Virginia’s Behind-the-Scenes Transportation Planning Revolution


Nick Donohue

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.”

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23 responses to “Virginia’s Behind-the-Scenes Transportation Planning Revolution

  1. geeze – this is quite shocking…. someone actually wants to:

    “What did we say before, and did it happen?”

    but add to this – “what did we build.. and did it perform as projected”?

    and I hope.. at some point:

    ” If we build this thing to relive congestion – does it really do that or does it just move it to the next bottleneck”?

    we’ve got in the urban areas – not just congestion at rush hour – we have network-wide congestion at rush hour.

    building piecemeal at isolated locations to relieve network-wide congestion is often an exercise in futility.

    some transportation engineers actually believe that one of the purposes of traffic signals at rush hour is …to meter traffic – to give the traffic downstream of the signal – time to clear – instead of gridlock.

    better to have discrete wait times at each traffic signal that everything converge on one hot spot where gridlock ensues.

    The people who look into this at VDOT are not your fathers transportation engineers who have been thoroughly dipped in the VAT that building roads i how you fix congestion.

    You won’t have a long-time transportation engineer involved in the job of chain synchronizing a series of traffic signals (so that they all turn green together ..they all let side traffic enter – together, etc).

    nope.. these folks who do this work of mathematicians and computer guys – not folks who know what depth of road bed you need or the best kind of asphalt to use.

    VDOT is changing… and there are actually competing views of how transportation should function.

    I’m still a skeptic of Smart Growth but I wholeheartedly believe that localities should be responsible for access roads to properties and that the state level DOT should be in charge of arterials and connectors and that they should be ruthless in implementing access management to preserve the integrity of the interstates and the major US signed arterials – like US1, US 3, US 17, and US 29 (and others).

    people forget the “why” behind US signed roads; they were the original initial efforts at “interstate” type roads that allowed goods & services to become regional, even national markets.

    Your local SUBWAY sub store – as well as your Wendy’s, WalMart, Home Depot, etc… are the direct result of a nation-wide road system that allows major distribution centers to re-supply these stores within hours of their need for replacement inventory.

    Some of us still want to live in a “local” world – or think they do but most folks do expect to walk into any grocery that is open and buy milk whose age is measured in hours, days at most.

    when we order from Amazon – we expect it within a week or even days.

    when we buy something as mundane as a car battery – we expect it to be one or two months old from the factory.. not a year or two old.

    all of this comes from our state and national road system.

    “congestion” is what happens when everyone wants to go to work or come home at the same time… there is no “congestion” at 2am on most roads.. and trucking companies are well aware of that.

    Of all the reporting that goes on in Virginia about transportation, Jim Bacon is among the very few that know and understand and report the issue.

    we are very fortunate to have him dedicated as much as he is to the excellent job he doe do (remember that Jim, the next time we disagree on politics!)


    • “we expect it within a week or even days.
      when we buy something as mundane as a car battery – we expect it to be one or two months old from the factory.. not a year or two old.

      all of this comes from our state and national road system.”

      (as a side note..)
      and from available, affordable energy. try trucking fresh vegetables from California’s Imperial Valley to Boston in 72 hours via electric truck. the just-in-time concept fails miserably without energy.

      • I think the point is that our national road system is, in fact, commerce infrastructure.

        we do have trains and other forms of transport but trucks go where train’s don’t and one of the biggest differences between first world countries and 3rd world countries is the presence of lack of – a national road system that supports the size and speed of 18-wheelers.

        the other thing that folks forget – is that roads provide right-of-way for other things like electricity, water, sewer, gas, cable, telephone, etc.

        how would such a network of utilities work – in a private sector world?

        if you lived where there were hundreds of property owners between you and the electricity – how would you get it in a private sector world where each owner would have to grant approval to cross their property?

        • Truly. I’ve lived 11 years overseas and traveled in 34 countries, the road and the rest of the transportation system is critical to the economy, people’s health and their standard of living.

