by James A. Bacon
Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli has unveiled his long-awaited transportation plan. It’s a mixed bag — it has some good ideas and some not-so-good ideas. But at least he has a plan. As far as I can tell, his rival Terry McAuliffe has articulated no transportation-related ideas beyond, “Build, Baby, Build.” In other words, Cuccinelli would move the state in the direction of useful reform, however imperfectly, while McAuliffe would continue Business As Usual.
The Matrix Revolutions. The centerpiece of the Cuccinelli plan is establishment of a “Virginia congestion matrix database” to use in establishing project priorities based on traffic congestion and road capacity. The matrix would measure “a number of equally weighted variables, including population, volume of licensed drivers, volume of automobiles, volume of motor carriers, vehicle miles traveled, number of businesses, roadway incidents, response time and infrastructure age and condition.” Then, the state would rank the “top 100 most congested roadways” on VDOT’s public dashboard so that the public could begin planning future projects.
Assuming the wording in his plan is precise, Cuccinelli proposes to publicly rank roadways by congestion only. There’s nothing terribly wrong with ranking by congestion, but the focus pushes other considerations into the shadows. Traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities cost the economy three times as much as congestion. Why not focus on them? The ranking also overlooks the fact that road projects vary widely in the impact they have upon property values. Some projects create value, others actually destroy it. What we need is a measure that ranks transportation projects — roads, highways, bridges, mass transit, smart roads, whatever — by economic return on investment. The ROI measure should incorporate not only congestion metrics but safety metrics and, to the extent that they can be reduced to believable numbers, pollution and wealth-creation metrics as well.
Devolution revolution. Still, the broader idea of ranking road projects by objective criteria is a good one. And it would dovetail nicely with the second important piece of the Cuccinelli plan, decentralizing the transportation system.
“One of the fundamental reasons why our state has been plagued by transportation problems for decades is an undeniable lack of decision making and buy-in at the local level,” states the plan. A Cuccinelli administration would make it a priority to devolve decision-making for secondary roads to local governments, which, as he notes, are the entities that make land-use decisions. The plan would start by turning over secondary roads to four counties with populations of 250,000 or more — Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Chesterfield — which presumably have the administrative resources to take on the responsibility. In time, roads would devolve to counties with populations of 100,000 or more.
To pay for the new obligations, Cuccinelli envisions giving localities money in the form of block grants that VDOT spends now on secondary roads. Counties have resisted devolution for fear that the state would not provide them with enough resources to maintain their roads properly. Cuccinelli acknowledges the problem: “Some counties will be wary of taking over secondary roads that are deteriorated or have been behind schedule for maintenance.” The state might have to bring up the roads to standard before turning them over to localities. He also proposes allowing localities to lease large construction and snow-removal equipment from the state or to actually turn over the equipment “to cover initial capital costs,” and he says the state should no longer accept newly constructed subdivision roads for maintenance.
Will that induce counties to assume responsibility for their roads? I’m skeptical. Cuccinelli will have to sweeten the pot or face intense local-government resistance.
New funding formula. In another guaranteed source of controversy, Cuccinelli would revamp the formula for distributing construction and maintenance funds for secondary roads. The current formula distributes money to nine transportation districts on the basis of lane-miles for cities and towns and “need,” as determined by the condition of roads and bridges, for counties. Cucinelli says he would “replace the current city-county formula with a new formula based on the results of the matrix system identified above that would take into account road usage and economic development.”
A formula that incorporated road usage would radically skew the dollars to where the traffic is: Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. I’m not saying that’s a bad idea — but it is a controversial one. There would be major winners and losers. The Commonwealth Transportation Board broached the subject two years ago and, after extensive study, dropped it.
Bacon’s bottom line: Frankly, the plan shows signs of having been rushed out to make good on Cuccinelli’s promise that he would have a plan. It’s got some good ideas — at least it tries to address glaring flaws in the existing system — but it needs work. The ideal outcome for Virginians would be to combine the best devolution piece from Cuccinelli’s plan with the legislative package outlined by House Speaker William J. Howell a month ago. Then you’d see real reform.
Update: The Washington Times quotes Cuccinelli in a good wrap-summary of his philosophy: ““When we spend transportation dollars, I intend to move as far along the road of cost-benefit analysis — how much congestion relief do you get per dollar spent here versus your alternative here? Which one beats it? I’m perfectly comfortable spending on rails, roads, hot air balloons — whatever actually moves people most efficiently, cost effectively. Least money for the most transportation, whatever mode that is. But if localities take on what amount to those sorts of economic development programs, they need to take them on.”