‘Do you know how many lives I could save for that?’: Va. Sen. Roem chides moving transportation funds for arena

If the proposed arena for the Washington Wizards and Capitals is built in the Potomac Yard section of Alexandria, Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has promised the state would chip in up to $200 million upfront to improve transportation in the area.

State Sen. Danica Roem, of Prince William County, told WTOP on Monday that the administration’s plan to pay for the upfront spending by diverting existing transportation funds isn’t specific enough.

“What is being defunded? What is going to be put off? What is going to be delayed?” Roem asked. “Even right now, they haven’t told us where the transportation dollars are coming from, and who’s losing out on this — that is a huge problem.”

Youngkin, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, and supporters of the project have said under the proposed structure, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, which owns the franchises, would make an annual rent payment, and the remainder would be paid for using tax revenues generated by the project itself. Those include dining taxes at the arena and the performing arts center, sales taxes and admissions taxes paid on events.

Roem is in her first term as a state senator — during her terms as a state delegate, Roem campaigned successfully on promises to address congestion on Route 28. She championed plans to build a rare-to-this-area type of intersection that aims to keep traffic flowing, while reducing the number of “conflict points,” where serious crashes can occur.

When she first heard of plans to divert $150-200 million of transportation funding to the arena project, Roem called Monica Backmon, CEO of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority — a regional organization that develops the long-range transportation plan for Northern Virginia — to get her opinion.

“She said, ‘Well, this is the first time I’m hearing of it,'” Roem recalled of her conversation with Backmon.

“If the administration never contacted someone from the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority about this project, that tells me this is not ready for prime time, by any metric of imagination,” she said.

Roem said solving the region’s transportation woes requires careful coordination over years.

“It’s very hard to justify how this project came to be, when one of the key stakeholders in Potomac Yard — Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, which has already invested in Potomac Yard — was not at the table from the inception of this idea,” Roem said. “Good governance is supposed to be consistent across all administrations.”

If the entertainment district envisioned by Ted Leonsis, the majority partner of Monumental, Youngkin and Wilson were to be built, it would require major transportation improvements in the area.

“Obviously the Potomac Yard Metro would need significant upgrades,” Roem said. “We know that Route 1 is going to be an issue. You can even argue George Washington Parkway, and all the roads around it. But here’s the thing — is that $150 million coming from Smart Scale? From NVTA? Is it coming from some other funding source? It could have statewide or regionwide implications.”

Would the arena delay transportation, safety projects?

Roem questions the wisdom — or fairness — of diverting money from other transportation projects to front the Potomac Yard improvements.

“What does this mean for my constituents in Haymarket who have been waiting years to get a flyover of Route 15 over the railroad tracks so we can prevent crashes like we’ve had there? Now, they’re going to be told, ‘oh, we can put $150 million to $200 million up front for an arena deal, but we can’t prioritize your safety, as we watch the costs escalate year after year, for a project that has remained unfunded,'” Roem said.

Roem said she has secured money for phase one of her Route 28 project: “We need money for phases two and three. Wouldn’t this money be better spent for road safety on Route 28?”

Traffic and safety projects are expensive — but should be a priority, she said.

“There’s a lot we can do with $150 to $200 million,” Roem said. “I can get 11 modern roundabout for $50 million — do you know how many lives I could save for that?”

While Roem said she has “so many problems” with the current funding plans, “part of being a legislator is you’ve got to see what the full package is going to be, before you make a decision on how to vote, one way or the other.”

Roem said the administration and proponents will need to provide specifics: “They’ve got to go back to the drawing board and figure something out, because the package they have rolled out right now, as it is today, I absolutely cannot support.”

“Vague platitudes about tax is not policy — you have to show people where the dollars and cents are coming from,” Roem said. “You can’t claim you’re going to redirect transportation money from something to something else, and then not say what it is that you’re moving.”

On Tuesday, Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez repeated the governor’s assertion that the sports and entertainment district would generate $12 billion of economic impact and create 30,000 jobs.

“Virginia has incredible competitive advantages, among them is our transportation system which remains the beating heart of growth and opportunity for so many Virginians,” said Martinez. “Members of the administration and the local community continue having productive educational briefings with all legislators in the General Assembly, Republican and Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate, and will continue to thoughtfully engage on this important priority throughout the process.”

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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