          • I think the linkage between VMT and the economy has probably changed.

            the ability to have in-vehicle communications has changed the game.

            repair trucks are no longer “radio-dispatched”.. because it’s no longer a unique advantage of the companies who could pay for it… now.. every repairman, every delivery-man, every real-estate agent… uses the phone and in doing so – saves miles formerly driven.

            the economy has changed also – and it’s not directly due to the mega-recession nor the policies of any POTUS – it’s changed because companies no longer need people if a machine can replace them and machines do not need office space or benefits – and it’s not just business. Drones are going to revolutionize the military. Instead of billion dollar planes and pilots, we’re going to have a plethora of cheap planes, boats, and submarines that can pretty much replace much of what formerly required a highly trained person to do …

            the economy is not coming to “come back” in the sense of what it used to be. It has evolved..transformed.. and people without 21st century skill sets are going to be doing lower paid service jobs…

            Now if you have the smarts and education to design, build and operate drones and other remote sensors and autonomous vehicles.. you’ll do well but if you have a crappy education – even a straight A crappy education – you’re in for a rough ride.. and it’s not going to be Obama’s fault.

      • “the just-in-time concept fails miserably without energy.”
        … the right and most applicable form of energy for the situation.

        and I say that as someone who drives a full battery electric vehicle (BEV) ~50 miles every day.

  2. This looks, at first blush, as work worth doing. I worry about the inclusion of economic development as a factor, unless the economic development pays the same percentage of the costs of the project as economic development was weighted in the funding decision. For example, if a road widening project is approved with 20% of the approval weight being economic development, then the new construction should pay 20% of the costs through a variety of financing mechanisms – proffers, tax district taxes, service district taxes, etc. The more important economic development is as a decisional factor, the more those getting added density must pay.

    • Thats quite the little subsidy you just provided to home builders. Why in your mind is it only tall things that create traffic when it is absolutely clear to me (an actual engineer who has worked with traffic modelling) that 1 person living 15 miles away in a house is far more destructive than 1 person living 2 miles away with alternative transportation options.

      Tax ALL projects the same, don’t just subsidize more suburban sprawl.

      A certain tax rate x VMT to the nearest commercial business center of x amount.

      Then again, you clearly have your biases so I assume you wont support that.

      • for people who have lived in NoVa for a while and have their home there – their perspective is different.

        they believe that people driving to Tysons from the exurbs has less impact than more people living closer in …. something I’m not quite understanding either.. but it’s real… there are a bunch of folks who think that way.

      • Run for office, TE. Campaign on bringing more people to Fairfax County.

        • Sorry I have an actual job, I’d rather not be a crony politician nor would I want to be head of an overpowered HOA on steroids. I also am well aware that if I were to run on my platform, most people would shout be down because like you they think more lanes is always better, big buildings steal money somehow, and that somehow they are on the losing end of the tax stick.

          Unless you are a 12-story high rise office building owner, or someone who legitimately earns over $5 million per year, then no you are wrong, you are actually using more of the funds than you return.

          When people like you expound to be experts on things without looking at the science and math behind this stuff it is infuriating, because it takes me oh so much more trouble to correct the false reality you spew to others who will just go ahead and accept it as the truth.

          You don’t want people living in Fairfax (for whatever reason, I think I know why but whatever), so instead what happens? They live in Prince William and Loudoun.

          Oh great, they are gone now right?

          Except now they line up on the border of Fairfax, drive into the county (because theres no other way for most of them to get here), all the while using up all of our infrastructure while not paying towards it.

          Its a double whammy.

          You can’t live in a vacuum, and it aint the offices that creates traffic, people create traffic in cars from THEIR HOUSES.

          • When people don’t live in Fairfax County their kids go to school elsewhere. That means Fairfax County taxpayers don’t have to pay the $13 K plus to educate them. That, of course, assumes we have classrooms for them. How many residences pay $13K in real estate taxes. When people don’t live in Fairfax County, they aren’t in our parks on weekends or libraries, etc. More people whether they live in a SFH or a high rise put more demand on county resources. People living outside Fairfax County put less of a demand on the things county residents pay local taxes for.
            Neither of us have to pay for Larry’s neighbors’ kids education. But if they move to Fairfax County, our taxes go up.

          • interesting conversation – keep it clean! (note to self, follow own advice also when speaking of health care).

            Larry’s neighbors do not want to live in a Tysons townhouse or condo.

            they want to live in a house like TMT does but they cannot afford it.

            they know that Fairfax Schools are world class but they’ll settle for less in the burbs if they can afford a standard subdivision SFD home with a yard for their kids and dogs.

