End of an era: 75 years of road building peters out in Prince William

The Board of County Supervisors has adopted a new 2011-16 Six Year Road Plan, with priorities for new “secondary” roads (those with numbers 600 and higher).  For fiscal year 2010-11, Prince William will receive a token amount (less than $2,000).  The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), which was supposed to fund such highways with state taxes since 1934, is running out of money for new highway construction. 

Pssst!  Funding for “secondary” highways is the first to disappear… but not the last.

Starting July 1, 2011, guess how many $$$ will be available for expanding or building new secondary roads in Prince William County?  Answer:  Zero.  Zilch.  Nada.  Nuttin’

So how will our Board of County Supervisors react to the new normal? 

Odds are, some local elected officials will do zero (zilch, nada, nuttin’) until there’s a more-obvious crisis.  After all, there are still orange cones out there, redirecting traffic as existing roads are being re-paved.  Not widened, not improved… but how many citizens will recognize the difference between new construction and maintenance of old roads, so long as it looks like something is being done?

There is still funding, for a few more years, for projects to expand interstate highways and “primary” roads (those with numbers under 600), because the Commonwealth Transportation Board made a conscious decision to direct all discretionary road funding towards projects where Federal dollars would match state dollars.   

In addition, Prince William can still sell the remainder of its approved road bonds for a half-dozen local roads, such as the Rollins Ford highway designed to crack open the Rural Area to more dumb growth development.  (Think of that project as “Future Avendale, But Further To The West,” as the developers and their supervisor allies continue to try to bust the boundaries of the Rural Area and develop Vint Hill Road so it matches Linton Hall Road.) 

Highway maintenance funding has not dried up yet.  We’ll see repaving projects on existing roads for many more years.  However, the Federal taxes and fees that finance the Highway Trust Fund are not keeping up with demand, and the maintenance backlog is already growing.  After VDOT eliminates new road construction projects, it will reduce maintenance even further.  Expect more bumpy roads and decaying bridges.  

We can see the future now without binoculars.   The Fairfax County transportation director has summed up the status of Virginia’s financial capacity to widen/build new secondary roads: “We have no new projects in the pipeline.”  

So… when Prince William officials finally do react, what will they do?  Think they will:
1) wail, gnash teeth, and blame Richmond/Washington?
2) propose new road bonds, so local taxpayers can fund new roads?
3) propose new toll roads, financed by public-private partnerships?
4) limit new rezonings so new development is directed to those places with carpool/bus/rail transit capacity?

We have see the supervisors and their county staff do #1 and #2.  We have seen the state officials jump at the opportunity for #3, so private sector investors would finance widening of I-95 and the Capital Beltway,  We have seen county officials in Arlington, Fairfax, Stafford, and even Loudoun consider #4, so development is based on transit services and new subdivisions do not generate excessive new traffic congestion in those counties. 

In Prince William, it will be a major event when a majority of the local supervisors acknowledge that road proffers for projects such as Avendale do not cover all the road costs, and “free roads” are still too expensive.  

The Prince William supervisors live in the past.  They blather about smart growth, then vote for Comprehensive Plan changes that encourages development on already-overcrowded roads, far from transit.  The stuck-in-the-1950’s supervisors assume VDOT funding will reappear after the recession is over.  Just like the last 75 years, someone else will pay to widen existing roads and add grade-separated interchanges to the Prince William Parkway to mitigate the new congestion from new developments.

Pretending funding will reappear, so new developments far from transit services will be OK, ignores the new normal: the last 75 years of “free roads,” built by VDOT for Prince William, is over.

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