Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Weekly Column: Improving U.S. 1 North of Fort Belvoir

The following is my column that will appear in the Mt. Vernon Gazette, the Mt. Vernon Voice and Patch in the week of July 31, 2012.

Improving U.S. 1 North of Fort Belvoir
The other day, I came across and article about the widening of Route 1 in Woodbridge. Between that and the coming federally-funded widening through Fort Belvoir, I often get queries from constituents who want to know why Route 1 is being improved there, but not between Woodlawn and the Beltway. There are two reasons – planning and money.
Before a road can be widened there are a series of required studies that lay the groundwork for construction. In our community, that process was started back in 1991 by Senator Toddy Puller who passed multiple resolutions through the General Assembly to initiate the planning process. That process was called the Route 1 Centerline Study - an effort to set the general configuration of Route 1 from Fredericksburg to Alexandria. That process chugged along until it bogged down on our stretch about 12 years ago over two problems.
First, once possible road widening scenarios started to surface, businesses and communities began to voice concerns about the changes it would bring. Given the established nature of our community, widening would involve the relocation of dozens of businesses. They were not happy. There were other complaints as well.  
Second, Route 1 is part of the National Highway System. Any new centerline requires the approval of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The Fairfax County Comprehensive Plan calls for some mode of transit on Route 1 from Alexandria to Lorton – Metro, light rail or bus rapid transit. The FHWA will not approve a new centerline study incorporating transit without a study that demonstrates that the mode of transit contemplated is appropriate.
No one would pay for the transit study. Senator Puller passed a resolution in 2005 to pay for it, but it got bogged down in the politics of newly announced BRAC changes. A year ago Senator Puller and I pushed through a new resolution authorizing a transit study. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit has earmarked $1 million and Fairfax County has applied for a federal grant to pay for the remainder. Federal grants will be announced this month and if it is rejected, the County has committed to pay for the balance and then we’re off to the races.
The other big problem is a lack of money – the state has none. The gas tax was last raised to $0.175 cents/gallon when I was a sophomore at West Potomac High School and gas cost $0.95 per gallon. By statute, the state is required to fund maintenance and administration before construction, but now even that is in trouble. VDOT has fired a third of their employees off their peak employment. The hay in our medians is now only harvested twice a year – or when I send an email complaining about a particular stretch. Roads in our area are increasingly potholed and patched instead of repaired. Over 25% of Fairfax County’s secondary roads need to be paved.
Every new revenue proposal or gas tax increase has been dead on arrival at the House of Delegates. Last session, bills were even introduced by three Republicans – including the Chairmen of the Transportation and Appropriations Committees – but their caucus is still dominated by anti-tax legislators who have signed the “No New Taxes” Pledge and Governor McDonnell has repeatedly said he will not support any tax increases.
In the last three years, the largest transportation state-funded project has been $150 million. The widening of U.S . 1 is estimated to cost about $900 million. It will take at least 10-15 years of planning and discussion to lay the groundwork for widening and by then it will certainly cost more than $1 billion.
So here’s the bottom line. Bringing change to Route 1 is going to require everyone in the community to sit down and work through our differences and agree on an alignment over the coming years. Second it is going to require the Commonwealth of Virginia to put some new revenue on the table.
I hope everyone in the community will continue to work towards both of these objectives so we can build a Route 1 that will allow us to continue to enjoy our quality of life in our part of Fairfax County.
It is an honor to serve as your state delegate.

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