Now that Virginia has about $800 million-per-year more to spend on transportation construction projects, what’s next on Virginia’s transportation agenda? We’ll have more money to spend, but how will we spend it?
House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, has some heretical notions. While praising the bipartisan achievement in 2103 of increasing transportation tax revenues, he concedes that the legislation does not change the need to “find new solutions to complex problems.”
“The old adage remains true: If you build it, they will come. There will always be more road projects than there is money. Government will always find a way to spend whatever money it can get its hands on,” said Howell in a speech to the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce yesterday.
“Money alone cannot solve the problem. Pouring more and more concrete, adding more and more capacity and building more and more mass transit is the 20th century solution. … We cannot continue to think that adding one more lane, or building one more bypass will magically cure our transportation woes.”
Calling for a “new way” of thinking about transportation, Howell said Virginia must do three things:
First, we must harness technology, innovation and new ideas. Our world is changing and evolving. Technology allows us to make smarter decisions faster, invest responsibly and measure our results. We must apply the innovative technological solutions of the private sector to our transportation system.
Second, we must create a consumer-based model that focuses on congestion relief, safety and economic development. Transportation should no longer be about how much asphalt we pour or how much money we spend, but instead how much time we can save commuters, how many accidents we can prevent and how many jobs we can create.
Third, we must ensure that every step we take is measured by its return on investment. Resources are too scarce and taxpayer dollars too precious to be thrown away on poorly planned transportation projects. Projects should have clearly defined goals and metrics that can be measured in an objective fashion. A “good idea” is not good enough anymore.
Technology, Howell contended, often offers more bang for the buck than conventional construction. “A study by the Information Technology & Innovation Fund,” he said, “estimates the benefit-cost ratio of intelligent transportation systems at 9 to 1, compared to 2.5 to 1 for conventional highway capacity.” Optimizing traffic signals at intersections can reduce stops by as much as 40%, cut gas consumption by 10%, cut emissions by 22% and reduce travel time by 25%.
Use of technology also makes transportation systems more adaptive. Building systems that capture real-time data allows analysis of changing traffic patterns and how to respond to them. “We know today that traffic patterns are far different than they were 30 years ago. It would be foolish to think that in 30 years they will be what they are today.”
Howell said he will propose three technology-related proposals in the next General Assembly session, including the idea of creating an “Innovation and Technology Fund” to fund the application of new technologies to transportation.
Virginia should explore further use of variable-price tolls, like those in the Interstate 495 HOT lanes, to manage congestion, he said. The state also should upgrade its traffic operations management system, using technology and data to monitor and manage congestion, and it should create accident-clear SWAT teams to clear up accidents before they cause large-scale disruptions.
The Speaker called for creating a “Transportation Solutions Working Group” within the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to brainstorm innovative ideas to address congestion relief, and for the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to create pilot “congestion-relief” zones to develop, test and refine solutions.
While technology is a great tool, Howell said, “it is not the strategy or the battle plan.” What Virginia needs, he said, is to “build a consumer-based transportation model in which project-funding decisions are based on three specific criteria: congestion relief, safety and economic development.
Transportation investment, he said, must be made based upon “specific, quantifiable and measurable metrics.”
With every mile of pavement, every new concrete pillar and every new traffic light, we have to ask not only ‘what does this cost’ but also ‘what does it deliver?’ And that question must be answered in a way that guarantees Virginia taxpayers receive a return on their investment.
If a new project doesn’t reduce congestion, make Virginia roads safer or provide a tangible economic benefit, why should Virginia taxpayers spend the money? And if those metrics cannot be produced in a statistical and mathematical way, then we cannot realistically ask taxpayers to pay for it.
Howell proposes the following:
- The CTB should develop a comprehensive statistical model, a Statewide Transportation Priority Standard, by which it can measure transportation-related projects.
- VDOT should grade and prioritize projects based upon that standard.
- The CTB should include measurable, quantifiable goals in all of its long-term strategic planning documents.
“These are important accountability pieces to ensure Virginia gets the highest return possible on its investment,” Howell said. By requiring specific measures of return, we will protect our investment and ensure that taxpayers dollars are spent wisely and responsibly.”
Bacon’s bottom line: This may be the most important speech about transportation given by a high-ranking Virginia political leader in the past 25 years. Howell has re-framed the debate from how much money we spend to what we spend it on. That’s a game-changer.