Category Archives: Transportation

Just How Smart Is the Smart-Scale Scoring System?

Over the past month Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, has criticized the state’s Smart Scale scoring system for allocating transportation dollars. By law, he says, the system is supposed to prioritize congestion mitigation. But the latest round of allocations was biased heavily in favor of land use and economic development. As a result, a Metro station project near the planned Amazon HQ2 project received funding while a Rt. 7 improvement project with greater congestion-mitigation benefits did not. This year the overwhelming majority of Northern Virginia transportation funds are going to projects inside the Beltway and only a pittance to counties on the metropolitan fringe. LaRock says the system is “seriously broken.”

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue defends the Smart Scale methodology. As it happened this year, yes, Northern Virginia road and highway funding did fall short. He offers two justifications. First, congestion mitigation is not the only factor considered in Smart Scale, and the other projects offered tremendous benefits in other areas. Second, Smart Scale measures congestion mitigation per dollar spent. Improvements to Rt. 7, benefiting LaRock’s Loudoun County constituents, would have ameliorated a lot of congestion, but it is also a very large, very expensive project.

LaRock has a response to that. Peculiarities in the Smart Scale methodology had the effect this year of diminishing the weight given congestion mitigation projects. The state’s top congestion-relief project, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, offered benefits so far and above all other projects that it minimized the weighting of congestion benefits for those projects.

The issues here are arcane and difficult to explain. Thus the debate boils down to he-said, she-said with LaRock and Donohue on opposite sides of the controversy. But the annual allocation of roughly $800 million yearly in transportation construction dollars is at stake. LaRock, along with Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has launched the first major challenge to the scoring system, which was designed with the hope of taking politics out of transportation decision-making. Continue reading

Spending Increases, Road Quality Decreases

Source: “Repair Priorities 2019

A new study by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense documents the magnitude of the “Growth Ponzi scheme” in the U.S. road transportation system. Between 2009 and 2017, the 50 states collectively added more than 223,000 lane miles to their road networks. At an average cost of $24,000 per lane mile to keep roads in a state of good repair, that means states and localities have pumped up their maintenance liabilities by $5 billion a year.

But the states aren’t keeping up with those costs, contends “Repair Priorities 2019.” Nationally, the percentage of roads in poor condition increased from 15% in 2008 to 20% in 2017.

The problem isn’t a lack of money, argues Beth Osborne, director of Transportation of America. “We’re finding the money for expansion. There’s too little money to do everything, but we’re insisting that we do everything.” Continue reading

LaRock: Northam “Hijacked” Road Funds for Amazon

Money from Northern Virginia taxpayers meant to address traffic congestion has been “hijacked” by Gov. Ralph Northam to keep the governor’s promises to Amazon in the HQ2 project, charges Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, in a Washington Post op-ed.

The state’s Smart Scale scoring system, which by law is supposed to emphasize congestion-mitigation strategies, has been biased in favor of projects geared to economic development and land use, with the result that almost all of it is ending up “within a stone’s throw of the Amazon HQ2 project in Arlington.” Outlying counties are the losers. Writes LaRock:

The Northam administration’s recommended project funding list for Northern Virginia spends 92 percent of the $200 million in recommended funding on transit/bike/pedestrian projects. Only a pittance, $16 million, would go to roads.

The Northam administration’s scoring shows 61 percent of these recommended projects’ benefit would be “Land Use,” another 9 percent “Accessibility and Economic Development,” 18 percent “Environmental” and only 7 percent “Congestion Mitigation.” Geographically, 66 percent of Northern Virginia funding would go to Arlington and Alexandria, with another 25 percent to a bus project on the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax County.

Continue reading

Movable Walkways for Potomac Yard Metro?

We have all encountered moving walkways in airports. I’m wondering why we haven’t seen them in other places. Perhaps the darn things are just so expensive to build and maintain. But that may change. A moving walkway is one of the options being considered in the planned $370 million Potomac Yard Metro station to be built near Amazon’s HQ2 project in Arlington County.

There are four broad design options, according to the Washington Business Journal. All but one would require a 765-foot trek to the fare gates: Continue reading

Uh, Oh, Virginians Are Driving More. A Lot More.

Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled. Data source: Virginia Department of Transportation

Now that we’ve learned that Millennials have the same driving habits as previous generations — as soon as they can afford to, they buy their own cars and drive them just as much (see previous post) — we can dispense with the delusion that their enlightened consumer preferences will induce them to abandon the practice of driving solo in their own cars and take to buses, bicycles and mass transit in large numbers regardless of what else is happening in the economy.

