At Last, a Transportation Plan from Cuccinelli

A data matrix for transportation.
A congestion matrix database for transportation.

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.”

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46 responses to “At Last, a Transportation Plan from Cuccinelli”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    “In other words, Cuccinelli would move the state in the direction of useful reform, however imperfectly, while McAuliffe would continue Business As Usual.”.

    Absurd. Business as usual ended when Bob McDonnell finally got transportation funding back on track after failed efforts by many other Virginia politicians including Tim Kaine. McDonnell accomplished this over the objections of many Republicans – such as Ken Cuccinelli.

    That was the big deal.

    Now that the funding problem has (probably) been solved we can move on to connecting transportation and land use decisions. I am very sceptical that this is as big a deal as most people seem to believe. The Washington / Richmond / Tidewater suburbs look about the same to me as most other fast growing places. While improvement is undoubtedly possible I don’t see a silver bullet.

    Cuccinelli favors devolution – kind of, sort of, maybe. His implementation plan is haphazard at best. Jim Bacon thinks he threw the plan together too quickly. I see the intentional hand of opaque business as usual within our state government.

    Here are the biggest problems:

    1. Cuccinelli proposes to give a very few counties block grants of the money they have been receiving. That’s inane. The whole point of McDonnell’s transportation funding plan was to get more money into the transportation system. That plan passed the General Assembly with bi-partisan support. Now Cuccinelli wants to roll back to the funding to levels that were inadequate. This is enough to discard his plan.

    2. His plan is limited to four counties at first – Fairfax, Prince William, Loudoun and Chesterfield. He makes the disingenuous point that only these counties would be immediately able to maintain their own secondary roads. This is ridiculous. Tiny cities like Alta Vista maintain their own secondary roads. Alta Vista has 5,600 residents. How is it true that Alta Vista has the “resources” required to maintain its own secondary streets while Albemerale County (with 98,000 people) does not? If every city and town can maintain its own secondary roads then every county can do the same. This flaw is correctable by either phasing in the plan by transportation region or by cutting over all the counties at once.

    3. Richmond “allocates” the money. Secondary roads are a local matter. As Jim Bacon correctly notes, there are many reasons beyond congestion that play into secondary road decisions. Cuccinelli’s “database in the sky” is a figment of his imagination. Secondary roads are local matters and the localities should decide their own priorities. Anything less is not really devolving responsibility for local roads to localities.

    4. The state government is not only irrelevant to secondary roads its presence in the process will be detrimental to the process. There is simply no reason for Richmond to be involved in this. Richmond should lower state income tax rates by an amount sufficient to account for the fact that the state will no longer maintain secondary roads. Then, Richmond should instruct the localities to devise tax strategies to raise the money for the local roads from taxes to be collected and spent within each locality. Cuccinelli’s plan is not “user pays” in any real way. He proposes to take tax money from everywhere and spend that money wherever Richmond decides to spend it. Sorry, but devolving responsibility for secondary roads means DEVOLVING RESPONSIBILITY FOR SECONDARY ROADS. As long as Richmond decides which priorities will be funded and which will not there has been no devolution. This huge flaw in Cuccinelli’s plan is sufficient to discard his plan and remain with the status quo.

    1. I think DJ makes reasonable points. They are arguable though. I doubt very seriously that 200 million additional funding is going to change much when it’s divvied up even if NoVa gets half of it. A hundred million will barely buy what major urban interchange and the ICC in Md cost 100 million per mile.

      But the reform we missed and continue to miss is the fact that our current state transportation districts were drawn according to 1933 Congressional boundaries and so we have a district like Fredericksburg that handles HOT lanes for Stafford County at the same time it’s dealing with rural bridges in Mathews County.

      I think the state should re-organize more along the lines of the MPOs and MSAs and with the counties left – see if they have centralized economic locations and turn them into MPOs.

      of course MPOs do not address the county road devolution issue only regional roads but regional roads can be secondary roads and MPOs can identify secondary roads that are important to more than just one county – perhaps several.

      The other problem that Va has is it’s way of classifying roads which is a system different from the Feds and different from most states.

      The Standardized Functional System goes this way:

      Arterial Provides the highest level of service at the greatest speed for the longest uninterrupted distance, with some degree of access control.

      Collector Provides a less highly developed level of service at a lower speed for shorter distances by collecting traffic from local roads and connecting them with arterials.

      Local Consists of all roads not defined as arterials or collectors; primarily provides access to land with little or no through movement.

      it’s the lower level that should be the target of devolution.

      there are many 600 series roads in NoVa that are not “local” but rather “collector” and as such would merit higher reimbursement rates and/or funding from the MPOs.