            However, they WILL crap up the roads that TMT and other NoVa use.

            They hate the commute and they’re going ape-crap over the idea of I-95 getting tolled.. and over and over among the loudest complainers – they say that METRO should be extended to Fredericksburg!


          • Tysons Engineer

            Yes, now explain to me why you are against the following

            1) office buildings, which your organization continues to fight against being arranged as dense as possible next to metro. No children come out of that

            2) Apartments and condos, which have shown to be FAR less populated by school aged children. My building has 700 residents, of which approximately 30 are school aged. My building is assessed at 216 million dollars. Do the math yourself, luckily you went to Fairfax schools like I did so you are able to.

            You can’t look at life in such direct terms, it is not so simple. There is more than one way to reduce the price on townhomes (for instance) than just building townhomes.

            You have to accept that there are many people who choose to live in a townhome with 3 roommates, because they can’t live in a 1br by themselves due to cost.

            You have to accept there are people who live in SFH in Loudoun because they can’t afford to live in townhomes (but would) in Fairfax.

            If you can start addressing those issues, you can cut down the sprawl growth by massive amounts.

            Never, go back and read anything I have ever written, have I ever said people MUST live in condos and high rises. No smart growther (atleast not ones who are actually educated and not just blathering) has ever said that. It is about pressure relief on future development patterns (hence why its called smart GROWTH) not smart RELOCATION.

            You find the cheap under used commercial strips, aged offices, and you develop that land to maximize what can come out of it. And what comes out of it, if it is apartments, or offices, or mixed use retail has been proven to provide MORE to tax revenue than it strips.



          • Tysons Engineer

            and you don’t have to pay 13k TMT, you just have to average out the number of years you actually have a kid in school vs the amount you actually pay.

            For instance, I pay 6k per year in real estate taxes, and I have no children (just like 90% of people in my building).

            So you are welcome, for your beautiful McLean High School and Langley because the funds for it come from people like me, not people like you.

            Considering I have been paying those real estate taxes for 4 years now (24k) and have no children on the way for another 3 years (18k) and even then won’t be using public school for another 5 years (30k).

            Thats a 72k reserve that you the people get to enjoy from my pocket before I start using the service. That in of itself would get me 5.5 years of school teaching, but then again I would still be paying taxes, likely higher than that by that point as I will likely move to a slightly larger space, so lets say 9k in taxes (about what my projected budget says I could do in 8 years). Now its just a 4k deficit. Which means I can get a child all the way through the school system with out requiring any money from you.

            BUT THATS NOT ALL

            I then go on after that to continue to pay taxes, for 20 or so years.

            So tell me, how come you forget to include all of those very obvious factors? Why not blame single family houses for the school budget crisis, after all there is a direct correlation between dwelling size and number of children.

            Your rational, and your argument literally are at odds with each other. You want more taxes available for schools? Then you SHOULD be supporting more apartment and condominium units because those who live in those units have far less children, are far younger, and DO NOT use the school system as much as those who live in Townhomes, and then those who live in Single Family Homes.

            End Story


  3. “What did we say before, and did it happen?”

    Golly, that little black line flattened out around 2005. I wonder why that happened?

    Take the politics out of highway funding? Who do you think you are fooling Mac.

    • roads will always be political – agree but ANY projection…

      the calculations used in a projection…

      could be used if you go back in time and use them to see if they did correctly predict the future.

      it’s not necessarily very easy because you cannot hold everything else constant while you test out the one thing that changed…

      that’s the same old problem with folks talking about supply and demand.

      they argue that it’s a simple relationship – when one side goes up or down then the other side changes in relation to it.

      that’s fine if the “supply” is only one commodity with no variants – it’s only the same exact size kumquats that vary in supply that then cause demand to rise or fall.

      but when you add in variations and then bananas verses kumquats things don’t stay simple.

      roads are the same way. they are part of a network … a dynamic network – that has multiple changes going on – continuously.

