Veto Power for VDOT

VDOT would gain extensive powers over local transportation planning under a bill awaiting the governor’s signature. That makes local governments and citizen groups very nervous.

By James A. Bacon

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s omnibus transportation bill is less far-reaching than when first submitted to the General Assembly in January, but important elements have survived the legislative meat grinder. Among its many provisions, the bill would dramatically increase the state’s control over local transportation planning and, by extension, land use planning.

Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton describes the bill as an effort to address the fiscally ruinous practice of county boards making land use decisions and expecting the state to build the roads needed to serve the resulting growth. Counties and their sometime-allies in the Smart Growth movement view the bill as an momentous transfer of power over transportation and land use into the hands of an unresponsive Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) bureaucracy.

In a deal hashed on the last day of the General Assembly session, Republican lawmakers stripped out many parts of the bill that the McDonnell administration had pushed for, most notably two controversial provisions for siphoning revenue from the General Fund to the Transportation Trust Fund. (The bill still provides for the transfer of a portion of General Fund surpluses to the transportation fund.) But they stuck with measures that (1) would require local transportation improvement plans to be consistent with the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s State Transportation Plan and Six Year Improvement Program and (2) require counties to pay back any state and federal funds spent on canceled projects at the counties’ request.

Under the bill, local governments would have to submit their transportation plans to VDOT for review and comment. If VDOT determined that a plan was not consistent with the state plans, it would refer to plan to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which approves all state-funded transportation projects, for appropriate action.

“This basically gives the state veto power over transportation improvements in a locality,” says Ted McCormack, director of government affairs for the Virginia Association of Counties. "We’re working on a plan of response. We’re very concerned about these land use provisions in the bill and would like to see some changes."

The bill goes “completely against community vision,” says Dan Holmes, director of state policy for the Piedmont Environmental Council. “The new law will make it impossible to deny projects put into place by VDOT.”

The aim of the bill is to bring transportation and land use planning into closer alignment, an abstract goal that all parties agree is desirable. One way to accomplish that goal would be “devolution” — shifting responsibility for building and maintaining secondary roads from VDOT to the counties. (Cities already have that responsibility.) But local governments reject that option on the grounds that the state would saddle them with major obligations without sufficient means to pay for them.

The counties may not like devolution but the status quo is unacceptable, says Connaughton. Counties are making land use decisions and transportation plans that impact state finances. While proffers from developers might cover some of the cost of making road improvements, counties sometimes assume that the state will take up the slack. The state incurs additional, ongoing expense for maintaining the roads.

Another problem, says Connaughton, is that counties flip-flop on road decisions when new boards of supervisors get elected. One year they want a road, the next year they don’t. VDOT often incurs substantial staff time and engineering expenses only to to have a road yanked off the plan.

As a specific example, Connaughton cites Loudoun County, a fast-growth jurisdiction that should have built connector roads between its highly traveled Rt. 7 and Rt. 50 corridors. Past boards have nixed the connectors. Development occurred anyway and traffic is more congested than ever, especially on Rt. 7. Now the supervisors on a new board want $250 million for four grade-separations along Rt. 7 and for the state to pay for them.

Connaughton also cites cases in which subdivisions are approved with plans showing connections to neighboring subdivisions. But neighborhood residents don’t want the outside traffic so they object to the connections, and a sympathetic board removes them. More traffic winds up on existing arterials, which the county looks to VDOT to upgrade.

Holmes, with the PEC, acknowledges some of the problems Connaughton mentions. “I understand what he’s saying about local governments changing their minds. … I’m not suggesting that there aren’t bad apples who cost a lot of money on planning and design.” But the cure is worse than the disease, he insists.

Even now VDOT frequently puts projects into its long-term plans that local governments don’t want, Holmes says. As an example, he cites a proposal to four-lane Rt. 15 between Culpeper and Orange counties that VDOT slipped into the Virginia Surface Transportation Plan without the knowledge of the counties involved. “All the localities were in opposition to that. It takes a lot of work to get something like that removed.”

The bill would strengthen VDOT’s hand when dealing with local governments by requiring them to keep their plans consistent with state transportation plans. Trouble is, says Holmes, local governments usually update their comprehensive plans every five years while VDOT updates its transportation plans every year. VDOT would keep local governments hopping as they try to keep their comprehensive plans updated. “Every time a new project goes on the list, you have to put it in the comp plan, which means public hearings, extra meetings and public notice requirements.”

Giving VDOT the initiative for transportation improvements also would preclude examining less expensive or more effective alternatives, Holmes says. In his experience, when VDOT decides it wants a particular project, it doesn’t pause to explore the options.


This article was made possible by a sponsorship of the Piedmont Environmental Council.


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