      Remember – the Feds also collect a gas tax and it gets sent back to the states to be spent on collectors/arteries and interstates.

    2. We are NOT back on track yet. There is a strong effort to fund the Bi-County Parkway (part of Til Hazel’s long-coveted Outer Beltway) despite a compelling story we need money spent on East-West capacity; the airfreight expansion argument is as full of holes as a Lee Hockstader editorial; opposition from the public and many elected officials.

      Since more of people’s money is being taken by the Commonwealth, it is clearly much worse to waste that money on bogus projects now than before. People are willing to pay for real congestion relief, not to subsidize landowner’s speculative investments and an MWAA that cannot control its costs at Dulles or attract low-price airlines. McAuliffe would gladly keep Jack Potter and Til Hazel happy with business as usual.

      1. DJRippert Avatar

        “McAuliffe would gladly keep Jack Potter and Til Hazel happy with business as usual.”.

        Ha ha! You seem to forget that Terry McAuliffe lost the Democratic primary in 2009. It hasn’t been Terry McAuliffe pushing the Bi-County Parkway, Rt 460 or the Charlottesville Bypass. All of those projects have been pushed by Republicans Bob McDonnell and Sean Connaughton.

        You and Jim Bacon are like Pavlov’s dogs. You hear Terry McAuliffe’s name and you start foaming at the mouth and growling.

        If you don’t like the Bi-County Parkway you need to call Bob McDonnell and Sean Connaughton.

        1. I realize that, but McAuliffe has not stated any opposition to the Bi-County Parkway. Do you really think he won’t steer money to this project? He’s more likely to spend money on worthless projects in NoVA that Cooch. McAuliffe is a good old boy. So was McDonnell.

          1. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            Northern Va. business endorsed McAuliffe a week or so back in spades. What else do you need to know? Nothing, in my opinion.

      2. I’m pretty skeptical that this road will not be a toll road.

        do we know?

        we’re only getting 200 million more per year for the entire state.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Of course it will be a toll road. That indeed was a specific line item in the State’s $300,000 private PR firm campaign to “educate” the citizens of Virginia. One is reminded of Chairman Mao tactics re education.

  2. re: congestion matrix

    I think there’s a problem with that concept in that it actually rewards more peak hour driving.

    It elevates the ranking of projects that respond to congestion but will such projects actually produce congestion relief – or just feed latency?

    How do reconcile the methodology of building to respond to congestion vs dynamic tolls to manage congestion?

    a true ROI would measure congestion BEFORE and AFTER a project to see if it actually did achieve the desired goal.

    and I would submit that for a given area of congestion – if it were to be fitted with dynamic tolling – congestion would be reduced much better than building more capacity.

  3. Folks need to take a look at the transportation revenues we’ve received since the new taxes.

    what you will discover is that the sales tax on general merchandise and the sales tax on new cars – each one of them brings in MORE than fuel taxes do. Fuel taxes account for only 15% of total transportation revenues.

    The fuels taxes are basically a little bit better than the old tax revenues – not huge increase.

    we are generating about 400 million more than last year and it is split in how it is allocated – 1/2 to the operation and maintenance fund and 1/2 to new construction.

    the idea that we have “rescued” the transportation funding for Virginia is not the reality. We improved the situation but we are NOT flush with new cash!

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “we are generating about 400 million more than last year”

      OK, if we would have had that extra $400M per year for the half the time the gas tax was frozen, we’d have invested an additional $2.6B in new construction and $2.6B in maintenance.

      That would have made a HUGE difference.

      It’s hard to unwind the incompetence of The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond. It will take years and years to catch up.

      1. Back in the 1980s, the Reston Citizens Association, under then president Janet Howell, worked with Fairfax County to negotiate $200 million (1980s dollars) in cash and in-kind contributions for road improvements in connection with the construction of the Reston Towne Center. What if that amount of money per XXX square feet had been indexed and collected by Fairfax County on other projects since the time the gas tax had been frozen? That too would have made a HUGE difference. Yet, this result was within the authority of the Fairfax County (and other jurisdictions) officials the entire time since the gas tax was raised in the 1980s. It wasn’t the Clown Show’s fault Fairfax County supervisors failed to use their existing powers to protect the public interest.

        What if the Fairfax County supervisors had rejected rezoning requests that did not proffer similar funds (or in-kind construction) for transportation facilities? That would also have made a HUGE difference.

        Let’s exclude through traffic for now. Commuter traffic is strongly influenced by land use. If you up-zone and create commercial property (offices, etc.) you create a destination. If you up-zone and create residential communities you create a destination. Connect them and you see traffic congestion. Then add connections among all the old and new destinations and you see traffic congestion.

