Northern Virginia is getting a raw deal from Governor McDonnell. While we need transportation investment to support this economic engine of the state, at least $1.5 billion in transportation funds are being diverted to wasteful and unnecessary projects in rural areas. Meanwhile, the state refuses to adequately fund Dulles Rail, leaving Northern Virginia taxpayers and toll payers to foot the lion's share of the bill. And, when it comes to making decisions about Northern Virginia's most critical transportation needs, the Governor and Secretary of Transportation Connaughton want to shut-out our elected officials.
First, Dulles Rail. Northern Virginians and the federal government are paying about 90 percent of Phase 1. For Phase 2, the Governor belatedly proposed contributing $150 million but has held up the funds to stop a Project Labor Agreement and to gain other leverage. Even with the $150 million, Northern Virginia tax payers and toll payers would have to pick up about 95 percent of the cost of Phase 2, with tolls set at ever-higher rates because of the state's failure to invest in this critical project. In contrast, the state routinely pays 100 percent of highway project costs using a combination of federal and state funds.
Last year, the Governor won approval for a record infusion of funds into transportation. Where is he spending it? The Governor has promised $750 million in grants and about $500 million in low-interest loans to the private toll-road proposal for Route 460 between Suffolk and Petersburg. Even Hampton Roads officials don't see that project as a priority. Secretary Connaughton personally spearheaded the diversion of $200 million to the controversial and poorly conceived Charlottesville/Albemarle Bypass, a project which VDOTs own engineers say could cost up to $400 million. Millions more are going to the remote Coalfields Expressway, which could ultimately cost $1.8 billion.
Unrecognized during the 2011 session, the Governor's proposals ensured that much of the $3 billion in borrowed money and other funds was routed outside the state's longstanding formulas. A particularly bad deal for Northern Virginia, this meant that transit didn't receive its usual 14.7 percent, while also diminishing the pool of funding for primary, secondary and urban roads. Northern Virginia typically receives about 70 percent of the state's transit funds and greatly depends on primary, secondary and urban road funding.
The Governor's 2012 transportation initiative (HB1248) has generated new concerns among Northern Virginia officials. By siphoning a portion of the state sales tax and general fund surpluses to transportation, his plan takes funding from education and public safety. At the same time, while Northern Virginia generates 34 percent of state sales tax revenues, the Governor's plan would only allocate about 6.8 percent of the additional transportation funding to Northern Virginia, according to Del. Vivian Watts.
Meanwhile, the Governor and Secretary seem bent on pushing out our elected officials from key transportation decisions. In both 2011 and 2012 (HB601 and HB1291), the Governor has sought to control the Virginia seats on the Metro Board, even though Northern Virginians provide about 70 percent of Virginia's share of Metro costs. The Governor's push (HB1291) to combine two Northern Virginia transportation agencies would particularly disenfranchise Fairfax and voters and would enable the state to dominate the voting in the new agency. A separate bill (HB599) pushed by a highway lobbying group, would take power from Northern Virginia elected officials to select transportation priorities and hand it to the appointed and unaccountable Commonwealth Transportation Board on which we have only three seats out of 17.
To make things worse, the Governor's 2012 transportation bill (HB1248) would make VDOT a superagency with the power to deny a local land use plan or project. A separate provision would grant VDOT the power to force a highway project onto a community no matter the legitimate objections and concerns of local citizens.
Before this session ends, we need Northern Virginia's state legislators, both Republican and Democrat, to unite. They should fight to protect our role in transportation decision-making and stop the centralization of power in VDOT. They should challenge the undermining of state transportation formulas and the diversion of funds from our critical needs including Dulles Rail.
Stewart Schwartz is Executive Director of Coalition for Smarter Growth