The Commonwealth Transportation Board seems adrift, unsure how to cope with shrinking resources. Here’s a place to start: Fund projects that provide the greatest Return on Investment and focus on the nexus between transportation and land use.
Last week Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton held a strategic planning session with the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the state entity that sets policy and funding priorities for Virginia’s transportation system. The dilemma: Given the relentless erosion of the motor fuels tax that leaves Virginia fewer and fewer resources to meet its transportation needs, what can the commonwealth do differently to run the system more efficiently and equitably?
In a series of presentations, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) staff described McDonnell administration initiatives such as the creation of a state infrastructure bank, new cash-management policies and a shift to design-build contracts. Exploring big-picture ideas, the board heard from Jonathan L. Gifford, a George Mason University professor who laid out options for devolving responsibility for secondary roads to the counties and from a subcommittee that had looked into ways of making the maintenance system work better.
The two-day retreat in Portsmouth covered a lot of ground and provided a lot of valuable data, but it didn’t elicit much in the way of guidance from the board. From my perspective as an observer on the sidelines, frankly, it seemed as if board members were overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge. While several board members expressed the opinion that the transportation system needs more money, no one saw fit to propose a resolution urging the General Assembly to raise taxes or fees. The session ended abruptly and inconclusively with no decisions made or votes cast.
One possible reason for the irresolution is that the two most vital topics affecting transportation in Virginia were not on the agenda. There was no thought given to the idea of rationalizing the system for allocating scarce resources according to Return on Investment criteria, as any multibillion-dollar corporation might do. And there was exceedingly little thought given to the nexus between transportation and land use.
While Virginia transportation departments may conduct project-ROI analysis on an episodic basis, several flaws in the CTB’s decision-making process seem evident. First, ROI analysis, even when performed, is not presented in a way that helps the board compare the merits of one project versus another. Second, no agreed-upon methodology exists for conducting an ROI analysis that is valid for roads, rail, transit, ports and airports. Thirdly, no unified database of all projects approved or under consideration exists so that ROI can be ranked across transportation mode. And fourthly, there is no process for re-prioritizing projects based upon new economic realities; once projects enter VDOT’s Six-Year Improvement Plan, they are extremely difficult to dislodge.
If I had served on the CTB, I would have urged Secretary Connaughton to convene a working group comprised of stakeholders from all transportation modes and supplemented by paid academic experts from, say, the Texas Transportation Institute and the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute. The goal would be to develop a methodology for calculating Return on Investment on transportation projects of all types. Such a methodology would include placing an economic value upon traffic congestion mitigated, safety enhanced, economic development and environmental impact.
Congestion mitigation would take into account the number of hours of travel time saved and the value of that time for motorists and freight. Safety would encompass the value of reduced traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities. Economic development would incorporate gains in the number of jobs, personal income and tax revenues while distinguishing between primary job creators such as manufacturing or professional services, which bring income into a region, and secondary job creators, such as housing and retail, which largely track population and income growth. Finally, the methodology would take into consideration the effect of increased or reduced emissions from fossil fuel consumption, storm water runoff and air quality upon the environment and public health.
Until CTB board members are given such information, they are fumbling in the dark. With no ROI analysis to draw upon, they base decisions largely upon preconceived ideas, politics and what they are spoon fed by administrators. As a result, the allocation of resources is sub-optimal.
The other elephant in the room is the transportation-land use nexus. The McDonnell administration currently views that policy pachyderm through the prism of “corridors of statewide significance,” in which local governments make land use decisions that effectively treat state highways as main streets. VDOT is moving slowly but surely toward a policy of more aggressive enforcement of “access management,” which rationalizes local traffic access to state highways. At the same time, the commonwealth is back-pedaling on the questions of subdivision connectivity and VDOT traffic-impact analysis for major development proposals. Read more.