        The root cause of the added congestion is the new destinations and the traffic they generate. The cause is not Pete who has lived in Annandale and commuted to the Pentagon for 35 years.

        Should the gas tax have been increased to match the decline in purchasing power since 1986? Yes. But why is Pete also responsible for building road capacity needed by all of the new destinations? This is the Til Hazel – good old boy – plan. Developers get taxpayer subsidies for their investments.

        Should the added economic value of the destinations be considered? Yes. But we also need impact fees/proffers from the new destinations. Just raising the gas tax is a big taxpayer subsidy to real estate development.

        Moreover, there are numerous studies that show much of the economic costs of impact fees and proffers are passed along to the landowner in lower prices for the dirt.

        1. reed fawell III Avatar
          reed fawell III

          Your paragraphs 2 through 4 zero in on the heart of the problem in northern Virginia. On an earlier post you mentioned someone’s (a retired official as I recall) statement that too often in the past proffers may have been waived in lieu of political contributions. If this is so, and I believe it likely true, this also goes to the heart of the problems that northern Virginia confronts. Both must be fixed if we are to have any luck bringing land development into balance with transportation.

          I am not sure about the best funding mechanism to best built what is needed to achieve that balance. I do sense a growing awareness of the critical need for balanced land uses in new projects to drive down traffic. If that’s true, then it’s a big step in the right direction.

  4. you did have the .5% sales tax as well as the sales tax on new cars – each of which has generated MORE than fuel taxes and both of which ARE indexed already.

    the fuel tax has lagged the other taxes for a long time and as I said the other taxes ARE indexed.

    this is backward looking analysis here anyhow.. it serves no real purpose in going forward.

    how do you want to go forward?

  5. 5.3% by the way is the sales and use tax on New Cars and it brings in about
    833 million a year versus about 630 million for fuel taxes.

    the .5% general sales tax brings in 867 million.

    DJ is off on a wild goose chase here on the fuel tax revenues and inflation factors…

    the fuel tax is far, far, diminished in it’s ability to generate revenues even with the new indexed tax change.

    2/3 of our road funding comes from general sales tax and sales tax on new cars.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      LarryG –

      Draw yourself a timeline. Start at 1986. For each year add inflation to the money that was raised by the frozen gas tax. Remember to compound. Now, add the other taxes but only when they were implemented. How much money was lost to inflation by the frozen gas tax.

      Why do you think these other taxes have overcome the gas tax? Because they are indexed to assets which inflate. Which means they inflate.

      No other state does what Virginia did except Alaska – an oil drenched wilderness. None, LarryG. Not one. Every other state raised their gas tax to keep it current with inflation. Every one. All of them. Except Virginia.

      McDonnell didn’t push through his Rube Goldberg plan against the wishes of many Republicans because we had plenty of transportation funds. He did it because we didn’t have enough. Same reason Tin Kaine unsuccessfully tried to get more money. Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans rarely agree. When they do you should pay attention. There was not enough money in the system for years. Kaine knew that. McDonnell knew that. Maybe someday you, TMT and Jim Bacon will figure it out too.

      Even Baliles and Warner knew we needed more money in the system.

      ” In 1999, former governor Gerald L. Baliles (D) urged resisting “the siren song — the Lorelei of Virginia politics — that we can just get along with an incremental fix here or a commission there.” In a speech last month, Baliles renewed his call for a comprehensive solution, saying politicians should “do something about Virginia’s growing transportation nightmare.”

      That was in 2004.

      You’re wrong LarryG and so is Jim Bacon and TMT. Transportation has been underfunded in Virginia for decades and it will take decades for us to catch up.

      1. Oh, I quite agree that transportation has been under-funded. But I also think it supremely important how you fund transportation. I’m quite willing to raise revenues for a user-pays system. I’m not willing to raise revenues for a system in which everybody subsidizes everybody else.

        1. the reality is that we do not primarily fund our roads from fuel tax revenues.

          2/3 of the funding comes from the general sales tax and the sales tax on new cars.

          then there is the other problem that most counties collect taxes on automobiles but do not direct that money to transportation explicitly.

          not sure about Henrico and Arlington or the cites/towns .

          so basically 1/3 or less of transportation funding comes from “user fees” per se.

          even then – the average person in Va pays far less for transportation than the citizens in states which have fuel taxes AS WELL AS local taxes for local roads.

          Va citizens get a bargain for their transpo dollars.