After writing the previous post, I decided to revisit some numbers that I haven’t seen published in years — Vehicle Miles Traveled in Virginia. The updated numbers are startling. After hitting a seven-year plateau, VMT between 2014 and 2017 resumed the upward climb on the same trajectory as seen during the 2000s real estate boom and heyday of suburban sprawl. Continue reading

So Much for Millennials Saving the Planet

Are Millennials really different from older generations when it comes to transportation preferences? Is the younger generation, supposedly enlightened about the need to combat global warming, truly embracing bicycles and buses and the sharing economy over owning and driving their own automobiles? Here in Virginia, billions of dollars of mass transit and other infrastructure spending hinge on the answer.

Christopher R. Knittel with the MIT Sloan School of Management and Elizabeth Murphy with Genser Energy — both of whom are concerned about global warming — tested Millennials’ vehicle-ownership preferences by comparing vehicle ownership and vehicle miles traveled (VMT). They published their findings in a new paper, “Generational Trends in Vehicle Ownership and Use: Are Millennials any Different?”

The disappointed verdict: “Results suggest that while Millennial vehicle ownership and use may be lower early on in life, these differences are only temporary and, in fact, lifetime vehicle use is likely to be greater.” Continue reading

Fantasy Thinking about Passenger Rail

I like riding passenger trains. My wife and I rode the rails from Richmond to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago to avoid the knuckle-clenching grind of Interstate 95 and the expense of parking in the District. The seats in our Amtrak car were comfortable, and Wi-Fi allowed us to check email and surf the Web. What I like even more is that my tickets were subsidized. Thank you, taxpayers, for making my enjoyable trip more affordable!

The cost of train travel rarely enters into the consideration of other rail buffs, however. Indeed, in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch Rafi Guroian, a director of the Virginia Rail Passengers Association, urges a massive expansion of train service in Virginia without ever once mentioning how much his marvelous ideas would cost. Continue reading

Floods, Roads and Risk Management

Storm-related road repairs in Northumberland County. Photo credit: Virginia Mercury.

In a blog post yesterday (“Risk and the Fisc”), I cited an Old Dominion University study that guesstimated that Katrina-scale hurricane could cause $40 billion in damages and lost economic activity in Hampton Roads. The cost to the Commonwealth of coping with such a disaster, said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, “keeps me up at night.”

Today comes news that the cost of repairing road damage in the aftermath of Tropic Storm Michael is estimated to be $25 million. Six months after the storm hit Virginia, 17 roads around the state are still under repair, reports The Virginia Mercury. That’s the damage from a tropical storm, which generated a fraction of the rain, wind, and storm surge associated with a Class 5 hurricane.

Crews have been fixing pipes and washed-out roads, mostly inland where heavy rains caused flash flooding. Continue reading

NoVa Transit Projects Got Highest Congestion Scores This Round

Smart Scale congestion scores for Top 10 Northern Virginia projects. Only the top seven received regional transportation funding in the most recent round.

Yes, it’s true that most of Northern Virginia’s regional transportation funds were dedicated to mass transit projects in the last round of funding, says Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. But six of the seven projects that did receive funding scored highest in congestion mitigation under the state’s Smart Scale scoring system.

The only project getting funding without a top congestion-mitigation score — a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro — scored high in other criteria, particularly the environment and land use. The Crystal City Metro, incidentally, is tied to the Amazon HQ2 project, one of the biggest economic-development projects in Virginia’s history, although Donohue says that economic-development benefits did not drive the funding for that project. Continue reading

Is Smart Scale Working Like It’s Supposed to?

Republican legislators in Northern Virginia (the few that are left) are wondering what happened to Virginia’s Smart Scale mechanism for allocating transportation dollars. Smart Scale was established during the McAuliffe administration to score proposed transportation projects on key metrics such as congestion relief, economic development, safety, land use, and the environment. But somehow 84% of the transportation dollars raised through Northern Virginia regional taxes were directed to transit projects, assert Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax. Only $8 million per year of the $200 million in state funding has gone to highway projects.

“These recommendations are nothing short of outrageous and demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that SMART SCALE scoring is failing,” said LaRock in a prepared statement yesterday. “It is not following the legislative mandates imposed by the Virginia Legislature in 2014. Northern Virginia’s notorious congestion will not go away if 70% of the estimated benefit of projects comes from Land use, Economic Development, and Accessibility, with another 18% from Environment.” Continue reading

Mass Transit and Unfunded Pension Liabilities

It has long been known that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which operates the Washington region’s commuter rail and bus systems, has unfunded retirement-benefit costs approaching $3 billion (on top of its multibillion-dollar unfunded maintenance backlog). While the Commonwealth of Virginia is not legally obligated to made good Virginia’s share WMATA’s shortfalls, as a practical matter it may have to eventually or risk — again — Metro collapsing into fiscal insolvency.

