- The Washington Times - Friday, January 18, 2002

RICHMOND Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner said yesterday the state's transportation department is in worse financial shape than he had previously thought, and cuts in the state's six-year transportation plan will mean eliminating dozens of road-building projects.

Mr. Warner told the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) at its monthly meeting that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has been basing its budgets on inflated revenue forecasts that have turned the state's $10 billion, six-year transportation plan into a "wish list" of road-building and transit projects.

"Even after the rest of the state chose the more conservative forecast for revenue in early December, [VDOT] failed to choose that forecast and continued with the more optimistic assumption," Mr. Warner said. "That is not prudent it will not be the approach that we will take. I believe it was irresponsible."

Mr. Warner said that last fall, when Gov. James S. Gilmore III had lowered the revenue forecast for state agencies from 6.9 percent to about 4 percent to base their budgets on, VDOT continued to use the higher number. That made it look like it could afford to pay for millions of dollars in projects in the six-year plan when it could not.

The CTB approves the six-year plan, and Mr. Warner said the board will have to be more diligent about ensuring projects in the transportation blueprint get built. He said VDOT also must do a better job of keeping construction projects within budget.

"The problem has been leadership, and beginning today, we will begin to turn that problem around," Mr. Warner said.

He also criticized VDOT for major cost overruns and estimates for transportation projects during the second half of last year that were, on average, 217 percent higher from the original estimate to the contract signing. Over the last four years, he said, contractors were typically paid 25 percent more than a contracted price.

"We must return 'truth in advertising' in what we can afford to deliver in a reasonable way," Mr. Warner said.

Interim VDOT Commissioner Ray D. Pethtel told the CTB that the recession combined with poor management at VDOT could mean annual reductions in the six-year plan that range from $65 million to $570 million. Over the course of the plan, there could be reductions from $400 million to $2.4 billion.

By July, Mr. Pethtel said, the transportation department will have a more realistic six-year plan, but many projects will be stripped from it. The plan will have drastic revisions, he told reporters, that will "be very, very painful" for some communities.

"The bottom line is that the department has been asked to do too much with too little," said Mr. Pethtel, who was VDOT commissioner between 1986 and 1994.

VDOT has been plagued by criminal investigations into cost overruns and environmental violations, and Mr. Warner made a campaign promise to clean up the agency.

Earlier in the day, new Secretary of Transportation Whittington W. Clement told the House Transportation Committee that lawmakers even those in Northern Virginia are going to have to lower their expectations in hoping for some transportation programs to begin.

"I don't know how we are going to take the knife" to those affected projects, Mr. Clement said.

House Transportation Committee Chairman Delegate John A. "Jack" Rollison III, Prince William Republican, said during a news conference touting a sales-tax-referendum bill to pay for transportation projects that cuts like those the Warner administration discussed would be devastating to Northern Virginia in the short and long term.

"The news that the governor gave to CTB [is] a very sobering measure," Mr. Rollison said. "We are facing a very significant transportation crisis."

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