In 2014, Spotsylvania voters approved a referendum allowing the county to issue public bonds to help pay for transportation, schools and public safety projects.
The transportation bond totaled $63.3 million. The referendum allowed for the money to be spent on a variety of projects to be chosen by county leaders, but also included a list of areas to focus on for improvements.
So far, $6.2 million has been used, according to a staff presentation on the transportation bond during a Board of Supervisors meeting last week. Of that total, $3.2 million of that has been used for work on one of the priority areas, the Interstate 95 Thornburg interchange project, which was completed last week.
The rest of the bond money has been spent on four smaller projects, which include the planned removal of bump-out curbing on State Route 3 so another through lane can be added and a planned roundabout at Chancellor and Old Plank roads.
The county also plans to use $2.3 million of the bonds to help pay for a project that will widen U.S. 17 and rehabilitate the bridge on that highway. Work on the $20 million project, which is being handled by the Virginia Department of Transportation, is scheduled to start in fall 2020.
The county also plans to issue $24.7 million of the bond funds for several projects as part of the fiscal years 2021–24 Capital Improvement Projects program. Only the first year of the CIP is set in stone; the supervisors can change the plan for the remaining years.
That will leave just more than $30 million of the bond available.
One supervisor sounded off at last week’s meeting, saying the county hasn’t properly utilized the bond to improve Spotsylvania’s transportation system.
“Traffic is a mess and growth is coming,” Supervisor Chris Yakabouski said following the presentation by staff on the transportation bond status, which he requested. “We either recognize this issue we face or ignore it. … The longer that we put it off, the more pain we’ll feel in the future.”
During the presentation on the bond status, Deputy Finance Director Bonnie Jewell pointed out to supervisors that the transportation fund will need an injection of money if the projects included in the CIP go forward. If not, the fund will be in the red in fiscal year 2024.
The primary revenue sources for the fund are the Virginia Railway Express fuel tax, at about $5 million annually, and $700,000 each year from the general fund.
Jewell said the fund balance is expected to stand at $7.6 million by the end of fiscal 2019.
She told The Free Lance–Star later that paying for the bonds is the “largest single expense in the Transportation Fund.” The county also has to use fund money to pay the VRE subsidy each year, which will amount to $1.4 million to $2 million annually over the next five years, according to Jewell.
Yakabouski suggested that the county could add one penny to the tax rate to help pay for transportation projects and to replenish the transportation fund.
One thing he lamented is that little of the bond money has been used for areas highlighted in the referendum, such as in Massaponax.
“You stay away” from that exit on weekends and rush hour, he said.
On Friday, Yakabouski said he is trying to get his fellow supervisors to focus more on transportation.
“The voters approved spending $63 million and here we’ve spent 10 percent,” he said. “That’s what frustrates me.”
None of the other supervisors spoke about the use of the bond during the meeting. In interviews last week, however, most of them said they think the county has properly used the funds.
Gary Skinner was the lone supervisor who agreed with Yakabouski’s take that more of the bond money should be used to improve transportation in the county.
“I don’t think we’ve utilized it as well as we should,” he said of the bond.
Skinner acknowledged that such bonds come with a cost, since they are in essence a loan and added that, “Historically the county hasn’t raised tax rates” to pay for them.
He said he believes the county has to address its road situation because “the state is not helping us.” Skinner criticized the state’s Smart Scale program, which scores and ranks projects for funding, saying he doesn’t think it will address the county’s transportation issues.
Supervisors David Ross and Tim McLaughlin, Greg Benton and Chairman Paul Trampe all approved of how the transportation bond has been utilized. Supervisor Kevin Marshall couldn’t be reached for comment.
Trampe said he trusts county staff and its use of the bond. He also noted that the transportation fund’s status and how using more bond money would negatively impact it.
Ross doesn’t think the county should use the remaining bond funds. He believes the state should be responsible for “state-maintained roads.”
He also doubts the bond funds would help the county get big projects done because of the high cost for transportation work. He said he believes the bond money spent so far has been for good projects.
“I do think we have used the funds efficiently as possible,” he said.
McLaughlin also doubts the bond money would help the county with major work. He is not a fan of borrowing money to pay for projects, adding that he thinks the region has done well through the Smart Scale program.
“If we can fix our roads without borrowing money, that’s good for the community,” he said.
Benton echoed the belief that the funds wouldn’t help much with big, costly projects. But he differs from Trampe, Ross and McLaughlin on Yakabouski’s suggestion of increasing the tax rate to help pay for transportation needs.
“This county runs pretty lean,” he said, pointing out that Spotsylvania’s real estate tax rate of 84.74 cents per $100 assessed value is lower than Stafford County ($1.01) and Fredericksburg (85 cents), which makes it more difficult to pay for such things as transportation, schools and public safety.
“I think it’s coming to a point where the county will have to increase the rate,” he said.