After a sometimes heated debate, the Prince William Board of Supervisors approved a pared-down bond referendum package Tuesday that will ask voters to approve $396 million in new borrowing for five transportation projects and five parks projects without making any commitment for extra funding to address the county’s more than 200 portable classroom trailers.
During a sparsely attended three-hour meeting, the supervisors exchanged sharp words and struggled to find common ground on some of the projects as well as on the overall issue of whether the bond package is ready for prime time.
The board split the referendum issue into three votes – only two of which were successful.
Supervisors Frank Principi, D-Woodbridge, and Pete Candland, R-Gainesville, voted against all three.
Principi said he could not agree with any package that did not include a pledge to fund the borrowing needed to build the two extra elementary schools and middle school additions that school division planners say are needed to eliminate the need for more than 200 classroom trailers, which is estimated to cost about $174 million.
Candland decried Board Chairman Corey Stewart’s tactics to reach a consensus on the bond vote, saying it was overly political and not focused on the county’s needs.
Missing from the supervisors’ final list of projects proposed for bond funding were several that drew the most attention from area residents, including an $84 million indoor track and field facility for the Occoquan District; a $42 million aquatic and fitness center for the Woodbridge area; an indoor field house and domed turf field for western Prince William; and a pledge of $5 million to expand the crew boat house at Lake Ridge Marina.
Some of those projects, however, are not necessarily doomed.
Stewart removed both the western indoor field house, estimated to cost $17.6 million, and the indoor track and field facility, which is planned to feature a hydraulic running track, after hearing the county is already in talks with private companies that have expressed an interest in either building or operating such facilities with the help of an undetermined amount of county funding.
Seth Hendler-Voss, the county’s director of parks, recreation and tourism, said the county has already had preliminary talks with a few interested parties. But he declined to offer details of possible arrangements because county staff are still negotiating the specifics.
There was no similar plan B, however, for the indoor aquatics and fitness center planned for Woodbridge or for the boat house expansion, which members of both high school and adult crew teams told the supervisors is badly needed.
Both those projects were killed in a 3-to-5 vote, with Stewart voting in favor of the projects along with Supervisors Victor Angry, D-Neabsco, and Ruth Anderson, R-Occoquan.
Joining Principi and Candland in voting against the Woodbridge aquatics and fitness center and $5 million in funding for the crew boat house were Supervisors Maureen Caddigan, R-Potomac; Jeanine Lawson, R-Brentsville; and Marty Nohe, R-Coles.
In earlier votes, supervisors approved a list of five transportation projects – pared down from the original 11 – that are estimated to require $355 million worth of borrowing.
The board also approved five outdoor parks projects totaling $41 million. But both votes also split the board 5 to 3.
On the referendum question addressing the outdoor parks projects, Lawson, Principi and Candland cast opposing votes.
On the referendum question addressing the five transportation projects, Caddigan, Candland and Principi cast opposing votes.
What made the cut:
$355 million in roads projects: Va. 28 was the clear winner of the night, as supervisors upped their borrowing commitment from $100 million to $200 million for a fix for the traffic-clogged roadway.
Transportation planners have identified three possible fixes for the stretch of Va. 28 that runs through Prince William County, Manassas and Manassas Park and have homed in on a $300 bypass that would extend Godwin Drive through undeveloped land behind several subdivisions to divert traffic from the busiest stretch of Va. 28.
That project is still undergoing a federal environmental evaluation. But if it gets a green light, the $200 in bonds should allow the county to move forward on the road if voters approve the transportation bond referendum Nov. 5. The county has already been pledged $100 million in regional transportation funds for the project.
Other transportation projects that made the cut include:
- Devlin Road widening: A $50 million project to widen Devlin Road to four lanes from Linton Hall Road to Wellington Road, a total of 1.8 miles. The project would take four to six years to complete.
- Intersection upgrade at Prince William Parkway and Minnieville Road: A $70 million "SPUI," or single-point urban interchange, for the busy intersection at Minnieville Road and Prince William Parkway. Engineers have proposed that Prince William Parkway would be taken underground, while Minnieville Road would travel atop the intersection. The project would take four to six years to complete.
- Intersection upgrade at Old Bridge Road and Gordon Boulevard: A $15 million "flyover" ramp from Va. 123 and Interstate 95 to Old Bridge Road. The project would take three to five years to complete.
- Summit School Road extension: A four-lane extension of Summit Road would connect it to Caton Hill Road, providing better access to the Horner Road commuter lot. The project would cost $20 million and take three to four years to complete.
The six transportation projects that did not make the cut include: A $30 million extension of University Boulevard; the $40 million widening of Va. 55 between Gillis Way and Catharpin Road; $12.5 million for new roundabout intersections at Sudley and Catharpin roads and at Pageland Road and Sanders Lane; $15 million to straighten the intersection at Old Bridge Road and Prince William Parkway; a controversial $70 million extension of Van Buren Road from Cardinal Drive to U.S. 1; and $35 million for bicycle and pedestrian improvements.
The supervisors culled the list from 11 projects to five and shaved $45 million from the original proposed borrowing of $400 million.
The changes came after Nohe, who has served as chairman of the regional Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, advised against raising unrealistic expectations about the road projects.
Nohe noted that the original list of projects would actually cost about $600 million – requiring the board to find an additional $200 million in funding to complete them.
The supervisors agreed Va. 28 should be a focus of the borrowing since it’s been a priority of both residents and the board for years.
We “can’t let the 28 project wait 10 years,” Nohe said. Without a faster fix “it gets beyond a nightmare,” he added. “I don’t even know what you’d call it.”
