While some details of the Senate’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill remain to be ironed out and votes still need to be whipped, local and regional leaders in Northern Virginia are looking wide-eyed at possible federal money that would have a huge impact on the region’s transportation system.
Perhaps most importantly for the region as a whole, the proposed legislation commits $150 million annually over the next eight years for Metro’s capital improvements, a renewal of the funding agreement between the federal government, Virginia, the District of Columbia and Maryland.
U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who was among a small group of senators who hammered out the plan in recent weeks, said the Metro funding is an important part of the package.
“Throughout the bipartisan infrastructure negotiations, one of my top priorities has been to ensure that [Metro] has the federal funding it needs to keep serving folks in Northern Virginia and throughout the DMV – including the thousands of federal employees who rely on Metro to get to work every day,” Warner said in a statement.
All told, the package appropriates $110 billion for roads and bridges, $66 billion for rail and $39 billion for public transit spread across the country. And as the Senate debates the bill’s fate, Northern Virginia agencies are considering what they could use the new money for.
According to a fact sheet distributed by the White House, Virginia would expect to receive $7 billion for highway programs and $537 million for bridge repairs and replacement. While the legislation doesn’t fund specific transportation projects in the way that the House of Representative’s surface transportation bill would, a number of long-considered projects could finally secure funding with its help.
Representatives for Warner said the legislation could help to fund projects like the U.S. 1 widening in Fairfax and Prince William counties, which could ultimately allow for the extension of the planned Fairfax County bus rapid transit line into Prince William, a possibility the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation is currently studying.
Other Northern Virginia projects that could receive funding include the replacement of the American Legion Bridge and the I-495 Express extension from the bridge to the Dulles Toll Road, as well as the planned Long Bridge replacement that’s key to the state’s expansion of Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak service.
“I look forward to seeing this investment pay off for commuters in Virginia and across the DMV region,” Warner said.
Jeff Davis of the Eno Center for Transportation said about $100 billion of the bill’s transportation money would pass through the U.S. Department of Transportation through competitive grants like RAISE, a program that both Prince William and Manassas have used to fund local transportation projects such as the Mathis Avenue revitalization.
Those grants could also be significant to the Transforming Rail in Virginia project. VRE recently applied for a RAISE grant to expand L’Enfant Plaza station and add an additional mainline track in Washington to allow for more trains to pass through.
“Additional funds for discretionary grant programs, such as RAISE, could provide financial support for some of our planned improvements,” said VRE spokesperson Karen Finucan Clarkson.
Monica Backmon, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s executive director, told InsideNoVa that with all the transportation infrastructure needs in the region, any additional money would be helpful, and the Senate bill would likely bring a lot of it.
When the Northern Virginia authority adopted its current six-year plan, it had requests for four times the amount of funding it could dole out.
“I don’t see that number going down, if you will,” Backmon told InsideNoVa. “So there’s never enough resources and it puts us in a position where we’re partially funding some projects or delaying funding others. So hopefully … what this will do is supplement and help us get some projects done sooner so we can realize the benefits sooner … I think that’ll be a huge win for the region.”
Backmon also applauded the proposed legislation for its investment in electric vehicle infrastructure. The bill includes $7.5 billion for a national network of chargers.
But while traffic congestion creeps back up to pre-pandemic levels, some are cautioning against a road-widening bonanza with the newfound money.
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the regional advocacy group Coalition for Smarter Growth, praised the bill for its investments in mass transit and rail, which he called “historic.” But his organization supports a “fix-it-first” amendment that would require states to address maintenance backlogs for roads before expanding them, a requirement the bill has for transit and rail spending.
And Schwartz said it is crucial that localities use the money wisely and tie transportation spending to land use to decrease car-dependency, something he argues new road construction often only increases.
“There’s a tendency to keep trying to widen roads and then they fill up again in five years,” Schwartz said. “Some of our biggest challenges are in outer Fairfax, Prince William and Loudoun, where we really have to make changes to the land use. … We’re just not going to be able to build our way out of traffic in those areas.”