The Virginia Department of Transportation would gain extensive powers over local transportation planning under a bill awaiting the governor’s signature. That makes local governments and citizen groups very nervous.
by James A. Bacon
Gov. Bob McDonnell’s omnibus transportation bill is less far-reaching than when first submitted to the General Assembly in January, but important elements have survived the legislative meat grinder. Among its many provisions, the bill would dramatically increase the state’s control over local transportation planning and, by extension, land use planning.
Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton describes the bill as an effort to address the fiscally ruinous practice of county boards making land use decisions and expecting the state to build the roads needed to serve the resulting growth. Counties and their sometime-allies in the Smart Growth movement view the bill as an momentous transfer of power over transportation and land use into the hands of an unresponsive Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) bureaucracy.
In a deal hashed on the last day of the General Assembly session, Republican lawmakers stripped out many parts of the bill that the McDonnell administration had pushed for, most notably two controversial provisions for siphoning revenue from the General Fund to the Transportation Trust Fund. (The bill still provides for the transfer of a portion of General Fund surpluses to the transportation fund.) But they stuck with measures that (1) would require local transportation improvement plans to be consistent with the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s State Transportation Plan and Six Year Improvement Program and (2) require counties to pay back any state and federal funds spent on canceled projects at the counties’ request.
Under the bill, local governments would have to submit their transportation plans to VDOT for review and comment. If VDOT determined that a plan was not consistent with the state plans, it would refer to plan to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which approves all state-funded transportation projects, for appropriate action.
“This basically gives the state veto power over transportation improvements in a locality,” says Ted McCormack, director of government affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties. “We’re working on a plan of response. We’re very concerned about these land use provisions in the bill and would like to see some changes.”
The bill goes “completely against community vision,” says Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “The new law will make it impossible to deny projects put into place by VDOT.”
The aim of the bill is to bring transportation and land use planning into closer alignment, an abstract goal that all parties agree is desirable. One way to accomplish that goal would be “devolution” — shifting responsibility for building and maintaining secondary roads from VDOT to the counties. (Cities already have that responsibility.) But local governments reject that option on the grounds that the state would saddle them with major obligations without sufficient means to pay for them.
The counties may not like devolution but the status quo is unacceptable, says Connaughton. Counties are making land use decisions and transportation plans that impact state finances. While proffers from developers might cover some of the cost of making road improvements, counties sometimes assume that the state will take up the slack. The state incurs additional, ongoing expense for maintaining the roads. Read more.