there’s one number that stands out in Virginia’s
transportation debate, it’s this one: $108 billion.
how much money the VTrans2025 report, the keystone
transportation policy document of the Warner
administration, says Virginia needs to raise over the
next 20 years to meet the shortfall in funding for
roads, rail and aviation.
the past year, a parade of politicians and pundits has chanted the figure as they make their case that Virginia
needs to raise taxes in 2006. After months of
repetition, the number “$108 billion” has achieved
the status of holy writ. Not one person, to my
knowledge, has stepped forward publicly to question it.
Out of Virginia’s seven million citizens, not a single
one has thought to inquire, where did that number come
from? Who came up with it, and how?
about it. If we’re to take the VTrans2025 scenario
seriously, Virginia will need to raise taxes by $5 billion per year – that's over and above the current
budget of roughly $3 billion per year -- to keep traffic
congestion from slipping into a nightmare of
curb-to-curb gridlock. You’d think that someone would
give the $108-billion number a second look. You’d
think that someone, somewhere, would say "Holy cow, can
Virginia’s funding level, which to this
point has created an imperfect but functional
transportation system, be that far out of whack?"
think that, given the Warner administration’s track
record in projecting tax revenues two years ahead – oops, we were off by $2 billion a year, but trust
us, we really did need that tax increase back in 2004
– that someone, a journalist, perhaps, would evince a
tad of skepticism about a forecast that peers 20 years
into the future. But, no, this is Virginia, a state
where the Fourth Estate has abdicated its role of watch
dog over those in power and has assumed the role of
cheerleader for an ever-expanding state government.
again, it falls to Bacon’s Rebellion to ask the
questions that no one else thinks to ask.
I launch into a dissection of the $108 billion, however,
let me be clear about one thing: I’m not criticizing members of the Virginia Department of Transportation
staff who undertook a good-faith effort to develop the
best estimate they could of Virginia’s future funding
needs. The exercise of projecting long-term forecasts is
a necessary one. The state can’t fly blind. If there
is a risk of a long-term funding gap, lawmakers need to
know about it. Virginia needs to make long-range
forecasts, and VDOT staffers have used the best
analytical tools available to them.
reserve my ire for those who misuse the $108 billion
figure: charging ahead recklessly, formulating policy
unimpeded by the caveats, qualifications and limitations
that are inherent in any such forecast. My quarrel is
with the Political Establishment that would, upon the
basis of a fragile methodology, lead the
citizens of Virginia into the second major tax increase
in two years, imposing a huge and unnecessary tax burden
upon the citizens of the Old Dominion.
you want to know who came up with the $108 billion
figure for VTrans2025,
here’s the name: Mary Lynn Tischer. Now serving as
director of the Commonwealth's Multimodal Transportation
Planning Office, Tischer had the job of compiling and
reconciling the forecasts provided by Virginia's four
transportation agencies: VDOT, the Department of Rail
and Public Transportation, the Department of Aviation
and the Virginia Port Authority.
expresses confidence in the VTrans2025 numbers.
They’re not pin-point accurate, of course. No one
would expect them to be. “We’re looking for a sense
of what the [financial] needs will be. We’re looking
for a range,” she says. The forecasting model is a
“continual work in progress,” she adds, but “if
you look back over time, our forecasts have done fairly
take a look under the hood of the VTrans2025
projections. Each of the four transportation departments
submitted its own forecast. Tischer made some
adjustments to put them all on the same footing, and
then created a composite. Of the four, the budgets for
roads and rail dominated. Aviation accounted for only $3
billion in “unmet needs”, and ports less than $1
billion. Roads and rail accounted for the other $105
the two big spenders, VDOT ($74.2 billion in unmet
needs) and Rail ($30.7 billion), VDOT was the driver.