          Many who live on 600 series roads and/or subdivisions – get those roads maintained – in return for their taxes while others who live in apartments or townhouses, etc.. THEIR gas taxes are being used for others.

          In 46 other states, if you live on a local road – or in a subdivision – the state is not going to pay to maintain either. It will be you either via HOA fees or local county taxes for local roads.

  6. Not sure when the .5 sales tax and the sales tax on new cars went into effect but it’s been a while.

    It’s true many other states have increased their gas tax but those states did not have the sales tax on general sales nor cars – either.

    but more important – virtually all of those states have come to realize that the fuel tax is no longer a sustainable source of transportation revenues.

    some are talking about taxing by the mile. Others are doing toll roads. but all of them realize than even an indexed gas tax is no longer sustainable.

    and 46 other states have much smaller mileage for the state to support as they make the localities take care of local roads whereas in Va – VDOT does and that takes a huge whack out of the funds they do have.

    in terms of “underfunded” – every single county in the state has always had the option of increasing funding of transportation.

    you say that the state underfunded it but you also so the state screws NoVa out of transpo money so if the state underfunds why is the argument against the counties making up the difference locally rather than collecting increased fuel taxes and send them to the state?

    come on DJ – you know you are caught on this.. fess up guy.

    nothing prevented NoVa from funding their own and it made far more sense to do that rather than increase the tax and send it to the state to allocate out to other counties and not NoVa.

    what say you ?

  7. Va has the 3rd largest road system in the US – behind Alaska and Texas.

    think about this in terms of the cost of maintenance and operations and how that eats up a substantial amount of the transportation revenues.

    I’ve yet to see a table comparing states maintenance and operation costs but it stands to reason when you have the 3 largest system – it’s going to be huge.

    All these years – we’ve been arguing about how much gas tax we should charge and why we “under-fund” and one could make the argument that the “under-funded” is, at least in part, to the huge chuck of our revenues that have to go to maintain – the 3rd largest road system in the US.

    More money and indexing the gas tax is not going to really fix the problem.

    the more roads we build – the bigger the maintenance and operations bill is going to get…

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Where did you get the fact that Virginia has the third biggest road system in the US? I don’t doubt you but would like to see the raw data. How do we have a bigger road system than California?

      1. I think Larry meant the third-largest *state-run* road system. VDOT is one of only three or four (North Carolina is another, as I recall) states in which the state DOT builds and maintains secondary roads.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          You are probably right. However, North Carolina is significantly larger than Virginia and has a significantly larger population. Why does Virginia have more roads?

          Texas has a plan to convert some roads from paved back to gravel. Is this something that conservatives in Virginia would consider or is soaking the urban crescent the answer to all Republican problems?

          1. I think Virginia *should* consider converting low-traffic roads back to gravel, if it means reducing maintenance costs. Texas is not the only state to do this — others are as well. My impression from covering the Commonwealth Transportation Board, however, is that paving roads is a one-way street (so to speak). Once a road gets unpaved, it gets locked in. Roads don’t revert to gravel. Indeed, there is a steady trickle of petitions to the CTB to pave gravel roads.

          2. reed fawell III Avatar
            reed fawell III

            Jim’s suggestion that the state revert to gravel on local roads is a suggestion that is far to practical and inexpensive to be enacted. It’s too revolutionary for the engineer’s mentality to grasp, I guess.

  8. DJRippert Avatar

    “On the far end of the spectrum is the four state complex of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Delaware. These four states relieved counties of road maintenance responsibility in the 1930’s as the depression and a progressive road reform movement came together to create a unique scenario where states willingly assumed county roads and the counties gladly gave them over.”.

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    “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 … and wealth-creation (and human capital creation) metrics as well.”

    I suspect this is the core of good road building. And often it’s easier said than done. The human mind too often thinks linear. Our modern machine tools too often take us mindlessly in this straight line direction. But nature far more often than not does not function that way. The shortest distance between points A and B is a straight line. Really? Tell that to a donkey walking uphill. Tell that to the builders of the great towns of old Europe.

    After the Middles Ages forgot, the German’s re-invented the autobahn. If nothing else Hitler was highly efficient. But that does not mean all roads should always should go linear. That does not mean that roads built linear over long distances always create wealth and human capital best.

    No, such linear roads often destroy wealth and human capital, and they do it from many different angles with a vengeance. This can be particularly so in dense communities. So be careful with pure Metrics. Do not let pure metrics that worked so well for Newton and Galileo when studying the movement of stars and planets breed human arrogance to the point of overthrowing the wisdom of the Donkey. There is more to the pie than quantities, speeds, motion, volumes, and efficiencies bred by the sure and certain calculations of pure mathematics.

