VDOT cuts put brakes on 58 funding

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By Christopher Brooke, Reporter

Funding for new road projects has been driven off the proverbial cliff during the national economic crisis, crashing hopes for new improvements to U.S. 58 as an economic development tool for Southwestern Virginia.

Local representatives agree that maintenance on existing roads will come first — new projects like four-laning 58 east of Hillsville and over Lovers Leap Mountain to Stuart will have to wait because the Virginia Department of Transportation's budget will be slashed by up to $2.6 billion over the next six years.

The state department will focus on core services as revenue from gasoline and vehicle sales taxes shrink with the slowing of demand in this period of economic uncertainty.

VDOT Commissioner David Ekern has said that the agency will likely consolidate residency offices, close some repair shops and reduce the number of central office divisions by about 30 percent.

An expected 900 positions will be eliminated, mostly through attrition.

The ramifications of the transportation cuts for Southwest and Southside Virginia are yet another economic development blow for the region, noted Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Henry County), the minority leader in the state House of Delegates.

Conceived as a way to link the fortunes of the coast and the coalfields of Virginia with an east-west superhighway, improvements to U.S. 58 beyond the Hillsville bypass will remain stalled, he expects.

Armstrong had carried a bill to the General Assembly to appropriate more money for roads in the special summer session of the legislature, and it failed — mostly along party lines, he said.

The fact that there is no more money to improve 58 in Carroll and Patrick counties is reprehensible, said Armstrong. "Maintenance comes first and what will suffer is new construction.”

State cuts are going to be deep and wide, said Del. Bill Carrico (R-Fries). People are waiting on pins and needles to see the budget numbers and the size of cuts, which Carrico didn't expect to come out until after Election Day.

"The cuts are going to be detrimental to everybody," he said.

There won't be enough revenue to fix U.S. 58 from Hillsville to Stuart without a revenue bond issue, and the chances are slim that state officials will take on more debt in the current climate.

"I think the numbers we see now [for cuts] are relatively low compared to what we'll see when we get back," Carrico said. "Belt tightening will have to take place for a little while until the economy starts to rebound."

The devastating effect that the fiscal crunch has had on home sales, especially in Northern Virginia, and falling demand due to higher gas prices has set the state up for a drastic decline in revenues, he noted.

Transportation is a big part of the state budget, so its going to take a hit for a few years, Carrico expects.

"The key thing is don't create any new programs until you can pay for your old ones," he said. "If we stick to that we'll be able to do more in the future and see a lot of progress."

Still, beyond cost cutting, legislators will continue to look for new ways to bring in revenue, Carrico said. Now is not the time to increase taxes, though.

But, he recalled an idea that had been suggested during the 2008 legislative session to put revenue coming from East Coast ports towards projects in Northern Virginia, thereby freeing up other transportation funds for the western part of the state.

There's also remaining potential from the previous flawed attempt to implement "user fees" — which were supposed to be assessed against abusive drivers — if it's done right, Carrico said. He can see the fees being applied to serious offenses, like driving under the influence.

Such fees would also have to apply to everybody, not just Virginians — a fatal flaw in its execution the first time around.

Despite the contraction in VDOT, Carrico still has faith that the quality of the transportation system will remain high. "I think we still have a very effective transportation system here."