A wake-up call for Virginia

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Print this page Paula C. Squires

The next time you drive over a bridge in Virginia, better say a prayer. Virginia’s public infrastructure is aging, and in some cases, is close to failing. In fact, so many of the state’s roads, bridges, dams and other structures are in such poor shape that the Virginia section of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state an overall grade of D+  in a first-ever report card on the condition of Virginia’s public assets.

Thomas L. Fitzgerald, president of the ASCE’s Virginia section, likened the barely passing assessment to a sleeping snake. When facilities aren’t maintained, “they sleep like a rattlesnake. It doesn’t bite you, it rattles,” he says. But if the rattle is ignored, a poisonous bite may follow.

Such is surely the case for Virginia. How can a state recognized for four consecutive years as the best state in the country for business expect to remain competitive when some of our most visible structures are, in the words of the report, “sliding toward failure?”

“That should be a wake up call to the business community,” says Pierce R. Homer, the state’s secretary of transportation. “If we want to remain the No. 1 state for business, we have to do something about the condition of the roads and bridges.” 

Homer says he wasn’t surprised by the low grade, including the D- the engineers’ group assigned to roads. “Our own internal evaluations document the decline in nature of all of our structural assets, and the most visible of those are highways and bridges,” he notes.  “We have over 1,900 structurally deficit bridges in Virginia, and more than 30 percent of our secondary roads have defective pavements. This has real consequences for existing and new business.” 

Homer looked to Monday’s groundbreaking on the new Rolls-Royce aircraft-engine plant in Prince George County to make his point. Rolls-Royce is initially investing $170 million to build the aerospace plant that could eventually create 500 new jobs.  But he doubts the company would have located to Virginia had there not been state incentive money to help with infrastructure costs.

Both Fitzgerald — who represents a non-profit, education group— and Homer, a Democratic appointee, agree that the solution to the problem is a sustained source of funding. That our elected leaders have been unable to come up with a funding source during the three most recent general assembly sessions, and two special sessions on transportation, represents a colossal failure of leadership.

What’s it going to take to get Virginia motivated?  A major bridge failure like the one in Minnesota that killed 13 people? 

Fitzgerald is quick to say that his group isn’t trying to create a doomsday scenario.  The report is based on public data that was used to rank these criteria: infrastructure condition, expected service life, current functionality and level of service, funding and safety.

Virginia has a lot going for it: a great location, strong natural resources and a positive business climate, including one of the lowest state and local sales tax rates (5 percent) in the nation.

So, let’s get creative. A one-time shot in the arm of $1 billion in federal stimulus funds for infrastructure improvements isn’t going to get Virginia out of this hole. According to the ASCE, renovation and replacement of the state’s bridges alone — as these structures reach the end of their design life over the next 15 years — would require $30 billion.

The engineers have begun the public dialog by suggesting several possible sources: user fees, more public-private partnerships and yes, perhaps even a raise in an existing tax like the gasoline tax. We need a long-range plan, and the time to act is now. 

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