Va. transportation panel’s budget slashing will bring total to $4.6 billion cut in 18 months

By Bob Lewis, AP
Thursday, December 17, 2009

Somber Va. roads panel readies $893 million cut

RICHMOND, Va. — Virginia transportation officials vote Thursday on $893 million in cuts its six-year master plan for road building and maintenance, the fifth time spending has been slashed since June 2008.

That will bring total funding reductions for state projects across the state through 2015 to about $4.6 billion, an amount roughly equal to an entire year’s worth of revenue.

“So what we are being asked to do when you vote tomorrow is to run a six-year program on five years of revenue,” Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer told members of the Commonwealth Transportation Board after they heard briefings on the shortfall Wednesday.

The newest austerity measures are the result of years of declining transportation revenue derived chiefly from taxes on dwindling automobile and gasoline sales. It has already forced the Virginia Department of Transportation to lay off 450 employees, with another 1,000 layoffs due early next year.

Twice, when the General Assembly was asked to broaden transportation revenue in 2006 and 2008, proposals to boost taxes died in the Republican-run House.

“We’re struggling here with some dramatic budget issues,” said board member E. Dana Dickens of Suffolk. “The funding model we are working with is not sustainable.”

The cuts come at a time when revenue is already so scarce that the state has had to make unprecedented cuts, not only to new highway projects but to maintenance. Thirty percent of the pavement on Virginia’s secondary roads is graded as deficient, Homer said.

Board member James Lee Keen of Vansant told his colleagues of an accident he witnessed that was caused by water that pooled on a rural road because of a poorly maintained ditch and subsequently froze.

In July, budget cuts closed 19 of Virginia’s 42 Interstate rest areas. VDOT also cut back on the frequency of mowing on highway rights of way, and the width of the area cut.

Transit systems that receive state support will also feel the loss. All of them will have to factor in an average 10 percent reduction in state funding.

Revisions will also force the elimination of pay raises that had been planned for VDOT and Department of Rail and Public Transit employees in 2011 and 2012.

The sagging transportation tax collections will force reductions in the current VDOT budget of nearly $89 million. Those will show up on more miles of rough road because of a $45 million cut in road repaving.

“Our top priority is maintenance, and we’re taking $45 million out of the paving budget simply to balance the books,” said Homer, who leaves his cabinet-level transportation post next month when the term expires for Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who appointed him, and Republican Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell takes office.

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