Local governments filling void as some states struggle to increase transportation funding

News AASHTO Journal November 20, 2006
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Faced with intractable bottlenecks and resigned to inadequate or slow funding from higher levels, local governments in the Washington, D.C., area have dug into their own coffers--or gone into debt--to tackle needed projects, the Washington Post reported.

"We're tired of waiting around," said Steven A. Silverman, a member of the Montgomery County Council in the Maryland suburbs near Washington, D.C. "Our people are crying for relief, and we want to provide it."

Officials of that county agreed in April to spend $160 million to accelerate state road projects. Nearby Prince William County in Virginia had a $300 million bond issue on the Nov. 7 ballot, aimed at improving several heavily used arterials. Virginia's Loudoun County also put a $51 million bond issue on--the county's first transportation bond--to make similar improvements to arterials and local highways. Also in Virginia, Fairfax County is in the middle of a $160 million construction plan voters signed off on two years ago.

Gerald E. Connolly, chairman of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, termed the local assumption of work that would ordinarily be performed at the state level "the great state shift--or the great state shaft."

Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer told the Post that the increasing role of local governments in such work makes it tougher for state officials to visualize, and organize, according to regional needs.

"The state has a responsibility to ensure that major transportation corridors are developed in a coordinated fashion," Homer said. "Without adequate state resources, that state role is diminished or in some cases nonexistent."

One example offered was a county widening of a road that connects several new housing developments - which still, ultimately, will direct traffic toward another severe bottleneck.

The Post noted that political leaders in Virginia and Maryland, as well as numerous other states in the nation, have opted for tolling or private-sector activity, rather than more traditional funding sources such as increased fuel taxation.

"This is a harbinger," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which conducted the study. "It's a recognition that the states can't keep up. So Plan B is tolls and local bonds. We better get used to that because that's the way it's heading."

Prince William County Executive Craig S. Gerhart said the county's leaders stepped forward to fund transportation only after realizing the legislature was not going to come through.

"People can argue about a lot of things, but at the end of the day it takes money to build roads, and they don't have any money," he said. "We can't be successful as a community with a failed transportation network."

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