Coming Up: An Extreme Makeover for Transportation

The GOP in the House of Delegates is promising an “extreme makeover” of Virginia’s transportation system when the General Assembly reconvenes in a month, reports Garren Shipley with the Northern Virginia Daily.

The delegates have absorbed the results of the recent Mason-Dixon poll that showed voters had little appetite for higher taxes. During a recent retreat, they explored a range of new policy options. Shipley quotes Del. Clay Athey, R-Front Royal, as saying, “The people of Virginia believe that we have enough money to have a fine transportation system. The message we’re getting [from voters] is ‘fix it with some innovative ideas.’”

Some of the ideas under consideration:

  • Give control of secondary road system in urban areas back to county governments, along with funding from what was the Virginia Department of Transportation’s budget. VDOT would remain responsible for interstate highways and primary routes. The transfer of responsibility, says Athey, “clearly ties those decisions [together], land use and transportation.”
  • Experiment with congestion-pricing tolls on gridlocked stretches of Interstate. Raising money would be a secondary goal. The main purpose would be to incentivize drivers to drive less on bottlenecked roads during periods of peak traffic.
  • Prioritize transportation projects on a Return on Investment basis. In other words, give funding preference to projects that provide the most congestion relief per dollar spent. Projects that deliver the most “bang for the buck” would get the money, Athey says. Mass transit and rail projects would have to compete on an equal basis with roads.

The delegates are to be applauded for their serious outside-the-box thinking. These ideas would constitute the most significant change in state transportation policy in my memory, surpassing even the introduction of public-private partnerships into the transportation policy mix.

As readers of Bacon’s Rebellion know, these ideas, as significant as they are, represent only a first step down a long path. But at least these proposals would get Virginia moving down the right path. The latter two ideas are ones that we have been calling for, and the first is one we wish we had. The special transportation session next month will be fascinating to watch.

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20 responses to “Coming Up: An Extreme Makeover for Transportation”

  1. Lucy Jones Avatar
    Lucy Jones

    Looks to me like the politicians have been reading the Rebellion.

    Well done!!!

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    A skeptic here since the devil is in the details. Let’s say we give “control” of secondary roads back to county government, then where does Nanny (a.k.a., the State) fit in the picture? What happens if a county takes its VDOT money and lowers property taxes rather than build roads? Hey, I can stand some potholes for a few cents off the tax bill, can’t you? What happens when county L approves a massive development whose roads dump traffic on to the secondary roads of county PW or F, but the latter counties have other road improvement plans for their VDOT money?
    Congestion pricing? Great! Will the House of Deligates make sure my boss allows me to work at off-peak hours or will they ensure that I get a raise to pay the tolls? Or maybe they would prefer me to find another job?
    With return on investment criteria, you may as well kiss mass transit good-bye. If mass transit could be justified by “more bang for the buck” then VEPCO would still be running the transit system in Richmond.
    All of these ideas sound great and you are to be commended for your past efforts to get the debate away from taxes, but let’s see some real world examples where they have worked. And how do you overcome the hatred by local governments of being told what to do by Richmond?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Local governments will instantly and correctly label that idea on secondary roads just one more unfunded state mandate, unless they get some revenue flexibility. I hope (but doubt) they saw the results in the poll about more acceptance of revenue measures at the local or regional level.

    I expect a political, get my butt re-elected proposal, not a serious one that will give the state economy another 20 year boost.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 1:29, You ask, “What happens if a county takes its VDOT money and lowers property taxes rather than build roads?”

    That’s a legitimate question and one that should be addressed in any legislation: Money coming from the Transportation Trust Fund gets spent on transportation, not anything else. In most cases, the point will be moot. The question is, how many local governments will supplement those state funds with their own — witness what’s happening in Prince William and Spotsylvania counties — or with proffers and CDA bonds, like Greenvest?

    As for your mass transit question… I have argued that mass transit facilities can be funded in great part by CDA bonds repaid by landowners property whose property increases in value as a result of Metro stations and any increased density that local governments may allow. And toss in federal funds, if they’re available. If a mass transit project can’t compete with roads under those conditions, then it’s probably not economically viable.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    The skeptic is back. So, in your scenario, you would use my state (e.g., gas taxes) and federal tax dollars to pay for mass transit and if I happened to live within one of your CDAs, I would pay a special assessment on my real and perhaps personal property also. What a deal!

