Wednesday, November 14, 2001

RICHMOND Forty percent of the state’s bridges and 20 percent of its major highways need repairs that would cost more than $1.6 billion, the General Assembly’s investigative agency said yesterday.
Despite those needs, the Virginia Department of Transportation has projected “level funding” for the maintenance program in the last four years of the current six-year highway plan, according to the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.
Since maintenance spending has been increasing by about 4 percent a year, the highway department appears to be underestimating repair costs by about $670 million through fiscal year 2007, JLARC said.
The commission staff also recommended sweeping revisions in the state’s system of assessing highway needs and allocating money, including creation of a separate bridge-replacement fund.
Charles D. “Chip” Nottingham, the state transportation commissioner, said there was nothing alarming in the Virginia Department of Transportation reports.
“We have a lot of bridges that need work. That’s not news to us,” he told reporters after the commission meeting.
However, he said none of the state’s 11,670 bridges is unsafe, and the condition of its 57,000 miles of highways continues to improve.
Mr. Nottingham described the $670 million shortfall in projected maintenance spending “a budgetary issue” that will have no real bearing on how many miles of highway are repaved or how many bridges are repaired.
JLARC said it would cost about $105 million to bring primary and interstate highways up to par and at least $1.5 billion to repair or replace substandard bridges.
“The highway maintenance program appears inadequately funded to provide ‘reasonable and necessary’ maintenance of the state’s highway system as required by law,” the staff report says.
The commission’s maintenance findings could boost support for a referendum on a half-cent sales tax increase in traffic-choked Northern Virginia to pay for regional highway projects. Democrat Mark R. Warner, who was elected governor Nov. 6, supports the referendum. His opponent, Republican Mark L.Earley, did not.
Mr. Warner also has pledged a top-to-bottom revamping of VDOT. The commission’s report describing the current highway funding system as antiquated could bolster Mr. Warner’s chances of getting his reforms through the Republican-controlled legislature.
Mo Elleithee, spokesman for the governor-elect, said it’s too early to say whether Mr. Warner will embrace JLARC’s recommendations.
“He remains committed to making VDOT more accountable to the people of Virginia, and reform of the department will be a top priority of his administration,” Mr. Elleithee said.

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