      The census folks and Weldon Cooper will “project” jobs and population growth because – that’s what they do… but their primary methodology is base future projections on past performance… as if we have a closed system that just continue to grow like it used to… It’s even worse worse the economy an jobs .. especially in a world where the internet of things is gobbling up jobs as fast as it can and the remaining jobs are not only fewer but required far different skills – and if people don’t have those skills – they’re either unemployed or working at low-skilled service sector jobs.

      If you want a small view into how this has affected things – the next time you have a delivery to your house or a repair person… or basically anyone
      who comes to your house to do something for you – check to see if they have a cell phone… almost all of them now have it and use it continuously to get dispatched from one place to another, plus they’ll either have a dash GPS or use their phone for directions.

      the cell phone has and is dramatically changing the world of work as much as the internet and automation has.

      how anyone who is in the business of “projecting” demand on the roads can factor these things in – is a huge conundrum when their current methodology in use typically is to project forward what past performance was.

      not just roads – settlement patterns also .. distance education, etc.

  4. Figures lie and liars figure. Another way to interpret that chart, quite probably the correct way, is that miles flatlined beginning in 2008 with the economic contraction, including Mr. Obama’s 2009 “summer of recovery” when the unemployment rate rose from 7.5 to 10.5 %, and continues through today with 95,000,000 Americans out of work. If you actually still count the people who are still out there and still unemployed instead of eliminating them from the unemployment equation like the government does to falsely paint a rosier employment picture, the number is staggering.

    what is to say that will not begin a marked upward trendline again if the shackles are ever taken off the economy (insert your favorite shackle here)?

    • The critical flaw in your rationale is that any meaningful removal of the “shackles on the economy” will invariably increase oil prices, which in turn will increase gas prices and further curtail VMT. I’d expect the ongoing flatlining of VMT to continue….at most you might see a very small increase but not even close to the levels seen in the 1990s and early 2000s.

      It should also be noted that some states (including those with robust economies) hit their own peak VMT well before the 2008 economic collapse. Minnesota, for example, peaked in 2004.

  5. Thanks so much for this coverage. The analysis for the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s project selection does not seem to be moving toward such a performance-based approach. It’s heavily weighted toward adding road capacity. The analysis will not catch the value of sidewalks, bike lanes and other infrastructure in making walking and bicycling easier for 1-5 mile trips, which comprise a large portion of trips. It is great that the Secretary and Deputy Secretary are moving VDOT toward a performance-based approach, but we need the analysis for NVTA to reflect this now — or else NVTA’s 2015 plan will perpetuate the same narrow-minded approach.

    • the road prioritization scheme .. is a scheme …

      it will become a hundred different ways to look at the same thing.. but interpret it differently.

      I’m not saying it’s impossible to do – but if we’re expecting the folks who build roads for a living to come up a a objective approach – we’re dreaming.

      it’s a fools errand for the gullible.

      roads are not and have never been “generic” roads.

      roads have fundamentally different functions and they are classified as such – arterials, connectors and local access.

      the do different things..

      congestion and travel-time index are treated as sound-bite concepts.

      congestion and travel time index are not one number for a given road all day long.

      the road operates 24/7 and the congestion and travel time vary by the minute and hour… how do we current represent that?

      answer – we don’t represent it that way right now.

      we talk in terms of LOS levels and V/C rations – again – like they are one static number for a road rather than a 24/7 variable.

      the people in the transportation field know this. The average person does not.

      Mark my words.. the schemes we will see will be especially made – for the public’s limited understanding of these less than simplistic issues.

  6. errata – v/c RATIOS (not rations).

    a V/C ratio is Volume over Capacity. Capacity if the theoretically maximum volume a road can carry.

    A V/C of one indicates the road is maxed but ratios higher than one – are possible.

    more important – a road does not have ONE V/C ratio. that ratio varies by the minute.. hour.. according to how many cars are on that road at a given time.

    the number used – like LOS is often the max value for the day .. but even then two roads that are said to be “maxed” can be different because one road could be maxed for one hour a day and another 6 hours a day.

    how do you crank the above into a prioritization scheme?

    you can pretty much bet that if the public wants a simple story – that, that’s what the transportation engineers will provide.

    if you have dollars to fix one road and two of them are LOS F – what kind of prioritization scheme do you use – that provides enough info so you know that the two roads are different in significant ways?

    this is way, way more complex than he average guy is going to enjoy.

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