    We think and act linear. Oh, really? Our modern machines and science feed this illusion. But we don’t operate and live our lives that way. Never have and likely never will. We are highly illogical beings that think we’re the reverse. We function and act daily illogically. So, how we build where we live our daily lives, and what we use every day, all of the many things that build our wealth, our comfort and our happiness, and yes our efficiency too, need be informed by that fact of our lives.

  10. billsblots Avatar

    “I’m not willing to raise revenues for a system in which everybody subsidizes everybody else.”

    You are describing the Federal Highways Administration.

  11. billsblots Avatar

    Although I can’t find any sources right now, what DOTs have said for a decade is that Texas has the nation’s most state-maintained road miles, North Carolina is second, and Virginia third. South Carolina claims to be fourth and also claims to receive the lowest dollars per mile from state government, linking that to their death rate per vehicle miles driven that is 50 % higher than national average. NC has some 80,000 miles of state maintained roads, I doubt one can find 80,000 miles of road in Alaska combined, much less state maintained.

    1. billsblots is correct… on the miles per state (under DOT responsibility)

      but the basic difference that makes more miles per state is the DOT being responsible for local roads. In 46 other states this is NOT the case and THE reason why their DOT-maintained road networks are far smaller.

      this is not an exercise in just numbers. more miles to maintain = higher costs.

  12. billsblots Avatar

    At first blush it makes perfect sense to prioritize transportation emphasis by looking at where congestion is.

    That method has will continue to result in a failure to meet demand, as by the time transportation projects go through their excruciating cycle and finally reach orgasmic completion, the landscape has changed significantly. Transportation planning must be based on best projections of where population and transportation demands will be ten years in the future, not where they are today.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      Perhaps your last sentence is too passive and singular an approach.

      Everything we build will somehow direct traffic and population. Likely now too much of what we build overly concentrates and magnifies traffic in ways that disrupts where and how we live. Or at the least builds roads that set themselves up for future failures that demand future fixes, thus building ever repeating cycles of solutions that only drive us into more failures.

      Instead we need to go to the root of problem. And fix it. That requires a far larger toolbox, one that contains all the drivers of our traffic overload that now remains unresolved after more that 60 years of effort, one that started with the Ike’s Interstate Campaign that, like everything else to date, only masks the systemic problems before putting them on steroids yet again.

      So I suspect that there are better ways to direct and control traffic, ways that better build wealth for us rather than disrupting how we live.

    2. transportation planners, at least some of them think congestion is a “good” thing in that it tends to modulate the network at peak hour.

      or to put it another way – if you improve one road in the network but not all of them – all it does is move traffic to the next place that it is stopped/backed up.

      we talk about congestion reduction but we do so in such nebulousness and with such vagueness that it’s almost a concept that never really focuses.

      If you look at the network – and you wanted to define congestion from a network perspective – how would you do it?

      and if your goal was to reduce congestion on the network:

      1. – how would you do that?
      2. – how would you go about prioritizing what specific things to fix?
      3. – what is your ultimate goal with respect to reducing congestion on a network basis?

      In order to “fix” network congestion – to actually get improvement on a network basis – prioritizing would be much, much more than just identifying specific areas of congestion.

      You could, for instance, have a real booger of a congestion chokepoint but it only affects a couple hundred people whereas another might affect thousands.

      we do’t really have a way to quantitatively and qualitatively measure congestion.

      You can have two roads at LOS F but what does that really mean?

      it means LOS F conditions – but for how long?
      LOS F on one road might be for an hour a day.
      on another road, it may be 3 hours a day
      yet both are said to be LOS F.

      and right now, as far as I know, both are rated the same in ‘congestion’.

      1. reed fawell III Avatar
        reed fawell III

        “we talk about congestion reduction but we do so in such nebulousness and with such vagueness that it’s almost a concept that never really focuses.”

        This is a fair criticism on my above comments. Wish I could be more specific. I need to give it all more thought. But I am coming to sense that we need to look at our traffic problems in deeper more creative, and holistic ways, if only because so much is happening out there that wasn’t happening before, so couldn’t be considered, or thrown into the mix. Changing technologies, land uses, ways of communicating, doing business, shopping, dating, recreating, moving about, hooking up and into new sources of power and function – let throw it all together, see what comes up to surprise or inform us as to where the traffic goes or changes.

        Where to start? Who knows? Start simple.
        How best do you water plants. With a bucket with a spout? With a bucket shot full of small holes? With a sprinkler? It depends on what?