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Anonymous 2:24, The CDAs that I envision would be located immediately around Metro stations, within a radius of about 1/4 mile. Most property owners would be commercial property owners and/or developers. Average Joe citizens would be unlikely to be affected unless, possibly, they purchased property after the CDA had been set up and did so in full knowledge of the financial obligations associated with the CDA. What my arrangement would do is tap the windfall increases in property values that accrue to landowners (usually commercial landowners, developers and speculators) when Metro stations are established. By tapping this value, the up-front cost of heavy and light rail facilities can be made significantly lower and, thus, more competitive with road projects.

  7. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Having lived in Arlington, that county has taken over the roads. It receives money from Richmond that would otherwise go to VDOT. I don’t recall whether county taxpayers supplement state funds for road maintenance.

    My experience was county officials were more responsive to citizen concerns than VDOT is. Something about being on the county board does that.

  8. Anonymous Avatar

    Skeptic is back. Well, Mr. Toomanytaxes being on a county board does have its advantages. But neither you nor Mr. Bacon has addressed this problem: What happens when county L approves a massive development whose roads dump traffic on to the secondary roads of county PW or F, but the latter counties have other road improvement plans for their VDOT money? Now that may not occur in Arlington since most of the area is built up.

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Skeptical anonymous 8:49, You won’t get any argument from me about the problem you raised: County X plans a project that has spillover effects in County Y and County Z. Happens all the time. That’s why transportation and land use planning really should take place at a regional level. A consistent argument on the Bacon’s Rebellion blog is that the current political subdivisions are relics of the 19th century and no longer adapted to the economic realities of the 21st century in which the primary units of economic competitiveness are metropolitan areas. (We call them New Urban Regions, which extend beyond the boundaries of a Metropolitan Statistical Area to encompass the commuting-shed of the area.)

    That’s why I said in my original post that the Delegates’ proposals represent only the first step forward to fundamental reform. At least they put transportation and land use planning at the same level of government. The next step is to put transportation and land use planning at the appropriate level of government, which is the region.

    I know that scares off my conservative friends who are terrified of creating “another layer” of unresponsive government. But that’s where the responsibility belongs.

  10. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Skeptial. I won’t argue with you on the planning issue. What is needed is legal authority for local governments to adopt and enforce adequate public facilities ordinances like most of the rest of the US. That would certainly help.

    I don’t see the tie between which entity is responsible for secondary roads and a lack of coordinated planning. Your example does, however, beg the question, does the “road owner” (VDOT or Fairfax County) have an obligation to widen Route 50 in Fairfax County to accommodate a large development in Loudoun County that would dump cars onto Route 50, for example? I don’t have an answer to that question. I suspect that most residents of Loudoun County might argue “yes,” while residents of Fairfax County would likely be split.

    There is also the possibility that, in your example, some of the arterials affected might still be under the control of VDOT. That, obviously, leaves us where we are today.

    Nor am I ready to follow Jim towards regional planning. I submit that the biggest problem today is the lack of responsiveness to legitimate citizen concerns by elected and appointed officials. I fear that a regional body would be even less responsive. (I’m not arguing that every citizen objection should stop a project. Rather, rational concerns about overcrowding, inadequate public facilities and escalating real estate taxes should be addressed as part of the zoning process.) IMHO, many people believe that regional authorities are even easier for developers to manipulate than elected officals. As most of us recognize, there is virtually no citzen trust of Virginia’s state and local governments on land use-related issues.

    I still submit that one of the biggest problems is the fact that there is a big disconnection between those who benefit from development and those who pay its costs. That problem is not addressed by transportation reform, but will drive people’s perceptions of transportation reform and other public policy questions.

