Yes, Virginia, the Old Dominion has a transportation funding crisis. The problem has been highlighted for the upteenth time in a letter from government leaders from urban crescent encompassing Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. (See previous post.)
Everybody knows there isn’t enough money to support, much less modernize, Virginia’s transportation system. But that’s where the agreement ends and conceptual clarity breaks down. How much more money do we need? Who should pay? If we had more money, where should we spend it? Finally, how do we ensure that we’re meeting the transportation needs of the future, not throwing money at projects premised upon obsolete assumptions of where future growth and development will occur?
As long as we have no answers to those questions, we can be assured that a Business-as-Usual mindset will perpetuate a broken system. Without a fundamental re-boot to the system, no amount of money can solve the problem. Some key problems:
How much money do we need? Nobody knows. Every few years the state goes through the exercise of updating its VTrans plan that projects long-term needs and guesstimates how much money the improvements will cost to build. Trouble is, projections are based upon past history — the 1950-2010 era in which the “suburban sprawl” pattern of scattered, low-density, disconnected development dominated growth and development. There is ample reason to believe, based upon demographics, changing lifestyles and the demise of easy money, that we have entered a post-sprawl era and that the growth in Vehicle Miles Traveled will slow considerably.
Who should pay? The current funding paradigm is to scrounge money from any source, even when there is no nexus between who pays and who uses/benefits from the transportation improvement. That approach subsidizes heavy users of the system, thus stimulating over use and congestion. A user-pays system would rely upon the motor fuels tax to pay for maintenance and upon tolls and various forms of “value capture” (tapping the increase in real estate values that occurs when public improvements are made), such as proffers and special tax districts to pay for new facilities. Unless people pay their full costs, they will always want more transportation capacity than the state can afford.
Setting priorities. Governors are biased toward building big, highly visible transportation projects that garner big headlines and generate attaboys from voters. But smaller projects may offer a bigger bang for the buck — they can reduce more congestion, or do more to improve safety per dollar spent than, say, a project of marginal economic utility such as the Charlottesville Bypass. Alas, there is no formal methodology for ranking and prioritizing projects that do the most good for the money spent. Construction dollars are allocated on the basis of politics, perception and ideology.
Transportation and land use. The demand for transportation improvements originates in land-use decisions made by local governments. Local boards and councils make key planning and zoning decisions without considering the implications for transportation, a responsibility of the state. More efficient human settlement patterns can significantly reduce the demand for automobile travel.
Free shared-ridership services! Shared ridership in Virginia is built around government-owned monopolies whose basic business models originated in the 1940s, or earlier, hardly a recipe for efficiency and innovation. Rather than pumping more money into money-losing transit enterprises, we should be deregulating transportation services, riding the technology wave and encouraging innovation.
Yes, we need more money to fix transportation in Virginia. But we need to fix a whole lot else first.