        We all know that traffic locked up behind bottlenecks can often quickly subside if there are multiple means of escape, avoidance, and/or alternative. But that, under other circumstances, interconnectedness might give a different result, massive gridlock locking up in all directions with little means for any escape – think post game Redskins parking lot. And how many subdivision neighborhoods welcome cut through traffic?


        Take all the “changing technologies, land uses, ways of communicating, doing business, shopping, dating, recreating, moving about, hooking up, etc. etc. and toss that salad into the pot with all known ways that traffic can be reduced, diluted, tolerated and otherwise manipulated by whatever means known to work in however a limited ways anywhere – think roads, streets, land uses, times of day, functions, needs, whatever –
        Pile all these ways up, take them apart, mix them up and around together, and think wild – inductively, by association, by random chance.

        And see what comes up to surprise or inform us as to where the traffic goes or changes. Mix endlessly, new patterns will emerge.

        Thinking out loud here.

        1. I wasn’t criticizing you Reed – just that I don’t think any of us have a solid enough handle on it to develop or propose a policy yet. I think you gave it a good a shot as others have (not that I know either).

          but “congestion” is not a definitive term. It describes a wide variety of different “kinds” of congestion and our current metrics are more like snapshots in time on a snapshot of a road segment as opposed to wide measure.

          The ones I’m familiar with are LOS – Level of Service and V/C ratio volume-to-capacity.

          but roads are segments that are actually parts of a network.

          and you could have a road of some length where LOS or V/C is not the same on the entire length – say there is a left turn halfway down it that takes 1/2 the traffic off of it.

          or go back and look at the same road segment at the height of rush hour and then look at it for a time slice of one hour on each side of rush hour (it’ll be a histogram)… or go look at that same road segment at 4am in the morning.

          but let’s say you fix that road to LOS A and that road feeds into another road like an Interstate and at rush hour the Interstate is LOS D…. all that freely-moving traffic on the first segment is going to back up at the more congested interstate.

          so when these guys talk about a “ranking” or a “priority” system – it may not be all that useful unless they are talking about wider scope than just one road segment, just at rush hour.

          In a more perfect-world, you’d have a regional model that shows the congestion levels on all roads at a set time …and you could roll that model forward like a movie picture to see how the congestion “builds” and then dissipates on a network basis – and from that “movie” you could start to better see the chokepoints, etc..

          THEN you could take that model and put in various prospective improvements to see how those improvements affect not only the segment where they are made but the wider scope system – and if you could do that – you’d likely find that fixing one road segment might
          be more of a tradeoff where you fix that road but the traffic just forms another backup at another chokepoint.

          It’s NOT futile, but it’s far more complex than ranking road segments just by congestion indexes.

          you could waste a lot of money just moving slow traffic two miles further down a road – and no real decrease in travel time for the drivers – and it’s possible it could actually create other choke points actually negatively affecting the network.

          Transportation Professionals who deal with these kinds of work are not your ordinary transportation professionals. They’re more heavy-duty mathematicians than road-builders but most DOTs, including VDOT – are by their very nature – Engineers and road builders.

          they like to build roads. they’re convinced that each new project is an “improvement”. They actually call many of their projects “improvements”. They cite the benefits of the road most often with respect to the immediate area it will be located and they’ll actually make claims about improving the network but their primary metrics are static rush-hour-only LOS or V/C alone for the entire network.

          You’ll no often, if at all, for instance, see them claim that a road “helps” the network by reducing the length of time LOS F conditions persist – even though that would be a legitimate benefit.

          The question is – is this sort of yet another sound-bite concept to satisfy the public on a subject that is pretty complex and probably too much into the weeds for the average person?

          It’s not that people are not intelligent.. it’s that we’re now in a world where fast, quick, easy answers are demanded for “problems”

 Vouchers will “fix” the public school system or the “uninsured don’t get medical care”….

          Still I think if we had a network map that had each road segment glow with colors… green for good flow, red for congestion and in-between colors and ran it like a movie.. people WOULD GET IT.

          a picture is worth a 1000 words and a movie is word 10,000 words and 10 pictures!

  13. DJRippert Avatar

    OK – some facts for the discussion –

    Total land miles per state:

    Virginia checks in at #27.

    Virginia has the 12th largest population.

    Virginia is the 35th biggest state in area.

    While it would take considerably more analysis to rationalize this data my first hunch is that Virginia’s roads are slightly under-built relative to size and population.

  14. DJRippert Avatar

    Here is the overview data from VDOT (which, apparently, uses road miles rather than the vastly more useful lane miles):

    “The 57,867-mile state-maintained system is divided into these categories:

    Interstate – 1,118 miles of four-to-ten lane highways that connect states and major cities.