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    Skeptic is back again. Sheesh. Mssrs. Bacon and Taxes really paid attention in their state and local government THEORY classes. Regional planning sounds good until the regional agency refuses to improve a road in one locality leading to a new manufacturing plant because the regional plan does not call for it. As someone said before, local governments have all the planning tools they need to control roads and development. Planning decisions are political decisions and are most often based on who bays the loudest or pays the largest. As the development community once said publicly, they will always win because we have private property rights on their side. Look what is happening in Loudoun – they plan, they downzone, they hold an election, they plan again, they don’t want to downzone because people’s property rights to develop for the highest and best use will be taken away. Those who see the magic bullet in giving counties responsibility for transportation will be sorely disappointed and local governments will likely not want it because it serves their purpose to blame VDOT – “It’s the State’s fault.” Just like the Dillon rule – something else local government love to hate but have to love since it gives them cover. APF will become just another tool to discriminate against low and moderate income housing and to push development into some other locality’s back yard.

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Skeptic. I’m not sure that we are in disagreement. I’m not supporting regional planning. I think it’s just another layer of government that will be manipulated.

    I also agree strongly with you that local governments love the ability to blame VDOT and the Dillon Rule. It permits them to avoid taking sensible action without being responsible. I was once told by Vince Callahan that, when Virginia’s constitution was being revised, there was a proposal to abolish the Dillon Rule, but local government officials did not want that change. But even with the Dillon Rule, local governments could do much more to control and condition development than they are willing to do. As you noted correctly, it’s all about money.

    Where we might disagree is the appropriateness of pushing more development to other areas. Since development does not pay for itself — at least in Fairfax County — but reduces the quality of life and pushes up real estate taxes, I strongly support pushing as much as possible to other people’s back yards. I know quite a few other people in Fairfax County who believe the same. Is it selfish or self-protection? I’d argue it’s more of the latter.

    Again, I’m not sure where we are in strong disagreement.

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “…the biggest problem today is the lack of responsiveness to legitimate citizen concerns by elected and appointed officials.”

    That’s it in a nutshell, unless a legitimate citizen concern happens to come from a developer or special interest.

    NO. NO. NO! NO! NO! Not regional planning.

    How can you possibly suggest that builders need more freedom from regulations that screw up the market, and then suggest regional planning?

    As soon as you do that, you start winding upr the spring on a major case of backlash against nonresponsive government officials.

    That is a non starter. We just spent the laast thirty years watching the dismantling ofgovernments that failed on account of central planning. We’d have to be totally nuts to suggest such a thing.

    Central Planning, sheesh.

  14. Ray Hyde Avatar


    Developers will win not because the have property rights on their side. They will win because they are willing to spend money. When conservationists and growth controllers are willing to spend as much money as developers, then they can win, too.

    That is when property rights will work to THEIR advantage.

    Conservation is just as expensive as development, and maybe more expensive. When we stop trying to prevent growth, or to send it someplace else at no cost to ourselves, and when we start buying what it is we want on the market, then we will start getting what we want.

  15. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Ray, let me elaborate on what I meant by “regional” planning. We do NOT need another layer of government on top of what we already have. We need to reconstitute our sub-state jurisdictions so they reflect the underlying economic realities. Here in the Richmond region, we should merge the jurisdictions of Richmond, Henrico and Chesterfield, and possibly expand the region to include Hanover, Goochland and New Kent… One sub-state political jurisdiction, not six or seven. That jurisdiction would be run by an elected council and mayor, and have responsibility for transportation and land use planning, among other functions logically handled on a metro-wide level such as law enforcement.

    Under such an arrangement, there might well be sub-jurisdictions with budgetary and administrative responsibility over schools, public works, and other functions that are most appropriately delivered at a district or neighborhood level.

    One fact is undeniable: Virginia’s system of local government was designed for 19th century human settlement patterns that no longer exist. They are part of the wider dysfunction.

  16. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    It does cost money or, at least time, to influence the results of government action. One does not need to spend the most money to have an impact, but expecting that it can be done without cost is absurd. I’ve worked on many federal agency issues over the years where my client has been out-spent and out-gunned, but still obtained considerable relief because it was willing to spend sufficient money to do the analysis necessary to support its position and to advocate that position. I’ve also represented clients that did not want to spend much and achieved results accordingly.

    Similarly, citizen or ad hoc interest groups often can affect a result, but it takes a heck of a lot of volunteer time. Going to a meeting or writing a single letter doesn’t cut it. Nothing worth having is free.

