loudoun County and Prince William County to oppose the move. In a joint letter to the General Assembly, the local government leaders in the three Northern Virginia jurisdictions and Chesterfield say that they oppose the shift in responsibility as an unfunded mandate, one that would hurt taxpayers.

“To put it bluntly, devolution would require a local tax increase,” the joint letter concluded.

State control of local roads dates back to the Great Depression, when leaders in Richmond stepped in to handle infrastructure needs that were going unmet because local governments were broke. Some say the system is outdated and ill-equipped for the modern era, especially because local governments can respond more effectively to needs in Fairfax County than state officials in the Virginia Department of Transportation headquarters on East Broad Street in Richmond.

“Listen, I'm a child of the ’70s,” said Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, a former chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. “I'm a big fan of Devo, which was short for devolution.”

Connaughton says Virginia is one of the only states in the country where state officials have the responsibility of maintaining local roads. Cities and towns already take care of their own roads, and Arlington County has long maintained its own infrastructure. That’s why the secretary and others want the three largest jurisdictions in Northern Virginia to assume an increased responsibility. Mount Vernon District Supervisor Gerald Hyland says the concept could work, but only if the state is willing to fork over enough cash to go along with the responsibility.

“It would be essential that the money follow the devolution,” Hyland said. “Or else you are going to have revolution on the part of local governments.”

THE COALITION of local government chairmen says that after years of neglect, Virginia’s transportation funds are nearly depleted. The Virginia Department of Transportation estimates that 34 percent of secondary roads in Virginia are substandard, which means that state officials would be handing over substandard resources with little or no way to pay for improvements. Even if hundreds of millions could be earmarked to bring these roads up to standard, the local governments would be on the hook to pay for maintenance in the future.

“Our roads are in deplorable shape,” the leaders wrote in the joint statement to the General Assembly. “As the nation pulls from the constraints of recession, the risks associated with devolution pose an even greater threat to the vitality of Virginia.”

Bulova likes to compare the process of devolution to ownership of a car that has failed all the inspections. All of the tires in Bulova’s metaphor are flat. It needs a paintjob. Many repairs are needed. Like the state’s system of secondary roads, which she says are “deplorable,” the imaginary car is more of a burden than an asset.

“It’s as though the state coasted it into the driveway of the county and said, ‘Here, it’s yours. Take it,’” Bulova said. “And now it's our responsibility to fix it up.”

ALTHOUGH LOCAL LEADERS usually argue for more power, the debate over devolution turns the traditional paradigm on its head. The five chairmen acknowledged in the joint statement that responsibility of the commonwealth’s secondary road system is an example of an instance where “constituency and economics of scale” point to state-level responsibility. The stakes are high because if Connaughton is successful in shifting responsibility in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William and Chesterfield, more jurisdictions will be asked to step up in the future.

“Other counties in the commonwealth also recognize that devolution will not stop at our borders,” the joint letter concludes. “In the coming years, proposals to devolve road maintenance to more and more localities would come before the General Assembly.”