Long-Feeble N. Virginia Panel Finds Itself Suddenly Empowered
Road Plan’s Approval by Lawmakers and Governor ‘Breathes Life’ Into Group
For the past five years, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority met once a month in a borrowed office in Fairfax County. With no staff, no responsibility, no money and, sometimes, no quorum, the body did not do much.
But its purpose and mission changed dramatically last week, when the Republican-controlled legislature and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) agreed on a transportation funding deal that makes the authority one of the most powerful bodies in Northern Virginia.
The deal gives the authority power to levy taxes to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for new transportation projects that it gets to decide whether and when to build. The body also has the legal authority to issue bonds that could raise several billion dollars that could be used for projects.
“The legislation breathes life into the authority, which has been on the books since 2002, and for the first time puts transportation planning, funding and major landuse decisions in one place,” said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer.
Scott K. York (I), chairman of the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors and a member of the authority, was more succinct: “Now we’ll actually have something to do.”
The General Assembly formed the authority in 2002 to administer what was expected to be billions of dollars raised by a sales tax increase in Northern Virginia. But voters rejected that proposal, leaving the authority with little to do other than draw up some long-term wish lists.
The quasi-elected, quasi-independent setup of the authority is unusual, if not unprecedented, in a state in which decisions — particularly those involving taxes — are made almost exclusively by directly elected state and local officials. Although most authority members are elected, they are not elected to this board and are therefore not directly accountable to anyone outside their jurisdictions. At the same time, because those members have to face voters somewhere, they are not immune from public sentiment.
The authority’s next meeting is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at George Mason High School in Falls Church. Members will begin considering their new responsibilities, although they said the session will not focus solely on them. The meeting is open to the public.
The authority, which has 14 voting members, is composed of the top elected official, or a designee, from each of the nine Northern Virginia jurisdictions. The House of Delegates appoints two members; the state Senate appoints one; and the governor appoints two.
The authority also has two nonvoting members, the director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation and the state transportation commissioner.
Members’ terms are not limited. Top elected officials serve as long as desired, as long as they remain in their elected positions. Designees serve at their pleasure.
The authority cannot raise any tax it desires. The legislature designated a handful of fees and taxes, including increasing registration and inspection fees and raising hotel and rental car taxes, that members can approve.
The money raised for projects, expected to be $350 million to $400 million a year, will come up short of the estimated $700 million that authority members say is needed annually to fix the region’s transportation system.
“It’s a half to two-thirds toward the goal,” said David F. Snyder, a council member from Falls Church and a former chairman of the authority. “But no one would have dreamed this was possible four months ago.”
The authority has complicated rules, designed to protect the interests of the smallest and largest jurisdictions, that guide how it will decide which projects get built.
Any measure must be approved by two-thirds of all members and two-thirds of the nine local government members. Plus, the local government members voting in favor must represent two-thirds of the population of member jurisdictions.
The region has about 2 million people, and two-thirds of the population would be about 1.3 million. That gives Fairfax County, with a population of nearly 1.1 million, something close to veto power.
“It’s an absolute concern,” said Bryan E. Polk, vice mayor of Manassas Park and the city’s representative to the authority. “There are concerns on our part that the inner jurisdictions’ transportation requirements are a little different than the outer jurisdictions of Prince William, Loudoun, Manassas and Manassas Park.”
Authority members said picking projects has been made easier because of the authority’s one significant accomplishment of the past five years: compilation of a prioritized list of $16.6 billion worth of needs.
The authority’s “TransAction 2030” plan, completed in 2005, sets out a long list of road, transit and trail projects to improve commutes across the region. The projects differ from those funded or scheduled for construction.
Projects are grouped by corridor, such as Route 7 or Route 28, rather than jurisdiction, in the hopes of leading to a regional view of relieving congestion.
“There’s no secret in what comes next; just look at the 2030 plan,” said Gerald E. Connolly (D), Fairfax County Board of Supervisors chairman and its representative.
Still, although there is a plan, there is no mechanism to decide which projects go first. Also, the money raised by the new taxes will not come close to building all the projects, so members will have to decide which to postpone. Several members said they will seek input on priorities from their local elected boards and lobby for those.
No process for public participation has been worked out, although members pledged to include public comments and participation in procedures. Some members also said they expect to hold public hearings. Staff writer Timothy Dwyer contributed to this report.