    Primary – 8,111 miles of two-to-six-lane roads that connect cities and towns with each other and with interstates.

    Secondary – 48,305 miles of local connector or county roads. These generally are numbered 600 and above. Arlington and Henrico counties maintain their own county roads.

    Frontage – 333 miles of frontage roads.
    A separate system includes 10,561 miles of urban streets, maintained by cities and towns with the help of state funds. Virginia’s cities are independent of its counties.

    Henrico County (1,279 miles) and Arlington County (359 miles) maintain their own roads with VDOT funds. There is an additional 39 miles of toll roads maintained by others.”

    Of the 57,867 miles of roadway, 39 miles are toll roads maintained by ohers.

  15. DJRippert Avatar

    Some Fairfax County statistics:

    Primary Lane Miles = 696
    Secondary Lane Miles = 5586
    Frontage Road Lane Miles = 55

    That’s 6337 lane miles. Out of a total of 160,097 lane miles in Virginia. That’s 4% of the total lane miles for a county that has 12.5% of the state’s population and 1.1% of the state’s land area.

    The Northern Virginia Transportation District includes 17,000 lane miles. That’s 10% of the state’s total lane miles. The district includes Fairfax, Arlington, Loudoun and Prince William Counties along with nine cities and towns. That’s about 30% of the population with 10% of the lane miles.

    That’s 138 people per lane mile.

    Tell me one more time, LarryG – Who is paying for whose roads?

    1. DJ – fuel taxes largely do not pay for roads, sales taxes on merchandise and new cars pays for 2/3 of it.

      but when you do lane miles – you also need to recognize how many of those lane miles are secondary roads and subdivision roads because those people are getting back far more for their taxes than those who do not live on secondary and subdivision roads.

      do a quick calculation and tell me how much the average person pays in fue and sales taxes for transportation.

      I get a couple hundred dollars.. but you do it and let me know.

      200.00 if you lived in 46 other states is what you’d pay your HOA to maintain the subdivision road …. right?

      see how that works?

      In NoVa only the people who live in apartments, townhouses and condos are actually paying for the roads everyone uses. The folks who live on secondary roads and in de-facto private subdivisions are getting back almost every penny they pay – for the road they live on and are not contributing near as much to the roads that everyone uses.

      46 other states know this and make sure that everyone pays their fair share for roads that everyone uses and that folks who live on de-facto private roads pay for it and not have others pay for it.

      this is a significant reason why VDOT does not have more money for truly public roads.. it’s expending a significant amount of money for what are essentially largely access roads to private homes.

  16. lots of stats here but the bottom line is that VDOT maintains secondary/local roads and the vast majority of other states do not and DJ’s own stats from VDOT confirm this.

    the thing that helped to “de-fund” Virginia Transportation funding as much as a frozen gas tax – was and is the unrelenting increase of secondary road mileage including subdivisions.

    Virginia has 5 times as many lane miles of secondary and subdivision as primary.

    In 46 other states – their DOTs maintain about 1/5 as many lane miles as VDOT does.

    If you live in a subdivision in Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William – VDOT is going to plow your roads.

    that’s where a good bit of the gas tax revenues go – in Va… for secondary roads and subdivision streets – plowing snow, pulling ditches, maintaining drainage structures, and re-paving.

    and guess where more than 1/2 of the new gas tax revenues are going to go?

    that’s right – to pay to maintain our 45,000 miles of secondary and subdivision roads.

  17. the interesting thing about:

    Commonwealth of Virginia/Department of Accounts
    Highway Maintenance and Operating Fund and Transportation Trust Fund Revenues
    Statement of Revenue Estimates & Collections
    For the Fiscal Years 2013 and 2014

    is that it not only shows the revenues but where they accrue from

    AND – how EACH of them are allocated to HMOF or Construction.

    If you take a look you may find it interesting as the fuel tax, the general sales tax and the sales tax on new cars are NOT allocated the same way to maintenance/ops and construction.

    Also – the report shows the FEDERAL money coming back to Va – which is interesting in two ways:

    first – in terms of how much of the Fed gas tax comes back to Va compared to the State fuels tax which (used to be) about 1/2 penny different.

    and second -how the Fed money is also allocated to maint/ops and construction.

    but one thing that is not easily determined – is how much of the maint/op goes for interstate/primary (like most states) and how much goes to secondary/subdivision (unlike most states).

  18. Here’s a question – we do not have the answer to because we’re looking at it from the other side.

    How much more money would VDOT have for public roads in Va if they did not have to maintain secondary and private roads?

