July 1, the City of Suffolk took over from the
Virginia Department of Transportation the job of
maintaining more than 1,490 lane-miles of roadway
and 50 traffic signals. With VDOT reimbursing about
$16 million per year, Suffolk now is filling the
potholes, repaving the roads, plowing the snow,
maintaining the drainage ditches and making sure the
grass gets cut. Only the Interstate highways remain
under VDOT control.
Virginia, cities normally handle their own street
maintenance but Suffolk was an unusual case. In the
early 1970s, the city had merged with the
surrounding county of Nansemond and kept the city
form of government. But the combined jurisdiction
was largely rural and lacked the capacity to take
over the roads, so VDOT continued maintaining them.
the years, commercial and residential development
spilled into Suffolk, and residents began agitating
for better services. After months of
negotiations, VDOT handed the roads – and funds to
take care of them – over to Suffolk. When citizens
have complaints, says Eric Neilsen, director of
public works, “We don’t have
VDOT to blame anymore. It used to be, we’d say,
‘It’s VDOT’s fault, what can you do?’ …
Now the buck stops here.”
The transfer of road
operations from VDOT to City Hall is part of a
broader trend: Fast-growth localities are assuming
greater responsibility for building and maintaining their own roads.
County, for instance, is in the midst of a $1.5 billion, 15-year
road-building plan, while the voters of Spotsylvania
County have approved a $144 million expansion of its
secondary road network. Counties like Loudoun and
Chesterfield are financing upgrades to their roads
through proffers and impact fees.
the September special session on transportation, the
House Republican leadership made secondary roads a
focus of its transportation reform package.
Virginia’s system for building and maintaining
roads has changed little since 1932, argued House
Republicans, and road-maintenance expenses have
spiraled out of control. The answer, they said, is
to accelerate the shift in responsibility back to
crisis, contends Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, is
largely a maintenance crisis. “The real
problem,” he says, “is the growth of the
maintenance budget,” which is consuming dollars
that otherwise would be spent on new construction.
By 2018, according to projections in the VTrans2025
study published two years ago, there will be no
state money left for construction – all of it will
be consumed by maintenance.
Out-of-control maintenance costs are due to two main
things, Athey contends: the ill-considered addition
of subdivision roads to the state road system and the
inefficiencies inherent in a centralized bureaucracy
based in Richmond making decisions that should be
Despite his conflict with the
House over the taxes-for-transportation issue, Gov.
Timothy M. Kaine also has fixed on secondary roads
as a culprit in escalating maintenance costs. New
subdivision streets increase the state’s ongoing
obligations by roughly $1.5 million per year.
go into the outer years, costs grow with
inflation," says Secretary of Transportation
Pierce Homer. "There is a compounding effect. I think of highway
maintenance as a little like a pension fund. …
We’re accruing liabilities every year. Resources
are falling short over the long term. From an
actuarial perspective, we cannot keep on this
Secondary roads and maintenance
funding would appear to be an area where the
Governor and House Republicans can find common
ground in the transportation debate. Both sides agree that the incentives in the
current system are all wrong. Local governments can
approve new subdivisions served by miles
of new roads knowing that the state will get stuck
with the cost of maintaining them. Likewise, local
officials blithely approve subdivision streets that
contribute nothing to an interconnected road
network. If cul de sacs funnel traffic into
already-congested collector roads, that’s the
state’s problem. Bottom line, says Athey:
“We’ve built in no incentives to plan
obvious solution is to make local governments
responsible for both approving new roads and
maintaining them. But there is one practical
problem, and it's a big one: Local governments don’t want the streets
without the money to take care of them. And
without support from the powerful local-government
lobby, no legislation is likely to pass.
Planning land use and
transportation at the same level of government
“would be a more sensible system,” observes Jim
Regimbal, a government-finance consultant who has
studied local road-funding issues. “The sticky
wicket" is persuading local governments that
it's in their financial interest to do so.
As I outlined in Part I of this series,
“Seventy-five Years,” Virginia’s system for
building and maintaining roads has changed little
since 1932, when the Byrd organization orchestrated
a takeover of county roads in the midst of the Great
Depression. Cities continued to run their own
operations, as did Arlington and Henrico Counties.
