- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 7, 2005

Usually, money talks in transportation funding.

But in Virginia, the project that received the single largest earmark in the massive transportation bill passed by Congress might be perceived as the single biggest loser.

Meanwhile, a project that received no earmarked funding at all emerged as perhaps the biggest winner.

The $286 billion transportation bill passed July 29 by Congress included $23 billion for more than 6,000 specific projects across the country, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS), a watchdog that criticized the unprecedented number of earmarks as an example of pork-barrel spending.

Virginia received $563 million destined for 103 projects across the state. The dollar amount was the 12th largest in the nation, TCS said.

The largest single earmark allotted is $141 million for an expansion of Interstate 81, a 325-mile corridor running along the mountains of western Virginia.

The plan calls for dedicated truck lanes, with truckers paying tolls to use the lanes. Motorists on I-81 frequently complain of excessive truck traffic on the highway.

Project supporters had hoped at one point to receive $800 million as part of a federal pilot project for dedicated truck lanes.

Still, Paul Reagan, a spokesman for Star Solutions, the consortium proposing to build the I-81 expansion, said he was pleased with what Congress has appropriated.

“In the legislative process, there’s always a lot of wishful thinking” about what funds might be available, Mr. Reagan said.

The $141 million can be combined with more than $160 million already included in the state’s six-year plan to get a start on initial phases of the project if it receives various regulatory approvals.

Tamara Neale, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), also said $141 million is not to be dismissed, but “we certainly don’t have funds of the magnitude to do improvements corridorwide.”

Some estimates have pegged the cost of adding truck lanes to I-81 along the entire highway at $11 billion.

Meanwhile, a project to extend Metrorail in Northern Virginia received no dedicated funds, but authorization was given to conduct final engineering work that would extend the mass-transit system from Falls Church outside the Capital Beltway to Reston.

A second phase of the extension, from Reston to Washington Dulles International Airport, received preliminary engineering authorization.

Perhaps just as important, the Metrorail project was one of a few mass-transit projects that received an exemption from pending regulations that would require higher cost efficiencies to qualify for federal funding.

Project supporters lobbied for the exemption, saying it would have been unfair to change the standards after engineering work already had been performed.

Even with the exemption, project supporters say, they will have to rein in project costs. A recent estimate concluded that the extension could cost as much as $2.4 billion.

Officials are hoping that design changes, like using aboveground tracks in some places instead of tunnels, can reduce the cost to about $1.7 billion.

“Nobody I know has any intention of building it for $2.4 billion,” said Delegate Kenneth R. Plum, a leading advocate of the Dulles rail extension. “There’s a recognition that we’re not going to have all the bells and whistles.”

Setting aside the earmarks, Virginia is scheduled to receive $937 million per year from the federal government for transportation, a 32 percent increase over the next five years.

The formulas used to determine each state’s share of transportation funds generally work against Virginia, which pays more in federal gasoline taxes than it receives.

But the formulas improved for Virginia in the new bill. The state now will receive back 92 percent of what it pays into the fund, compared with 90.5 percent under the old bill.

As recently as 1998, Virginia received a 79 percent return.

Miss Neale said VDOT is analyzing the massive bill and how it will affect the state’s transportation budget, which has been stretched thin in recent years and increasingly relies on private proposals such as the I-81 bid to initiate major projects.

But it’s clear that a major increase in federal funds can have a significant impact on Virginia’s transportation budget, which totaled $4.1 billion for fiscal 2006.

“It’s a good bill; Virginia did well compared to other states,” she said.

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