$41 million in outdoor park improvements: The board decided during its June 18 meeting to separate the parks projects into two questions: one addressing indoor projects and one addressing outdoor improvements.
The list of five outdoor park improvements that won the supervisors’ support include:
- Howison Park improvements: $6 million for trails, spectator seating, fitness equipment, a comfort station, additional parking and better access for people with disabilities at Howison Park, located near Spriggs and Minnieville roads. The park is the home base for the Prince William Soccer Incorporated, one of the largest private youth soccer leagues in the county.
- New Neabsco park: A new "amenity-rich," $6 million park is being proposed for the Neabsco District. The park could include a "dynamic playground," a climbing wall, hill slides, a "skating ribbon," a "pedal-powered monorail" and an amphitheater. It would take three years to complete.
- Fuller Heights expansion: Two additional fields and extra parking are among the improvements proposed in a $6 million expansion of Fuller Heights Park near Triangle. The project would take three years to complete.
- Hellwig Park: $3 million for new athletic turf fields at this Independent Hill area park.
- Trails and open space: $20 million in borrowing would be pegged to improve the county’s trail network with a focus on four specific projects: the Broad Run trail, the Neabsco Greenway, the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail and the Occoquan Greenway.
In an interview after the vote, Nohe said he supported the outdoor sports projects because they address immediate needs on which the new board can move most quickly if voters approve the bond referendum this fall.
“I like all the indoor projects. They’re great projects. It’s just too much do all at once,” Nohe said.
Nohe further said he believed the original $200 million price tag for the parks bonds was too high and therefore jeopardized voters’ overall approval.
Also, once the board removed the larger projects to explore public-private partnerships, which Nohe called “the right thing to do,” the resulting list of indoor projects was “too watered down,” he said.
Nohe said he’d like the board to find another way to fund the crew boat house and added that he believes the indoor hydraulic track facility will get built more quickly through a public-private partnership than through bond funding.
School funding pledge falls apart
During the board’s June 18 meeting, four supervisors pledged to support the bond projects only if the vote could be tied to some kind of promise about extra school funding.
But that idea fell apart quickly Tuesday after Anderson, Candland, Lawson and Principi made it clear they would not approve a school funding resolution attached the bond vote.
The resolution did little more than promise the status quo: that supervisors would reaffirm their commitment to the “revenue-sharing agreement” the county board has long had with the school division.
The agreement stipulates that 57.23 percent of general fund revenue is directed to the school division every year.
Stewart argued that the resolution was sufficient given that the school division would receive more money if the county boosts its spending to finance the bonds.
But Principi argued it would not provide a big enough revenue boost to allow the school division to move forward quickly with the $174 million initiative to eliminate its long reliance on classroom trailers, which Principi argued are inherently unsafe.
Candland and Anderson argued against the resolution for a different reason. Both said they are not in favor of continuing the revenue-sharing agreement.
Lawson, meanwhile, said it is disingenuous to promise to rid the school division of classroom trailers at a time when continued growth will likely require the use of trailers to some extent.
Finally, there was confusion about whether the supervisors could back bond funding for the $174 million trailer plan.
County Finance Director Michelle Attreed explained that the county and school division can pursue Virginia Public School Authority bonds twice a year, but Lawson insisted that such a move would have had to come earlier in the year, perhaps during budget season.
It’s not clear whether Lawson’s assertions are correct.
The school funding resolution fell apart amid the bickering. Principi proceeded to cast three votes against the bond referendum, insisting each time that a pledge for more school funding is the top priority of his constituents.
Principi, Candland bash political maneuvering
In an interview after the meeting, Principi criticized the process Stewart took to round up the votes, calling it “raw political ambition… to leave a legacy” while continuing to underfund the school division.
“Tonight, because the chairman wants to leave a legacy, he’s encumbering future boards with $400 million in debt and ignoring any investment in our schools. We’ve been talking about the needs of our schools for years and these bond projects for a couple of months,” Principi said. “And he clearly thinks that roads and parks are more important than our schoolchildren.”
Principi further called the bond project list: “half-baked, not well-thought-through and extremely expensive.”
“And it binds the board to increase taxes or cut services,” Principi added. “That’s not a great legacy for this board. It’s just frustrating.”
Candland jabbed Stewart with sharp remarks throughout the night, at one point telling Stewart he threw “the needs of the county ... out the window.”
Candland also accused Stewart of “trying to buy votes” to get the bond referendum passed.
“Thanks a lot,” Stewart coyly replied to that remark. “I appreciate the compliment.”
During the course of the night all major projects in Candland’s Gainesville District were stripped from the bond referendum list, including $10.8 million in planned improvements for Long Park.
For his part, Stewart continued to insist that the board was not binding the hands of the incoming board, of which he will not be a part. Stewart announced in January he would not seek re-election.
The new board, he insisted, can decide whether or not to finance the bond projects, and at what pace, if the referendum questions pass.
The decision makers, he said, are Prince William County voters.
In an interview after the meeting, Stewart said he is not disappointed with the outcome because the bond referendum includes what he called “the most critical park projects and road projects.”
“Now it’s up to the voters to decide,” he said.
Stewart also insisted he does not see the bond referendum as part of his “legacy,” as he once suggested it was.
“Look, my legacy is already set. I’ve done a lot of stuff in this county. People like it or they don’t, that’s fine,” he said.
“This bond referendum is really critical to continue to expand our road network and our parks facilities for our growing population.”
Reach Jill Palermo at email@example.com