- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

RICHMOND | Some members of the Virginia Senate’s money committee are questioning whether it’s wise - or legal - to sacrifice the state’s local roads in order to secure federal dollars to maintain and build highways.

Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer told members of the Senate Finance Committee that revenue reductions of $4.6 billion over the next six years have forced the state to choose to go after federal highway funding instead of repairing and improving other roads and bridges.

To qualify for federal funds that contribute $4 for every $1 the state pitches in, Virginia must meet minimum construction requirements. In order to meet those, Virginia has reduced funding for maintaining state and local roads by 25 percent.

Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat, said Thursday he feared Virginia was violating a state law that says maintaining roads must be a priority over building them.

“That seems to be a major, major policy shift that I’m afraid is the wrong decision,” Mr. Houck said.

The legislature’s inability to find new ways to fund transportation means the state has all but given up on projects to ease congestion and promote economic development. Since 2002, the amount of money transferred from construction to maintenance has grown from $3.6 million to $712 million.

In addition, the transportation department has closed half of its interstate rest stops and laid off more than 1,000 employees to deal with the revenue decreases.

Virginia gets two-thirds of its transportation funding from its 17.5-cents-per-gallon gas tax, as well as taxes on car sales, each of which have deteriorated with the sagging economy.

Mr. Homer said officials had to make “painful” choices: either leave federal dollars on the table for projects like highway improvements or direct money to subdivision, city and rural roads.

“If all of our funds were fungible and we could move them, we might be able to make a different set of choices, but remember such a large portion of our funds come from the federal government, and they put limitations and conditions on where and how we can spend those funds,” he said.

That has meant bridge closures and the further deterioration of existing roads.

Local governments have been the hardest hit, Mr. Homer said. Localities that were accustomed to receiving millions from the state each year to maintain roads and bridges now get nothing.

Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, said it was unfair that a road in his hometown that carries 83,000 cars each day - twice the traffic of Interstate 81 - would be ignored.

Mr. Houck said he felt the state was abandoning its responsibility for the safe upkeep of existing roads.

“I don’t think the impact of this one has really hit people yet,” he said. “We have a constitutional provision that maintenance come first, and this is reneging on that proposition.”

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