  19. I am sorry that I arrived late to this discussion. Devolution was a top priority for me in my former job and I was distressed, like all county officials, that Cuccinelli “new” transportation plan is mainly recycled hogwash.
    If his plan has any chance, first his VDOT will first have to fix the neglect to the secondary secondary system from the past decade. It’s in bad shape statewide due to starving the maintenance budget because of reluctance to raise the necessary road maintenance funds. According to VDOT’s own sponsored 2011study, which Jim has posted previously, Policy Options for Secondary Road Construction and Management in the Commonwealth of Virginia [] “…estimates total needs for secondary pavements at $1.3 billion, and a ‘targeted’ need at $338 million for maintenance.” So, Mr. Candidate, before you decide to ‘give’ the system to even to the state’s large counties, repair it first!
    Second, the candidate has to overcome the reputation that the state has as not being a very reliable partner. See No Car Tax. See Line of Duty Act. See, etc. This was best voiced in this editorial from the Lynchburg newspaper, hardly a bastion of liberalism, “Cuccinelli’s Roads Plan a Major Bust” []. So, regardless of who becomes the first victims of the Cuccinelli new road plan, Richmond cannot be trusted. Bosun

  20. I’d not seen this study previously. Bacon referenced it also?

    but I’m curious. how much of our current operations and maintenance budget already goes to secondary and subdivision roads?

    oops.. here it is: ” For FY 2011, VDOT has allocated $410 million of it’s
    total budget to secondary road maintenance and operations.”

    by lane miles, the secondary system is about 80% of the total roads in Va.

    I’m a little confused by the premise that the state “owes” the road maintenance before it devolves…

    WHERE would the state get the money to do that?

    sometimes these conversations inevitably seem to go back to the presumed hidden vault full of money in Richmond.

    If the secondary roads are under maintained then it’s because Va did not have a gas tax high enough to pay to do that.. so the solution to that is to do what?

    increase taxes on everyone .. bring the roads up to snuff then devolve ?

    why not give the counties the option of NOT increasing taxes and deciding on each country – a path forward which may include other options that just tax increases?

    what say you Bosun?

  21. making my way through this report which I’ve never see before and is a substantial effort:

    Policy Options for Secondary Road Construction and Management in the Commonwealth of Virginia

    I’m still trying to digest it all – but one thing is clear. Secondary roads in Va are a significant state level issue until or unless they are devolved to the localities like most other states.

    The future of secondary roads in Va – under the aegis of the state is inevitably going to diminish as the state is forced to focus more and more on roads of statewide significance and other primary roads.

    The counties refusing devolution is understandable but it will not change the inevitability of the decline of secondary roads under the state. The funds are just not there and increasing taxes statewide to increase funding may be good for some counties but not good for others.

  22. larry g – You pointed to a critical issue in your first post, but I am glad you are reading the report. I helped in its preparation in my former job.
    Because of the declining revenue, the state had to prioritize resources and made the conscious decision to starve secondary construction and maintenance. It will be very expensive to return them to a situation where under devolution counties would have to spend any money received from the state to undo that neglect. Sound familiar? That is a nationwide problem with all infrastructure, including Virginia.
    Almost all new revenue under the recent tax increase will be directed toward primary and interstate construction to eliminate the cross-over between the construction fund to the maintenance fund, but it will not be enough to address the secondary road backlog.
    Solution? I have none, other than another tax increase which is a non-starter. I just wanted to point out that devolution is not the panacea that many think it is. No matter who maintains the roads, it is highly unlikely that the condition of local roads will improve without additional resources.
    Giving counties the ability to raise resources and issue debt without referendum and/or legislatively-imposed cap? That would allow counties to begin to address the problem in accordance with the wishes of their citizens may help, but that would be impossible in the current climate.
    As the report pointed out, three counties – James City, Stafford and Fairfax – looked at devolution under the VDOT/Cuccinelli model and found the resources from the state overwhelmingly inadequate. Fairfax did say that additional ability to raise revenues at the local level would help.
    So, what’s in it for even large counties? Local control? Yes and no because the VDOT mandates will have to remain so as to have a consistent network. Better coordination of land use and transportation? Maybe, but only along secondary roads, but again VDOT will likely keep their requirements for access management and secondary construction standards on local streets.
    If the candidate wants to move forward and target the larger counties, perhaps a solution would pick them off one at a time. Redirect some of the new revenue to eliminate the secondary road maintenance backlog in Fairfax County, devolve the secondary road with a new source of local revenue, give some time to see if that works, then move on to the next county. Even the limited devolution to even a few of the larger counties as envisioned by the “new” plan, in my opinion, would be a disaster. Bosun

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