The reason Rail was forecast to require such expansive
funding was that VDOT showed such an extraordinary
growth in the need for new road capacity that there was,
quite literally, no physical way to provide it all. If
VDOT’s model forecast that the Interstate 495 Beltway
around Washington, D.C., will require an additional 22
lanes to accommodate traffic growth, for instance, there
would be no way to add those lanes; the only alternative
was to shift
to rail and mass transit.
then, the validity of the VTrans2025 forecasts rests
upon a VDOT foundation, for VDOT is the department that
forecasts travel demand.
is rightfully proud of its forecasting model, which is
significantly more advanced than the forecasting tools
used as recently as five years ago.
the waning days of the Gilmore administration, the Joint
Legislative Audit and Review Commission and the Auditor
of Public accounts both issued reports criticizing VDOT
for the inadequacy of its traditional approach to forecasting. The
department has since put into place a model, The
Statewide Planning System, of considerable
Statewide Planning System encompasses Virginia's
Interstates and the state road system, dividing them
into 19,000 segments. Drawing upon some 30 to 40 years of
traffic counts, VDOT forecasts traffic levels for each
segment, explains Chad Tucker, a manager in the
Transportation Planning Division. The model then
compares those counts to the design capacity of the
segment, based on the number of lanes and other
characteristics. When traffic counts exceed the
capacity, the model then projects a “need” for
additional capacity, selects the optimum improvement --
a lane widening, a new lane, whatever -- and assigns a rule-of-thumb cost per mile to that
model does not recommend specific projects – it just
generates rough estimates based on traffic demand. The
methodology is not perfect, VDOT planners acknowledge.
The model can under-estimate traffic counts on the urban
fringe where development and population growth
accelerates over the trend line, notes Tucker. But the
model compensates for those weaknesses by overlaying
metropolitan traffic forecasts developed by Metropolitan
Planning Organizations (MPO) whose regional planners have
detailed knowledge of what’s happening locally. The
model looks to planner-derived projections whenever
possible, and defaults to the extrapolation of trend
data only when MPO data is not available.
beauty of the statewide model, says Tucker, is that there’s no
manipulation of the numbers. “It’s hands off. It’s
objective.” And it’s good for a “reasonable”
estimate of what to expect.
Statewide Planning System undoubtedly represents a huge
improvement over the methods were practiced before. But
I would hesitate to claim that the System will provide a
“reasonable” forecast of transportation needs 20
years from now. There are huge dangers extrapolating the
trends of the past 30 to 40 years into the future. VDOT's
methodology assumes that the key factors driving traffic
growth – development patterns, gasoline prices,
commuting patterns, household lifestyles -- will
continue as they have for the past 40 years.
take a closer look and see how reasonable that
prices. Neither the VDOT model nor the MPO models adjust for the
rising price of gasoline.
Although gasoline is only one component of the total
cost of driving, which includes the cost of buying a
car, maintenance, insurance, license fees, etc., it is a
highly visible one. According to basic economic theory,
if the price rises high enough, people will curtail
their driving. The question is, by how much?
acknowledges the possibility that higher gasoline prices
could modify driving behavior, but he minimizes the likely
impact. “Higher gas prices make people buy more
efficient cars – not drive fewer miles,” he says.
“People are buying hybrids and fuel-efficient diesels.
Actual VMTs (Vehicle Miles Traveled) haven’t changed
offer two responses to Tucker’s argument. First,
history shows that higher gasoline prices, along with
highly publicized exhortations to conserve gasoline, did
dampen peoples' driving in the 1970s.
table, republished from "The
Tip of the Dipstick," Aug. 9, 2004, shows the
average Vehicle Miles Driven per Virginia motorist between 1973
and 2001. During the "energy crisis" era of
1973 to 1981, driving declined from 12,000 miles on
average to 10,000 miles. When oil and gasoline prices
began their two-decade decline in the early 1980s,
motorists began driving more. True, the price of
gasoline is not the only factor at work. A sharp
recession helped reduce Vehicle Miles Driven in 1979-1981, as
it did a decade later in 1990-1991. Any reasonable
person would conclude that there are two
key factors at work: The rate of economic growth and
the inflation-adjusted cost of gasoline. Neither
factor can be ignored.
much is clear to me, if not to VDOT: If rising gasoline prices
conform to the energy-crisis era of high
gasoline prices (1973 to 1981), the future will look very
than if it tracks a 40-year period in which high gas
prices were only a blip.
second response is this: The cheap-energy era is over.
