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May 27, 2012

Almost 50 local bridges found deficient in face of shrinking repair funds

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DailyProgressBy Courtney Beale
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Sunday. May 27, 2012

In the face of recent bridge repair controversies and the release of Albemarle County's Six-Year Im-provement Plan, local government officials have been trying to balance meeting infrastructure repair needs with a decreasing budget. Both state and federal funds for transportation are waning and the effects are being felt at the local level.

This year, the Virginia Department of Transportation has allocated $366,810 in the Six-Year Secondary Construction Program for Albemarle. As little as five years ago, in fiscal year 2007, the county received $3,747,032 for secondary road projects.

Because Albemarle's bridges are considered secondary roads, this significant decrease in funding could have a direct impact on bridge repair projects.

Forty-nine bridges in Charlottesville and Albemarle have been deemed structurally deficient, but only seven of those are listed to receive funding in the current Six-Year Improvement Plan. Even within this shortened list, it seems unlikely that funds exist to repair them all.

The average repair cost for each of the Albemarle bridges is $3,779,833. The repairs for the two bridges located within Charlottesville city limits are even higher. The Belmont Bridge replacement project's cost is estimated at $14,466,000, and $11,389,000 is the listed estimate for the Jefferson Park Avenue bridge replacement, which is expected to be completed at the end of the summer.

However, VDOT says the decrease in secondary road funding may not be as problematic as it seems.

Brent Sprinkel, assistant district administrator for planning and preliminary engineering in VDOT's Culpeper District, said that because of decreased funding, state money is now commonly used simply to match federal funds.

"It's usually an 80/20 split with 80 percent being federal [funding] and 20 percent being state dollars, but we do supplement our bridge program with additional federal dollars where appropriate, so we can fully fund these projects," Sprinkel said.

Bridge repair projects receive funding from a variety of sources but most of the federal money pro-vided comes from the Federal Bridge Program, whose funds have not been decreasing as quickly as state funds.

"There have been some adjustments from year to year but there haven't been any really significant changes in there," Sprinkel said.

However, federal transportation funding is not as abundant as it once was. The Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia recently released a report, "Are We There Yet? Selling America on Transportation," that describes some of the challenges facing federal transportation funding.

"The report suggests that the public doesn't see a national transportation problem as much as it per-ceives a national collection of unaddressed local transportation problems," said former Virginia Gov. Gerald L. Baliles, CEO and director of the Miller Center.

"People have a profound mistrust of government transportation proposals at all levels; the report sug-gests that the importance of transportation to the economic vitality and quality of life is not communi-cated well," Baliles said. "The Miller Center's national policy report recommends a communications strategy that uses traditional and social media in a new way that addresses transportation funding prob-lems."

However, it seems transportation infrastructure problems go further than communication problems. The report also states that federal money for transportation projects is becoming increasingly difficult to find.

"The last time new state funding revenues were raised through the gas tax and related fees was 1986," Baliles said. "And, of course, the federal gas tax has not been increased since 1993."

In addition, Congress cannot agree on funding for future transportation projects. The last federal Six-Year Improvement Plan expired in 2009 and instead of approving another six-year plan, which would allow for localities to carefully allocate money for future projects, Congress has been approving tempo-rary 90-day extensions.

"While members of Congress say they are opposed to 'bailouts,' Congress has been 'bailing out' the federal Highway Trust Fund for some time now to the tune of $50 [billion] to $60 billion a year," Baliles said. "The federal gas tax revenues are no longer adequate to cover the funds being sent to the states, and the states are receiving even more money in highway funds than they are paying in."

The Miller Center points to a Government Accountability Office report that evaluated funding levels from 2005 to 2009. It indicates states are receiving up to four times more money from the Highway Trust Fund than they are contributing. For every $1 Virginians put into the fund, they are receiving, on aver-age, $1.11.

The declining federal money to fund transportation projects also has the attention of members of Vir-ginia's General Assembly.

"Clearly, we have a very serious problem in funding needed for transportation improvements in the commonwealth," said Del. David J. Toscano, D-Charlottesville. "Some good news is that the [Metropoli-tan Planning Organization] and local elected officials believe the Belmont Bridge is a priority and we think that even with limited state funding we can get that done sooner rather than later."

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