- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

RICHMOND Virginia's new transportation commissioner says the state shouldn't back down from projects such as an additional river crossing for Northern Virginia just because of vocal opposition.
Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet also said in an interview with the Associated Press that the agency was not nearly as devastated by personnel cuts during the 1990s as he feared when he went to work three weeks ago.
"We should not run away from a project we believe is needed just because of a lot of political heat," Mr. Shucet said in an hourlong conversation with AP reporters. He was referring to a planned $400,000 study to determine the need for an additional bridge over the Potomac River to relieve congestion on the Capital Beltway's American Legion Bridge.
Gov. Mark R. Warner last week approved the study, which is certain to draw opposition from wealthy homeowners in northern Fairfax County who may have their neighborhoods disrupted by such a project.
Community opposition killed a similar, $2 million federal study last year, when Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who requested the study, yielded to his constituents' intense opposition.
But Mr. Shucet said the state has "a mandate to carry out the study, and carry it out efficiently. We'll see where it takes us. If it takes us back to a difficult issue with a public constituency, we're going to make recommendations from a transportation professional's point of view."
He also said he hopes voters will approve referendums this fall in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to raise sales taxes in those areas to fund regional transportation projects. The ballot issues "give us a chance to address critical transportation needs in areas of the commonwealth that need help," he said.
If the referendums fail, Mr. Shucet said the agency would try to keep projects moving forward in those regions. But he hedged when asked if those regions deserve a larger share of state funding because of their dire needs.
"I don't think I'm allowed to say that just because an area contributes more funds they're entitled to more attention or more improvements," he said.
The agency won't go on a hiring binge to make up for losses of senior professional personnel in the mid-1990s, when Gov. George F. Allen paid out nearly $40 million to entice about 1,200 VDOT employees to quit or take early retirement.
A study by the General Assembly's investigative arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, criticized the move for costing the state more on fees for private consultants and contract work than it saved through downsizing the agency.
"That was seven years ago. It's old news. People ask me about that at VDOT, and I say get over that," Mr. Shucet said. "The last I saw, we had 10,356 people; in round numbers, about 60,000 miles of roadway in our system. Sixty-thousand miles, 10,000 people. So if we went off driving down the road in a van, every six miles we would pass somebody. That's a lot of people."
He said he is sufficiently comfortable with the skill levels of VDOT's work force that he recently rejected a number of requests for critical hires.
"They don't realize how good they are. I am not sure of what circumstances or chain of events took place to make that happen, but we all know that it can happen. People can get a lid put on them," Mr. Shucet said.

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