Otherwise, VDOT took over the entire road system –
not just primary roads (and, later, Interstates) but
secondary roads as well.
worked reasonably well for a few decades but began
breaking down in the 1970s when cities lost the
right to annex developed areas in neighboring
counties, and counties became magnets for
development. Scattered, low-density growth
leapfrogged into the countryside, and VDOT played
perennial catch-up, upgrading country roads to
accommodate transportation-inefficient development
beyond its power to control.
mismatch between Virginia's governance structure and
its land use patterns went largely unaddressed at
the state level until Gov. Timothy M. Kaine
campaigned on the issue last year. This spring,
lawmakers passed a number of modest measures
addressing the problem, most notably a provision
that requires rezoning requests in fast-growth
counties to undergo VDOT traffic-impact analysis.
However, a companion measure, which would have let
counties reject rezoning requests where
infrastructure was inadequate, went nowhere.
the special transportation session last month, the House
Republican Caucus broadened the argument. Speaker William J. Howell,
R-Stafford, argued that the system was hopelessly
antiquated and in desperate need of reform. In place
of higher taxes, he offered multi-hundred million dollar
injections from the General Fund. But more money was
only part of the answer. The state, he argued, needed to
prioritize its road improvements and set performance
standards for transportation projects. VDOT also
needed to pursue privatization, outsourcing and
public-private partnerships more aggressively, and
it needed to put secondary roads back in the hands
of local governments whose zoning decisions were
creating so many traffic problems to begin with.
Among the slew of bills the
House Republicans introduced during the special
session, several would have affected the way
Virginia builds and maintains its secondary roads.
taking secondary roads into the state system.
According to VDOT, 3,200 lane-miles of
subdivision streets have been added to the state
system since 1997. That compares to roughly
60,000 center lane-miles in the total system.
Under this bill, if county governments approved
subdivisions, they would have to maintain the
roads themselves or require homeowners
associations to do so. In either case, the cost
would no longer be passed onto the state.
state roads. VDOT's road classification
which dates back to the 1930s, often does not
reflect contemporary traffic patterns.
Clarifying the differences between
"primary" and "secondary"
roads is a prerequisite for devolving secondary
roads to local governments.
Urban Transportation Service Districts.
Urbanizing counties would be allowed to create
special districts where they take over
responsibility for maintaining secondary roads.
VDOT would pay them an amount equal to VDOT's
urban allocation formula for cities and towns --
significantly more than VDOT normally spends on
county roads. If counties can save money on
maintenance, they can spend it on new
construction. Further, as an incentive to
keep growth within the districts, counties would
be empowered to levy impact fees on development
outside the districts.
None of these
bills were passed into law during the short, tempestuous special
session, but House Republicans vow to resurrect
sees the service-district idea applying to a dozen
or so of Virginia's high-growth counties -- Fairfax,
Prince William, Chesterfield and the like -- where development is
becoming increasingly dense and urban. Instead of forcing
these counties to take over the roads, however, his bill
creates incentives to make it worth their while.
"We've got to give them a carrot," he
says. "We're saying, if you can maintain the
roads cheaper, you get to keep every penny."
Given the difficulties associated with a transfer
of control, Athey doesn't expect a wave of
applications. He'd be happy if one county were gutsy
enough to set up an Urban Transportation Service
District and see how much it could save. "If
it works," he says hopefully, "other counties would try it."
enough inefficiency in the system, Athey argues,
that devolution can become a fiscal win-win for the
state and localities. VDOT, he says, is "vastly
inefficient." Local governments keep their
overhead down: In a city like Richmond, "there
is one guy who is the head of the public works
department, a couple of supervisors and a bunch of
employees". In his VDOT district, by
contrast, there's a local maintenance staff, an
administrative layer in Luray, another layer in
Staunton and one more in Richmond. "You have a
system maintained by the old, top-down method."
Athey believes, can do the job cheaper and
everyone shares Athey's faith in a win-win outcome.
Complicating issues include:
of scale. VDOT enjoys economies of scale, observes Anthony Clatterbuck,
president of Graystone Homes in Culpeper and the
current president of the Virginia Home Builders
Association. He sees fragmenting responsibility for
road maintenance as a move in the wrong direction.