In a “strong China” economic scenario, in which
continued economic growth feeds the Chinese appetite for
automobiles and gasoline to fuel them, Chinese demand
for petroleum will drive global oil prices even higher
than they are today. In inflation-adjusted terms,
gasoline prices are still significantly lower than they
were in the mid-1970s. It would not be surprising to see
gasoline exceed $4 at the pump within a few years.
if higher gas prices don’t prod Virginians into driving
less, they certainly would put the brakes on driving
more. And that’s a problem for VDOT’s forecast.
Remember: VDOT is projecting continued traffic growth
based on past trends. Not only will there be more cars
on the road, but the extrapolation of past traffic
trends into the future implies that individual motorists will be
driving more. Projecting the experience of
the past 20 years into the next 20 years suggests that Virginians will be driving 25,000
miles on average, up from
17,000 miles in 2001. How likely
is that in the face of $3- and $4-per-gallon gasoline prices?
That's the billion-dollar question.
lifestyles and development patterns. Neither the VDOT
nor the MPO models adjust for the aging of the population, the
movement of the Baby Boom generation into retirement
age, and the changing lifestyles of empty nesters.
flash: Retired people don’t work. And because they
don’t work, they don’t commute. Their children are
grown up, which means they don’t spend as much time
running errands and chauffeuring their children. While
retired people may hit the highway in their RVs, racking
up miles on rural byways, they aren’t contributing to local
a look at what's happening.
the year 2005, we're mid-way through a decade in which
the 15-to-24 year olds of the 2000 census are entering
the workforce, while the 55-to-64 year olds are leaving
it. (Compare the pale yellow rows above.) Thus, even
excluding the influx of newcomers to Virginia, a
changing demographic mix means that the working-age population
can be expected to grow by about 334,000 over the course
of the decade. VDOT's traffic counts over
the past 40 years reflect that steady growth in the
workforce, dominated by the maturing of the Baby Boom
generation and the 70s-era influx of women into the
workforce. Extrapolations based on that experience are
valid as long as the working age population and labor
force participation continue to
But look what happens a
decade from now. Children who were 5-to-14 back in the
2000 Census will be entering the working age population,
replacing the 45-to-54 cohort. (Compare the beige rows
above) By then, there will be no growth in the working
age population whatsoever. In fact, the working-age
numbers will shrink by 8,000 -- a tiny number, to be
sure, but a marked reversal from the growth of the
don't know exactly how many people will be entering the
workforce by 2025 -- many of them hadn't been born by
the 2000 census -- but the number almost certainly will
be smaller than the number of retiring Baby Boomers. A
good guess is roughly 930,000 Virginians entering the
working age population in place of 1.2 million leaving
-- a potential loss of 270,000. Far from growing, the
working age population will be shrinking!
line: While Virginia's population will continue to grow due to
immigration and increasing longevity, the size of the
working-age population will level off --
in marked contrast to VDOT's traffic projections, which
are based on the traffic count generated during a period
of steady growth in the working age population.
the problem, there is evidence to suggest that segments
of the working-age population are changing their
lifestyles in significant ways. Once their children grow
up, many of the so-called "empty nesters"
aren't maintaining their suburban lifestyle -- they're
moving back into the city where they can enjoy a more
urban lifestyle. Empty nesters crave shorter commutes,
pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and low-maintenance
housing. Sensing a major shift in demand, developers are
responding by building an unprecedented number of
high-rise condominiums in Virginia downtowns, or
creating New Urbanism-inspired neighborhoods that mimic
the urban look and feel. So, even within the working-age
population -- the empty nest segment -- we can
anticipate a leveling off, or even a decline, in the
number of Vehicle Miles Driven.
Workforce. The story doesn't end with the empty
nesters. Driving patterns are changing for younger
workers, too, a phenomenon I described in detail in
"Rush Hour Will Never
Be the Same," (July 25, 2005). In a nutshell,
cell phones, wireless laptops, broadband connections and
collaborative software are changing the relationship
between workers and the workplace. An increasing number
of people are finding that they can work more
productively away from the office. As a consequence, an
increasing number of people find that they can avoid the
stress of fighting the rush-hour crunch, and companies
are finding they can improve morale by allowing
employees to work one or more days from home, or on the
road. The result: a scrambling of traditional commuting
patterns and, if not an outright decline in driving, at
least a leveling off in Vehicle Miles Traveled.
