by James A. Bacon
The McAuliffe administration is generating big headlines by re-thinking mega-projects like the Charlottesville Bypass and the U.S. 460 Connector favored by the previous administration. Those projects came to the fore because federal regulatory authorities made it clear they had major problems with them, leaving Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne scrambling to keep ahead of the situation. But if you want clues to what long-term transportation strategy will look like under Governor Terry McAuliffe, the man to watch yesterday was Nicholas Donohue, the deputy secretary of transportation.
Donohue briefed the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) about VTrans, Virginia’s long-term transportation planning process, explaining how the McAuliffe team would take a different approach to forecasting travel demand and how the process for allocating road dollars would be subjected to a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis.
Layne underlined the importance of Donohue’s academic-sounding digressions into the flaws of the “Travel Time Index” and the impact of mass transit on property values. “How we look at projects and analyze them will change substantially,” he said. “The intent is to make decisions less political. … This is the beginning of a really significant change in how we allocate monies in the commonwealth.”
Donohue is the policy wonk who exercises influence behind the scenes. A Virginia Commonwealth University graduate in urban studies, he served as assistant secretary of transportation under Governor Tim Kaine. During the Republican interregnum, he joined Transportation for America in Washington, D.C., an advocacy organization closely affiliated with Smart Growth America. In 2011, he co-wrote an op-ed piece published by the Reason Foundation advocating tolled HOT lanes, Bus Rapid Transit, smart transportation systems, private inter-city bus service and improved connectivity for secondary roads.
Yesterday, Donohue calmly dismantled core assumptions that have long underpinned transportation planning in Virginia. Under the aegis of VTrans, previous governors have forecast long-term travel demand and estimated the transportation funding needs based on that forecast. Traditionally, the VTrans product has emphasized vast funding shortfalls, in the tens of billions of dollars, over the following 20 years. One thing the McAuliffe administration wants to do, said Donohue, is to ask, “What did we say before, and did it happen?”
As it turns out, federal forecasts were pretty bad, he said, showing the following chart showing how they consistently overshot the mark:
Virginia’s forecasts suffered from similar biases in the past, he said. Now VTrans will begin considering non-traditional indicators of travel demand. For example, Donohue said, the number of 20- to 34-year-olds not getting their licenses has edged up from about 10% in 2000 to 15% today. A National Association of Realtors (NAR) survey found that a majority of respondents indicated a preference to live in walkable communities with mixed-use development. More families are moving into multifamily housing. And a NAR analysis found that the sales prices of houses located near transit out-performed other housing by 41% over the last five years.
Once the state has a more realistic view of transportation demand, the next step is identifying the most cost-effective projects. Federal law requires states to adopt performance-based planning. “Under performance-based programming,” he explained, “you have to say what you think is going to happen, and then you compare back, so you can see if you get the results you thought you were going to get.”
“The [performance] measures we pick are really, really important,” he said. “Sometimes, measures we thought got to the issue may not fully capture it.”
Donohue took exception to the “Travel Time Index” metric, devised by the Texas Transportation Institute, commonly used in transportation analysis. That metric measures how long it takes, on average, for someone to drive to work during peak congestion compared to how long it takes during normal hours. Thus, in Chicago, if it takes 35.6 minutes to get to work during rush hour compared to 24.9 minutes to take the same trip in off hours, the trip takes 43% longer, giving Chicago a Travel Time Index of 1.43. By that measure, he explained, Chicago has worse congestion than Atlanta with a Travel Time Index of 1.35.
That metric has its uses but it can also be deceptive, Donohue argued. Atlantans may experience less rush-hour delay but they tend to live so far from their workplaces that they still spend more time commuting than their counterparts in Chicago: 57.4 minutes compared to 35.6 minutes. Congestion may be worse in Chicago but the commute is 20 minutes shorter. Who is better off?
The federal requirement dovetails with state-level initiatives. The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority has begun developing its own performance metrics, and HB2, which seems likely to pass this year, will require VDOT to rate many (not all) of its projects, according to congestion, safety, economic development and other criteria. Projects must demonstrate that they meet a need identified in a Corridor of Statewide Significance, regional networks or local Urban Development Areas.
The new methodology will impact projects already in the Six-Year Improvement Plan, the funding pipeline for all VDOT projects, said Layne. “My guess is some projects will do very well, some won’t. … I’m sure there’s going to be people screaming.”