Editorial: Hitting The Roads

As the county prepares to welcome a new Board of Supervisors, there is time to reflect on one unexpected gift from the outgoing group.

It wasn’t really a gift; we paid for it. But it was a dramatic policy change that will have lasting impact and, perhaps, result in a few more moments of enjoyment for area motorists.

Early in the term of Loudoun’s first all-Republican board, supervisors jumped deep into the road-building business. It was a path that prior boards declined to tread, noting, correctly, that construction and maintenance of the road system was a state government responsibility. However, it was a responsibility state legislators had long abandoned. The impacts of that negligence were masked in Loudoun for many years because it was developers—not the Virginia Department of Transportation—who built and widened the streets. Road building hummed right along in Loudoun until the economy slowed and the proffers ran dry.

The decision to devote the revenue generated by 2 cents of the real estate tax rate exclusively to road construction not only appeared to let the state government off the hook, it also put transportation, schools and other general government priorities in competition for limited local funds.

Did it really let the General Assembly off the hook? The down-state legislators worried little about the inconvenience suffered by residents and businesses in “wealthy” Loudoun County and even local members of the state delegation weren’t convinced that transportation funding was lacking. It was clear little help would be coming from Richmond.

Likewise, construction of schools and other county government facilities seemed to keep pace. Even items such as the long-delayed Academies of Loudoun, the long-debated public safety firing range and artificial turf stadium fields managed to secure places in the county’s construction program—all while adhering to fiscal policies that preserved the county’s triple-A bond ratings during a national recession.

The reality is the all-Republican board instituted a 2-cent tax hike to pay for roads when nobody else would step up to the plate.

Later, the Assembly did step up, sort of. The landmark transportation bill imposed new regional taxes to help solve Northern Virginia’s gridlock. Loudoun leaders expect to get far more road money from that deal than they will from local taxes, but they’ll have far less control over those dollars and it is not yet clear whether the county’s access to a significant pot of money will survive regional competition.

When the board took office four years ago, the county government played an ancillary role in road work. Today, transportation projects account for 40 percent of the county’s six-year construction plan, some $793 million.

As a result of that work, the next Board of Supervisors will join in a lot of important ribbon-cutting ceremonies as the completion of missing links and long-needed interchanges gets traffic moving.

There may be another benefit coming down the line. If the new stream of regional transportation money is joined by a return to adequate state funding, the new board may be well-positioned to offer a nice 2-cent real estate rate reduction before its term expires. That, too, would be unexpected.

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