The VDOT model does not take into account the
possibility that people might change their driving
patterns as the cost of congestion arises. This is a
critical flaw, and it is inherent in the methodology.
The VDOT model presupposes that an increase in Vehicle Miles Driven
gets translated into additional transportation capacity.
But that's not how the
the real world, in the absence of massive tax increases
and road construction projects, congestion will
increase. Assuming that the population continues to grow,
Vehicle Miles Driven will rise -- even if not nearly
as much as DOT anticipates -- and roads will get more
congested. As the cost of congestion mounts, drivers, being
rational creatures, will change their behavior. There
won't be a stampede; people won't be abandoning their cars
on the highway. But individuals will adapt by finding alternatives that suit their unique circumstances.
are many alternatives. Availing themselves of
mobile technology and an increasingly flexible attitude
by employers, some people may decide to work at home one
or two days a week. Some may work at home for an hour or
two, then drive into the office when rush hour subsides.
Some people may carpool, or start riding buses again.
Others may move closer to work, trading off bigger
houses in on the metropolitan periphery for somewhat smaller houses closer
to the center of things. Yet others may avail themselves
of new alternatives that entrepreneurs bring into the
marketplace, such as NuRide's
Internet-based scheduling system to coordinate ride
sharing in Northern Virginia.
time, developers even may begin changing their product
mix. Indeed, there is every sign that they are doing so
already. Central cities like Richmond are seeing more
residential investment than any time in decades; even in
the suburbs, developers are building mixed-use,
pedestrian-friendly projects that evoke the urban
experience. These New Urbanism projects may not always
be ideally placed from a regional transportation
perspective, but they still represent an advance in
transportation efficiency. In projects designed with a
balance of jobs, houses and amenities, people can go
about much of their daily routine within the development,
without hopping onto the regional transportation grid at
all. (For real-world examples, see Bob Burke's articles
Place, a New Urbanism project in Charlottesville, and
the redevelopment of the Columbia
Pike corridor in Arlington.)
even local governments may alter their behavior in
response to the demands of the public and developers. A
number of counties are modifying their zoning codes to
encourage mixed-use, pedestrian friendly development;
others are reconciling themselves to the idea that they
should encourage the redevelopment of their aging
suburbs at higher densities as an alternative to letting
them spiral into decay. Mixed uses, higher densities,
pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, these all make it
possible for people to resort to fewer, shorter trips.
immediate impact of these changes will be modest. But
over the 20 years contemplated by the VTrans2025
forecast, a shift from scattered, disconnected
low-density development to compact, mixed-use,
pedestrian-friendly development could make a tremendous
difference. The VDOT methodology, based as it is upon traffic counts
generated over 40 years of rampant suburban sprawl,
cannot anticipate such a sea-change.
VTrans2025 forecast does do one thing very well: It
shows the utter futility of basing Virginia's
transportation policy on the Business As Usual principle
of building our way out of traffic congestion. It
is madness to think that Virginians would accept an
increase in $5 billion a year in higher taxes and tolls.
A billion dollars a year, maybe. But $5 billion?
logical conclusion from such a number is that
our transportation system is hopelessly broken and in
desperate need of fixing.
it's not. The VDOT forecast is flawed because it
extrapolates from 40 years of traffic counts generated
by cheap gas, an expanding working-age population and
suburban sprawl. The real future will bring us
expensive gasoline, a leveling off of the working-age population,
the rise of the mobile workforce, and a reaction to
the proverbial generals who fight the last war,
Virginia's politicians are basing transportation policy
on the continuation of social and economic trends that have played
themselves out. They want to raise our taxes based upon
forecasts that , by their very nature, cannot take into
account critical social and economic changes. It is up to us, an
informed citizenry, to stop them before they tax
August 23, 2005