I had lunch the other day with Nick Donohue, Virginia’s deputy secretary of transportation, and he brought me up to speed on developments in state transportation policy that have occurred since the good ol’ days when I covered Commonwealth Transportation Board meetings. It was just a casual chat, and I wasn’t taking notes, but a couple of points stood out.
First big test for new-and-improved P3 law. Last month the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) issued its final Request for Proposal to design and build an estimated $2.1 billion in improvements to Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway. The McAuliffe administration is not ideologically committed to privatizing the project. Rather, it has a clear idea of how much it will cost VDOT to do the job. If a private consortium can meet the project specifications at lower cost, VDOT will go the public-private partnership (P3) route. If not, VDOT will handle it.
Weeding out worthless projects. The new system for scoring transportation projects according to six sets of metrics such as congestion mitigation, safety, environmental impact and economic development, has already proven its value. Numerous projects in the Six Year Improvement Plan, with total costs running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, were demonstrated to be of marginal value. They’d been moving slowly through the bureaucratic pipeline, and it wasn’t anybody’s job to question or re-evaluate them. But the new scoring system, which ranks hundreds of proposed projects on the “bang for the buck” they deliver, laid bare the flimsy justification for the projects. More worthy projects have been elevated in their place.
Defense of express lanes. It is getting increasingly expensive to expand the capacity of Interstates and other transportation arteries by widening them. In urbanized areas, the highways are getting hemmed in with expensive commercial property. The cost of purchasing Right of Way and running the regulatory gamut is getting prohibitive. How, then, do we increase the capacity of these vital transportation corridors? By using more express lanes. Express lanes do three useful things: (1) they provide a congestion-bypassing option that didn’t exist before; (2) they raise money to continue making improvements to the corridor, and (3) they double as HOV lanes that give preferential access to buses, vans and carpools. As a practical matter, the most cost-effective way to increase capacity of many highways is to encourage more shared ridership.
Bacon’s bottom line: The system for raising transportation revenues is still a mish-mash that decouples a driver’s use of public roads from the payment for those roads. Riddled with subsidies and cross-subsidies, the arrangement encourages excess driving. The McAuliffe administration has not seen fit to grapple with this legacy of the McDonnell administration, but it has made great strides at least to see that the funds raised from this dysfunctional revenue-raising system are at least spent more carefully.
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