Suffolk delegate not counting on road money

Published 11:21 pm Saturday, January 17, 2009

As Suffolk City Council prepares to vote on a controversial new development on U.S. Route 58, the city’s representatives in Richmond are not optimistic about getting money for needed road improvements that could affect the development.

“Funding for road improvements is going to be very difficult for the projects that are already on the books,” said Delegate S. Chris Jones (R-76). He emphasized that getting money for new projects will be even more difficult.

Illinois-based CenterPoint properties wants to build a 900-acre intermodal center on U.S. Route 58, west of Kenyon Road. The plan includes 5.8 million square feet of light and heavy industrial, distribution, office space and general commercial facilities, as well as a rail yard adjacent to the CSX rail line.

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However, Holland Road already has excessive traffic, and needed to be widened long ago, city leaders acknowledge. A study by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission estimated the cost of widening the road to six lanes at $94 million. CenterPoint’s engineers, however, have estimated the job would cost about $54 million. The company has promised to contribute about $3.5 million toward the project, saying that total is proportionate to the amount of extra traffic it would bring to the roadway.

That creates a need of either $50 million or $90 million – depending on whom you ask – from local, state and federal coffers. Jones said Suffolk’s prospects for help from the state this year are grim.

“We’re not unlike many states in the rest of the country,” Jones said. “Sales tax receipt collections, corporate income are down. We have a $3 billion deficit right now. These are very difficult times as far as any budget.”

With more than 100 jurisdictions statewide clamoring for money from an ever-shrinking pot, legislators will be stuck with “some very tough decisions,” Jones said.

“We cannot print money, so we’ve got to balance our budget.”

Jones warned against Suffolk depending on the state to fulfill its Holland Road needs.

“If they’re counting on the state to fund that project to make it work as far as transportation, I do not see that happening in the foreseeable future.”

Mayor Linda Johnson, however, said she remains hopeful.

“I’m optimistic that if we can get in the right places, we have a better opportunity than we’ve had in a long time,” she said.

President-elect Barack Obama, who will be inaugurated the day before council’s scheduled vote, plans to unveil a gigantic economic stimulus plan that will include road and other infrastructure improvements. Johnson said she hopes to get Suffolk’s foot in that door to help fund the widening of Holland Road.

Jones, however, cautioned against counting on federal funds, as well as state funds.

“I would be very, very, very surprised,” he said. “I’m not sure what impact that will have on Virginia. “Even if we get 3, 4, 5 million dollars, in a state the size of Virginia, I’m not sure if something would take precedent over an existing need somewhere else.”

In an effort to show its commitment to the road-widening project and to get the process moving, the City Council agreed in December to approve more than $134 million in transportation-related bonds over the next 10 years, most of which would be used for the Holland Road project.

Only $400,000 worth of bonds was included in this year’s Capital Improvements Plan, however. Council would have to approve the remainder in coming years.