Will Prince William or Virginia mimic California’s financial disaster?

The current Comp Plan assumes continued unsustainable growth in Prince William, based on expectations of continued state/Federal subsidies for transportation.

The proposed revisions of Land Use and Transportation chapters are trapped in the same rut. Hey, there was money in the past; there will be new money in the future.  Let’s build more subdivisions everywhere, ‘cuz the state/Federal agencies will keep sending money for new roads.  Listen to the promises of the politicians; we’re gonna get free state/Federal $$$ for VRE, Metrorail, even ferries too.

Ugh, did anyone take note of the 2010-15 Six Year Secondary Road Plan approved by the Board of County Supervisors on June 23?   Last year’s estimate of funding was $4.9 million… but by June 2009, we ended up with just $427,818.  That’s only 8.7% of what we had expected from the cornucopia of the state/Federal transportation programs.

The good news is that Prince William County has frozen plans to borrow the rest of the billion dollars for the Progress Prince William road expansion.   VDOT is avoiding bankruptcy by cutting back state funding – and reducing services, by closing rest stops and minimizing grass cutting.   It hurts, but in the absence of money the county/state are obliged to balance the budget by cutting back.

The bad news is that the Federal government lacks such constrain.  Congress is still racing towards a financial catastrophe comparable to what California faces now.  At some point, however, even the Federal Department of Transportation will run out of money to finance maintenance *and* new construction.  The upcoming debate over the next six year authorization of Federal transportation funding, after Congress goes deeper into debt for the stimulus and health care expenses, will reveal that the Federal government is getting down to the crumbs in the cookie jar.

Of course, just because everyone can see there’s no money does not guarantee that elected officials will slow/stop their spending, or raise taxes to finance their promises.  The current president and the current Congress might conjure up one more 6-year cycle of gross overspending for transportation projects.

At the state level, the General Assembly might do another good-for-20-years-and-then-we-are-broke-again tax increase, to mimic what Gov. Baliles did in 1986.  Someone (flush with petrodollars, perhaps) will buy the Federal/state bonds to finance the last surge of dumb growth transportation.

However, in the next decade we’ll see the end of the massive government funding for transportation, just as the Federal dam building program died in the 1970-80’s.  We haven’t run out of places to build new roads – developers could build enough subdivisions to connect North Charlottesville to South Gainesville, and don’t forget the dreams of a Potomac River crossing at Southbridge –  but we’re running out of money to subsidize unlimited suburban development.

Here at the end of the 100-year road building program, there’s one glimmer of hope.  We might build some transit, using both rail and bus technologies, before Federal/state agencies run out of construction money completely.

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