"If you realign
responsibility, you will set up a lot of small
entities to do in redundant fashion what VDOT has
done on a large scale. ... There won't be any
consistency at county/city boundaries. It'll break
into a piecemeal approach. I'm afraid that will cost
more in the long run."
counter argument is that the counties likely
to set up Urban Transportation Service Districts are
large enough that they'd enjoy most of the economies
of scale that VDOT does. Additionally, they would
have the flexibility to solicit competitive bids
and outsource maintenance work to private
costs. Nearly everyone agrees that the
transition from a VDOT administration to local
administration of roads will be difficult. Counties
will have to expand their public works departments
dramatically, in some cases creating them from
scratch. That means hiring employees, making large
investments in equipment and organizing the
maintenance program. Acknowledging the concern,
Athey includes provisions in his bill that would
allow for the distribution of VDOT equipment and the
paying of signing bonuses to VDOT employees who make
course, those measures would prove disruptive to
VDOT, which still would be responsible for non-urban
roads outside the special districts. Further, the up-front
expenses associated with the equipment and sign-up
have to come from somewhere -- if not from the
affected locality, then from VDOT
standards. Michael Edwards, deputy director for
legislative affairs for the Virginia Association of
Counties, worries that counties would wind up
spending more than VDOT because they'd set higher
standards. Many cities already spend more money per
lane-mile than VDOT compensates them for, he notes.
Just as cities raise their maintenance standards, so
Is that a valid comparison?
Is that a valid comparison? It’s not clear whether
counties, even urbanizing ones, would confront the
same challenges as older cities.
challenge of urban roads is more complicated"
than rural roads, says Diane Linderman, a consultant with Vanasse
Hangen Brustlin, Inc., and former public works
director for the City of Richmond. City roads are
more likely to have curbs, gutters and underground
storm-sewer systems, not to mention fiber-optic
cable, traffic signals, signs and other assets. "It's going to cost more to maintain
that kind of system than a ditch-lined, two-lane
assumptions. Jim Regimbal, with Fiscal
Analytics, worked with Virginia cities several years
ago to update the Maintenance Cost Index that VDOT
uses to calculate what it pays cities to maintain
their streets. VDOT adjusted its payments every
year, adjusting the index for its costs of labor,
materials and equipment. But but it
didn't take into account critical factors such as
the age of the streets, traffic volumes or weather.
The General Assembly agreed that cities were getting
short-changed and made a significant adjustment to
state payments. But Regimbal contends that the index
is still flawed.
idea of aligning transportation and land use
decisions is a good one, Regimbal says. Also, he
adds, elected local officials will be more responsive to citizens than unelected VDOT
administrators. But the fiscal issues need to be solved
for local governments to buy in to program.
fact is, no one knows what the House devolution plan
would cost -- either up front, or over the long term
-- or even whether local governments would find the
option attractive. "We're trying to chase the numbers
down," says House Speaker Howell. "Are we
comparing apples to apples? It surely wouldn't
surprise [if we weren't]."
also concedes that there's a trust issue to
surmount: "[Localities] don't trust the state,
and I can't blame them. When times get tough, the
state cuts back. I'm sure that's what the counties are
afraid of. We have to make a commitment that we
emphasizes that he's willing to discuss the
He's open to other points of view, and he'd like to
see more "dialogue" with local governments
and other parties in the growth debate.
Governor's Office won't comment on the details of
the House legislation. "We haven't gotten into
the weeds on the specific issues," says
spokesman Kevin Hall. But, he adds, "We welcome
way the House could improve upon its secondary-roads
package is to address the issue of subdivision
connectivity. "Secondary roads built by
developers should be interconnected," says
Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the
Coalition for Smarter Growth. "What VDOT is
doing is maintaining private cul de sacs."
of supervisors like cul-de-sac subdivisions because
homeowners like them, preferring them to through
streets where cars often drive at high rates of
speed. If the dead-end subdivisions dump traffic
onto overloaded collector roads rather than provide alternate routes, that's someone else's
problem: VDOT is responsible for fixing the
Kaine administration would like to see counties make
greater efforts to create networks of interconnected
roads. "We have guidelines for connectivity.
Creating alternatives is one of the things you can
do to maintain traffic flow," says Homer, the
transportation secretary. "There is a thing
called an inter-parcel connector. There are numerous
instances where those interconnectors have not
occurred, and aren't even planned for."
my conversations with sundry legislators, lobbyists,
consultants and experts, I found a pervasive sentiment that devolution of secondary roads to
local governments does make sense. Boards of
supervisors would be more reluctant to approve
sprawling, low-density subdivisions served by miles
of roadway if they, not VDOT, were accountable for
money spent on maintenance. Supervisors might be
more willing to insist upon subdivision connectivity
if they, not VDOT, were accountable for the
resulting congestion on collector roads.
transportation and land use at the same level of
government is only one piece of the House's proposed
transportation reform package. And the House's
legislative package is only part of what ultimately
needs to be done. But Virginia needs to start
somewhere. Given the general agreement that
devolution is a good idea in theory, even if the
particulars need to be worked out, it seems like a
good place to start.
October 23, 2006