On Nov. 5, Prince William voters will be asked to consider two bond referendums that would allow the county to borrow up to $396 million to improve roads and parks. But the four candidates vying for the county’s top elected post disagree on whether voters should approve them.
Democratic candidate Ann Wheeler said she supports both the transportation and parks projects included in the referendum. Diverting traffic from Va. 28 – a priority of the $355 million road bond referendum – is a must for the county, she said.
“It’s up to the voters to pass the bond referendum, and I’d like to fix Route 28,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler added that fixing roads isn’t supposed to be the county’s responsibility, and that federal and state dollars could also be used to pay for projects.
“I don’t want to spend massive amounts of local dollars on a state responsibility,” Wheeler said.
Republican candidate John Gray, meanwhile, said he is firmly against both the parks and road bond referendums because the supervisors approved them without much discussion about how the county will pay back the principal and interest and didn’t take into account the county’s future growth.
Gray said the county shouldn’t allocate money to fix local roads until the impacts of new developments have been finalized. Specifically, Gray cited the Kline development, which is slated to bring 310 homes and commercial space along Prince William Parkway near Liberia Avenue. The development is expected to add 9,000 vehicle trips a day to area roads, including Va. 28.
The bond referendum earmarks $200 million to help pay for either a bypass for Va. 28 or to widen the road through Manassas and Manassas Park.
“Taxpayers are being asked to blindly throw $355 million at an ill-conceived and poorly designed road bond proposal,” Gray said about the transportation projects. “That $200 million that’s allocated of the $300 million for Route 28 may not be enough, especially if we put Kline in.”
Independent candidates Muneer Baig and Donald Scoggins were also split on the bond referendum.
Baig, a cybersecurity specialist who has been affiliated with both the Republican and Democratic parties, said he is in favor of the proposed referendums but is skeptical about the county’s ability to fully fund them.
Baig said the board hasn’t specified how they would pay for the proposed projects and will likely pass that responsibility onto board members who take office in 2020.
“It’s like buying a home with somebody else’s credit. They passed the bond referendum without any knowledge of how they’re going to pay for it,” Baig said. “Once the citizens approve something, they expect the board to deliver, that's an automatic expectation, but something has to go up somewhere to pay for it.”
Scoggins, a former Republican who severed ties with the local GOP in 2018, said some of the projects are necessary to improve the county’s congested roads but others needed further study and consideration.
“The referendum should provide the proposed projects with funding provided that it’s managed in a cost-efficient manner and its debt service payments aren't burdensome to property taxpayers," Scoggins said.
“The expansion of the parkway and Minnieville Road and should not be included at this time on the referendum,” he added.
The Prince William Board of Supervisors approved the bond referendum in June after a contentious debate in which a several proposed projects were cut from the package, including money to address overcrowding in Prince William County schools.
The bulk of the money in the bond referendum -- $355 million -- would go toward road projects, with $200 million reserved for reducing and diverting traffic on Va. 28 in the areas of Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park. That could be used to help pay for a $300 million bypass that would extend Godwin Drive through undeveloped land behind several subdivisions in the Manassas area of Prince William County.
The rest of the money is earmarked for lane extensions, intersection improvements and widening projects on four other county roads.
The bond referendum also includes $41 million in outdoor park improvements.
Missing from the bond referendum is money to address the county’s schools, which used more than 200 portable classroom trailers last year to accommodate overcrowding.
Concerns about school funding
The referendum left out funding for two elementary schools and middle school additions that school division planners say are needed to eliminate the need for classroom trailers, which are estimated to cost about $174 million.
All the candidates running for chairman have made education a top priority of their campaigns, and several said classroom trailers are a critical safety issue for county schools.
“Trailers aren’t the worst thing in the world, but when there are elementary school kids running back and forth to go to the bathroom, it's not very safe,” Wheeler said. “It’s also about school safety and what happens during a lockdown drill to the kids in trailers.”
Considering the recent uptick in school shootings over last few years, Gray said classroom trailers are a security threat if an active shooter were to come onto school property. The Republican candidate wants to increase safety at county schools by stationing school resource officers at all 98 county schools.
The county currently has sworn police officers at all 12 high schools and all 16 middle schools. An additional five school resource officers are scattered among more than 60 elementary schools.
Baig, who has six children who are educated in both public and private schools, said making smart development choices could help alleviate some of the pressure on county schools and eliminate the need for portable trailers.
“Everything has to be planned in a way so we know, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, what their needs are going to be,” Baig said. “We’re going to continue to grow and we need to plan for it.”
Scoggins also said smart growth and infrastructure planning is necessary to address overcrowding in county schools. If elected, Scoggins said he would advocate for funding to bring a “top-notch” trade school to the county.
“During the planning process for new schools, Prince William public schools must better estimate or project space needs for students. In several current or past instances, new schools are overcapacity even before initial occupancy,” Scoggins said.
“Unconventional solutions may need to be considered in addressing capacity issue; underutilized commercial space in the county could be zoned for some secondary education programs.”
Voters will decide the fate of the bond referendums as well as the county’s next board chairman on Nov. 5.
More than 30 local and state elected posts will be on the ballot including all eight seats on both the board of supervisors and school board.
Reach Daniel Berti at email@example.com