What I have not reported in past posts is the magnitude of that liability in relation to the size of the enterprise. A new Moody’s Investors Service report has the answer: Adjusted net pension liabilities plus adjusted net “other” retirement benefits (primarily health care) amount to 305% of WMATA revenues. For the uninitiated, that’s a lot. It’s the highest ratio of the nation’s ten largest mass transit agencies.

Another cause for concern. According to Moody’s, “WMATA has greater than a 10% one-year probability of experiencing pension investment losses that amount to 25% or more of its revenues, a threshold known as our “pension asset shock indicator.” Continue reading

Distracted Driving the New Drunk Driving

It is intuitively obvious to anyone who drives that other people using cell phones (not us, of course) are a menace to the public. We’ve seen them yakking away with the phone to their ear or, worse, actually texting with eyes on the phone. Indeed, a new study by Zendrive, a driving behavior analytics company, found that so-called “distracted” drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers.

In Zendrive’s two previous studies, Virginia ranked in the middle of the pack among the 50 states for the prevalence of distracted driving: 24th place in 2017, and 26th place in 2018. Zendrive’s press release didn’t provide state rankings this year, but in a communication to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, CEO Jonathan Matus said Virginia ranks the worst. Drivers in all states became more distracted, but Virginia drivers apparently outpaced the rest, spending more than 9% of the time actively ignoring the road. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: I-81 Taxes, VCCS Shrinkage, Solar

The Numbers on Interstate 81:  Tax First, Explain Later

When you approve a major tax increase with amendments proposed just a few days before the General Assembly’s reconvened session, as happened last week, discussion is limited and there is almost no hard data on the financial impact available to the public.  You tax first and explain later.  Continue reading

The Woonerfs Are Coming!

The Wharf, a nine-block woonerf near the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.

Enter a new term into the vocabulary of Virginia land use: woonerf.

Woonerfs, according to this brief treatment by real estate information firm CoStar, is a word of Dutch origin meaning livable landscape. Increasingly, developers in the United States — and the Washington region in particular — are adopting the Dutch/Flemish technique of creating public spaces where pedestrians and vehicles have equal priority. (Woonerf is pronounced, as in the Dutch, vu-nerf.)

“You invent streets but take all the rules, the curbs, the signposts away and so people can walk the street, and cars enter at their own risk,” said Stanton Eckstut, a founding partner in EE&K and designer of the Wharf project in D.C., which features a woonerf.  These street-like spaces welcome pedestrians, bikes, cars, strollers and dogs alike.

Part of developer JBG’s plans for National Landing, which will be home to Amazon’s HQ2 in Arlington and Alexandria, includes a woonerf-like pedestrian pathway connecting two major office towers. Continue reading

After I-81 Tax Compromise, Time to Talk VMT Tax

Interstate 81. Photo credit: Roanoke Times

The Commonwealth of Virginia has done some smart things in recent years regarding transportation policy. It has established the Smart Scale system for objectively ranking transportation projects. And it has reformed its Public Private Partnership process for attracting private-sector investment without giving away the store. But the assortment of taxes used to fund the state’s streets, roads, highways, and mass transit systems remains an incoherent hodgepodge of subsidies and cross subsidies that only remotely abide by the user-pays principle.

Governor Ralph Northam and the General Assembly kinda sorta took a step in the right direction yesterday by agreeing to new taxes to raise money for congestion-relief projects along Interstate 81, the transportation spine of western Virginia. But we can do better. It’s time for Virginia to seriously consider a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax to cover the maintenance cost of the state’s roads, bridges and highways.

Under Northam’s amendments, tractor-trailer registration fees will increase later this year and the diesel tax will increase to 2.03% of the statewide average average wholesale price per gallon. That make sense. Freight carriers dominate traffic on I-81 and they account for disproportionate wear and tear on the highway. Also, according to the Roanoke Times, revenues will be distributed on the basis of truck miles traveled on Interstate highways between the I-81 Corridor Improvement Fund and other interstate projects around the state. Additionally, the gas and diesel tax will increase by way of a 2.1% wholesale tax in the I-81 corridor. All of those revenues will go directly to I-81 improvements.  Continue reading