James A. Bacon
Del. Thomas Rust, R-Fairfax, has introduced a bill, HB 2409, that would expand the representation of urban areas in the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the board charged with setting transportation policy and allocating transportation revenues. The Richmond, Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia transportation districts each would expand the number of seats from one each to two, increasing the total board to 20 seats. According to the Times-Dispatch, the change was suggested by Governor Bob McDonnell.
No question, the composition of the CTB is outdated, with members representing Virginia Department of Transportation construction districts set up before World War II, supplemented by three urban at-large and two rural at-large members. The current apportionment gives rural areas disproportionate representation, and Rust’s proposal has already won endorsement of the Richmond Regional Planning District Commission, which has chafed at Richmond’s long-term under-representation on the board. (Two of the urban at-large members hail from Hampton Roads, one from Northern Virginia, none from Richmond.)
While the measure may have merit in the abstract, it will not change how the CTB operates. Although rural representatives may predominate on the board, rural members have not sought to exercise that power to their advantage. There are major criticisms that can be leveled at the CTB — as I will illuminate in a forthcoming article — but a rural-urban split is not one of them. Whatever else might be said about CTB members, they do seek the good of the commonwealth and they espouse the goal of building a comprehensive, statewide transportation system.
Having covered the CTB for 18 months, I been highly attuned to signs of a urban-rural split. But I have not found one. The atmosphere of the board is very collegial, with urban members professing sensitivity to the needs of rural members, and vice versa. More to the point, rural representatives have gone along with Governor Bob McDonnell’s mega-project spending priorities, which have been heavily skewed towards Hampton Roads. While the administration did allocate $244 million for the Charlottesville Bypass outside the urban crescent as well as a much smaller sum to advance the Coalfields Expressway, the big bucks have gone to fund the $2 billion Midtown Tunnel-Downtown Tunnel project in Norfolk and the $1.4 billion U.S. 460 Connector providing an interstate-quality alternative to Interstate 64 for Hampton Roads. The administration also steered $150 million to Phase 2 of the Rail-to-Dulles project and has advanced the study of a north-south corridor in Northern Virginia..
With the exception of the Charlottesville Bypass — in which, ironically enough, the local representative voted against the project — all votes on substantive issues have been unanimous. There has been no rural-urban split. The under- or over-representation of different regions has had zero impact on the conduct of the board.
Listen to Mark Peake, the Lynchburg district representative, whose transportation district has received only 2% of construction funding in recent years — about half that of the second lowest district, Richmond. Here’s what he told me:
As a Lynchburg district representative, I have an obligation to put [the region's] needs before the board. But in general the board has an obligation to oversee the entire transportation plan for the commonwealth. We understand people lobbying for their various areas. But we have to watch the balkanization of transportation, where we divide up into areas and fight each other.
Another factor moderating the parochial instincts of board members: Representatives see themselves as appointees of the governor and they are respectful of his agenda.
“There are going to be priorities that we as a board understand are priorities of the administration. I was put here by the governor to take a big picture and not be parochial,” says Gary Garczinksi, the Northern Virginia district representative.
Governor McDonnell has made the case that the two economic engines of the commonwealth are the port and Dulles airport. … I see the necessity and advantages of getting freight from the port to 95 with 460, and hope that when the time comes, if the north-south corridor is to be recommended, that my fellow board members would see the same thing for Dulles [airport] and the need to further its capacity. … You have to be patient.
Bottom line: CTB representation does need to evolve as Virginia urbanizes. That’s just sound governance. Just don’t delude yourself that the new balance of urban-rural power will bring about any meaningful alteration in how transportation dollars are allocated. The governor is in charge and the board will follow his priorities. End of story.