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Transportation funding is a perennial hot topic in the Virginia General Assembly but, as the 2012 session approaches, the annual battle is shaping up to be different than the taxes versus bonds debates of the past two years.

Some state officials, including Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton, are backing the concept of devolution — having localities assume responsibilty for the maintenance of local roads — potentially freeing up scarce cash for larger projects.

Fairfax County and other local governments, including Loudoun and Prince William counties, are rallying support to fight the proposal in the state legislature.

Although Fairfax actually was considering assuming control of its roadways in the recent past, county officials say the maintenance costs would overwhelm the their budget. Officials said they also have little confidence the state would kick in enough funding to support local road maintenance.

County staff estimate it would cost at least $100 million per year for the county to maintain its roads. The county already is working to close a projected $114 million budget shortfall for fiscal 2013.

“The cost is a very scary reality,” said Supervisor Jeff McKay (D-Lee).

It also doesn’t take into account maintenance work that was deferred during the past several years as the funding pool shrank, he added.

There also is a lack of local expertise in road maintenance, said Tom Besiadny, director of the Fairfax County Department of Transportation. The Virginia Department of Transportation has maintained virtually all roadways in the state since the 1930s, so the county does not have the equipment, staff or facilities to maintain its own roads.

VDOT also benefits from economies of scale when purchasing materials such as sand and salt for the roadways, because it is purchasing massive quantities to serve the entire state, Besiadny added.

Not all county board members think devolution would be such a bad thing. Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) said he supports local control of roads because the county could do a better job.

“Something has to be done here,” he said, because the state system is becoming unsustainable.

However, Cook added, the key is to not “just dump it on us,” and ensure the county has mechanisms to get the funding it would need for roads.

Much of the county’s legislative delegation, meeting with the board on Wednesday, said they would fight the proposals.

Sen. Janet Howell (D-Dist. 32) compared the devolution proposal to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s attempt to privatize liquor stores and put the money from the license sales into transportation.

“It’s slick, it’s fast and the numbers aren’t going to work,” she said.

Local legislators said they also will continue to seek pathways to additional transportation dollars. None, however, expressed optimism the General Assembly would provide new roads funding anytime soon.

Del. Vivian Watts (D-Dist. 39) said she again will propose a package of funding mechanisms that would generate an additional $400 million per year for Northern Virginia transportation projects.

Del. Mark Sickles said, as a last resort, he is considering revisiting the concept of a voter referendum on new taxes for roads, something that was unsuccessful in 2002.

“It’s been 10 years,” he said. “We’re all driving on these roads. They’re terrible. ... At some point someone has to act.”

Some Democratic legislators griped that the expanded bonding authority for transportation they helped approve last year had come with the promise that McDonnell (R) would revisit new revenue streams in the 2012 session.

“I guess that new revenue stream was us,” said Sen. Dave Marsden (Dist. 37).

Although tax-averse Republicans in the General Assembly often have opposed increasing taxes and fees to put more money into transportation, such as Watts has proposed, Besiadny noted devolution in essence amounts to a local tax.

To maintain roads at the higher standard that county residents likely would demand, he said, it could amount to as much as a 10 percent increase in real estate tax bills, as that is the county’s primary revenue source.

kschumitz@fairfaxtimes.com