Virginia, Maryland punt on billions needed for roads

Maryland,Virginia,Transportation,Liz Essley

Maryland and Northern Virginia need almost $2 billion more a year to catch up on transportation maintenance and construction projects, but legislatures in both states failed this year to approve the extra money despite an outcry from local governments and businesses.

A commission in Maryland concluded the state needs an extra $870 million a year for transportation and called on the state's politicians to stop raiding the Transportation Trust Fund to balance their budget. Gov. Martin O'Malley proposed imposing the state's 6 percent sales tax on gas, adding about 20 cents a gallon, only to have it rejected by a legislative committee.

Virginia officials estimate that Northern Virginia alone needs $700 million more a year just to fix its crumbling roads and bridges. Only 60 percent of Fairfax County's roads were judged to be in fair condition or better, officials said.

Still, the Virginia General Assembly this year rejected Gov. Bob McDonnell's plan to shift part of the state's sales tax revenues to road projects and killed a separate legislative proposal to raise the gas tax.

"The fact of the matter is if we're going to dig our way of this transportation congestion, then we need a new source of revenue," said Virginia Sen. Barbara Favola, D-Arlington. "And yes, that will mean some kind of new fee or tax. There's no getting around it."

Local budgets are already strained by the recession, state legislators are squabbling about their transportation failures, and the federal government is unwilling to give more. That has transportation experts and local officials alike warning that the nation's capital is doomed to gridlock.

"I think there's a real concern that how are we going to continue to grow?" said Montgomery County Councilman Hans Riemer, D-at large. "We're maxed out on cars. How are we going to add 100,000 new jobs? Where are all those people going to fit?"

In Montgomery, leaders face a $598 million backlog in transportation projects. And County Executive Ike Leggett's five-year transportation plan provides $177 million less than last year.

In Fairfax, leaders agreed to devote half of any year-end budget surplus to transportation, but they complained they were already paying more than their fair share and renewed their call for additional state funding.

If governments don't pour extra cash into transportation soon, experts warn, the torture of the Washington commute could spread. Local commuters in 2010 were already spending an average of 74 hours in traffic each year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

Congestion on Washington-area roads, if laid end to end, would equal a traffic jam 1,581 miles long. Without improvements, that could jump by almost 38 percent, to become a 2,174-mile-long traffic jam, by 2040, according to data from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.

And that's bad for everybody.

"If traffic continues to get worse, [rail] starts to get to capacity, commuting times get longer and longer -- people may say they've had it and start relocating, and companies will relocate," said Fairfax County Supervisor John Cook, R-Braddock. "You end up in a decline situation."

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