    Local government boundaries don’t match settlement patterns, etc. Jim, you are absolutely correct, but I still oppose your solution. Larger government units are less responsive to ordinary citizens than smaller ones. A couple years ago, the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce tried to persuade the County to eliminate all or some of the magisterial districts for supervisors. Its complaint was that local supervisors were too willing to put their constituents’ concerns ahead of the “big picture.” Translated, it would be harder for ordinary citizens to affect land use decisions if supervisors weren’t elected by district.

    Moreover, I suspect that, at least in NoVA, a larger governmental entity would spend more, have bigger staffs, expand each individual jurisdiction’s most expensive version of a program across the rest of the combining localities, etc.

    In fact, I am aware of a number of citizen groups in Fairfax County that would seriously prefer splitting the county into a number of indepedent cities because of the belief that it would be easier to control land use decisions. In other words, smaller governmental units would likely disapprove bigger projects that negatively affect infrastructure, the quality of life and real estate taxes.

    I would admit this approach takes a more parochial view of problems, but self-protection is more important to many than “fixing bigger problems.” Until we retire, most of us need to live here and we must protect our interests the best we can.

  17. Ray Hyde Avatar


    I think you are right, again. The way you take care of the big picture is to take care of each piece of it locally, and without unfunded mandates from above.

  18. Ray Hyde Avatar


    Larger is no better than additional. That doesn’t mean that individual juridictions can’t work cooperatively or work according to a common set of underlying truths, but first we would have to understand what those are. At present that understanding is blocked or distorted by political parties, ideology, and special interests.

    Reference the contributor who referred to himself as a Rush Limbauugh Republican who never voted for a Democrat. That’s fine and it is his choice, but it makes it a little hard to make a different decision or choice if the facts turn out to not be convenient to your ideology.

    If Loudoun builds 28,000 new homes and all those people jam up Fairfax roads, and if they then back up into PW and Fauquier Counties, then those governments need to talk, and work out a solution. I can’t imagine Fauquier sending money to PW to help fix their roads anymore than I can imagine downstate sending money to NOVA for the same reason. But on the local level, when Fauquier and Warren County residents find that anything east of Gainesville is inaccessible, then they may raise a fuss.

    Already, Fauquier is making some moves to ease up on its notorious animosity towards businesses. PW has and will continue to have for quite some time the fastest rate of job growth in the area, although not the greatest number of new jobs.

    In Fairfax, and in other jurisdictions around the nation, TMT and others are asking, “Why are we trying to attract still more new jobs, more density, and more development?” Fairfax, The District, and Arlington are the areas where real estate taxes and housing costs have most outstripped income growth: no wonder people there are fed up.

    But if they become part of a larger juridiction, then each person beomes a smaller voice. A bigger planning bureaucracy will have less flexibility, move slower, and have a heavier hand than a smaller one. And all of those characteristics work against giving the market the flexibility it needs through less intervention.

  19. Anonymous Avatar

    Skeptic back again. Here is how Ray paraphrased TMT: “I think you are right, again. The way you take care of the big picture is to take care of each piece of it locally, and without unfunded mandates from above.” One can agree, but how do you keep continuity of the road system? How do you prevent “dumping” of traffic problems on your next door neighbor? How do you ensure that money for roads gets spent on roads and not tax relief? How will you keep a locality from spending all of its money to help shopping center “A” [lots of local tax $] while stiff-arming residental development “B”? You need the Commonwealth Nanny standing over local governments with carrots in one hand and a BIG stick in the other. Without those incentives and disincentives you will have chaos 10,000 times worse than now. Remember, those who fail to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them. Study up on why the State (that mean ol’ Byrd machine) took over the road function back in the 1920s.

  20. Let me be skeptical of skeptic. The state government is the problem, not the solution. The primary goal of the state government is to get itself re-elected. Due to the imbalance of wealth and population in Virginia that goal is accomplished by a constant, huge subsidy of downstate Virginia by Northern Virginia. Therefore, the less power the state has the better for Northern Virginia.

    The 1920s were almost a century ago. While I will certainly agree that the state government behaves like it is still 1920 I question the logic of that behavior. I also question the logic of “studying up” on why the Byrd regime took over roads in the 1920s.

    Politics draws a particularly bad class of people to its door. In my opinion the fewer politicians the better. I believe that the state government should be shrunk in size, cost and power.

    Finally, I have been told that Arlington County manages its own roads (vs. VDOT). Is this true? If so, how did they get the state off their backs?

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