Fixing Transportation Takes More than Money

Some things are just too broke to fix. Sometimes you have to start over.

Yes, Virginia, the Old Dominion has a transportation funding crisis. The problem has been highlighted for the upteenth time in a letter from government leaders from urban crescent encompassing Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. (See previous post.)

Everybody knows there isn’t enough money to support, much less modernize, Virginia’s transportation system. But that’s where the agreement ends and conceptual clarity breaks down. How much more money do we need? Who should pay? If we had more money, where should we spend it? Finally, how do we ensure that we’re meeting the transportation needs of the future, not throwing money at projects premised upon obsolete assumptions of where future growth and development will occur?

As long as we have no answers to those questions, we can be assured that a Business-as-Usual mindset will perpetuate a broken system. Without a fundamental re-boot to the system, no amount of money can solve the problem. Some key problems:

How much money do we need? Nobody knows. Every few years the state goes through the exercise of updating its VTrans plan that projects long-term needs and guesstimates how much money the improvements will cost to build. Trouble is, projections are based upon past history — the 1950-2010 era in which the “suburban sprawl” pattern of scattered, low-density, disconnected development dominated growth and development. There is ample reason to believe, based upon demographics, changing lifestyles and the demise of easy money, that we have entered a post-sprawl era and that the growth in Vehicle Miles Traveled will slow considerably.

Who should pay? The current funding paradigm is to scrounge money from any source, even when there is no nexus between who pays and who uses/benefits from the transportation improvement. That approach subsidizes heavy users of the system, thus stimulating over use and congestion. A user-pays system would rely upon the motor fuels tax to pay for maintenance and upon tolls and various forms of “value capture” (tapping the increase in real estate values that occurs when public improvements are made), such as proffers and special tax districts to pay for new facilities. Unless people pay their full costs, they will always want more transportation capacity than the state can afford.

Setting priorities. Governors are biased toward building big, highly visible transportation projects that garner big headlines and generate attaboys from voters. But smaller projects may offer a bigger bang for the buck — they can reduce more congestion, or do more to improve safety per dollar spent than, say, a project of marginal economic utility such as the Charlottesville Bypass. Alas, there is no formal methodology for ranking and prioritizing projects that do the most good for the money spent. Construction dollars are allocated on the basis of politics, perception and ideology.

Transportation and land use. The demand for transportation improvements originates in land-use decisions made by local governments. Local boards and councils make key planning and zoning decisions without considering the implications for transportation, a responsibility of the state. More efficient human settlement patterns can significantly reduce the demand for automobile travel.

Free shared-ridership services! Shared ridership in Virginia is built around government-owned monopolies whose basic business models originated in the 1940s, or earlier, hardly a recipe for efficiency and innovation. Rather than pumping more money into money-losing transit enterprises, we should be deregulating transportation services, riding the technology wave and encouraging innovation.

Yes, we need more money to fix transportation in Virginia. But we need to fix a whole lot else first.


Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. I’d be curious to see a combined list of all the unfunded wants of each locality in the Urban Crescent along with the estimated cost.

    Would that list look anything like a strategic transportation vision for the urban crescent?

    or how about the VTRANs doc? What in that document could be construed as a legitimate needs vision for the Urban Crescent?

    I compliment Jim for asking the questions. Now, let see if anyone actually tries to answer them.

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    Jim writes a good post but then falls into wishful thinking.

    “There is ample reason to believe, based upon demographics, changing lifestyles and the demise of easy money, that we have entered a post-sprawl era and that the growth in Vehicle Miles Traveled will slow considerably.”.

    I see no reason to believe that.

    Demographics – yes, temporarily, the Echo Boomers represent a bulge in the late teen – 20 something population. They will follow in the footsteps of their parents by first living in the cities, then getting married, moving to the near suburbs, having kids and moving to the far suburbs.

    Changing lifestyles – this is something people say when they have nothing relevant to say.

    Demise of easy money – Interest rates in the US have exceeded 8% in about 20 years since 1790. ( The fact that many of those 20 years were during Jim Bacon’s formative days in the 1970s and 1980s might explain his misunderstanding of “easy money”. Money is usually easy. The high interest rates of the 70s and 80s were a multi-century aberration.

    “growth in Vehicle Miles Traveled will slow considerably.”. First, the growth will slow? OK. But VMT will continue to grow. So, the traffic jams keep getting worse, right? Then, where will VMT slow? Everywhere? I am sure VMT has declined in Detroit since 1950. I am sure VMT has increased in Austin, TX since 1950. Averages make for poor indicators. On average, humans have one testicle and one breast.

  3. One testicle and one breast — I’ll have to remember that.

    Yes, Vehicle Miles Traveled probably will continue to grow in Virginia, and especially in Northern Virginia, along with population. But it matters very much how fast it grows. For purposes of illustration, let’s say VMT increased 4% yearly in the sprawl era and VDOT projects it to increase, for purposes of forecasting, to increase 4% in the years ahead. But let’s say it increases only 1% yearly. Over a 20-year period, a 4% annually compounded rate will lead to double the traffic of the 1% rate.

    Now, let’s say Virginia needs $20 billion to make up for current transportation deficiencies — no matter what the future growth rate. For purposes of determining levels of taxation, it matters very much whether we need $30 billion or $60 billion to accommodate growth for the next 20 years. If we over-estimate travel demand, we will tax way too much and end up building roads, highways and transit facilities that aren’t economically justified.

    In the end, you might be right and I might be wrong about the impact of changing demographics, lifestyles, price of gasoline, etc., etc. But I wouldn’t accept the VTrans forecasts on the basis of VDOT’s current forecasting methodology.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Agree that the rate of growth is important. Just need to remember that VMT continues to grow. So, the Urban Cresent folks say, “By 2017, no state funds will be available for highway construction, and the Commonwealth will be unable to fully match federal funds.”. And that’s while VMT is increasing.

      Also, Jim – I am interested in your take on this …

      ” According to the Texas Transportation Institute, Richmond area commuters waste 20 hours per year stuck in traffic, Hampton Roads commuters waste 34 hours and Northern Virginia commuters waste 74 hours. “.

      Why is Richmond’s traffic delay about a half of Tidewater and a quarter of NoVa?

      One could almost imagine that more money has been spent, per capita, on roads in Richmond than Tidewater or NoVa.

      Nah! Richmond is just a unique example of fully functional human settlement patters. Kind of like Sea Side on the James. That must be it.

      1. Don, Go read the TTI analysis. Part of the explanation for the differential is simply the size of the MSA. Smaller MSAs have less congestion on average. Richmond is the smallest of the three MSAs. Also, Richmond motorists have been paying tolls a long time. Those tolls pay for a lot of infrastructure.

        Has there been favoritism in the allocation of road construction funds? Sen. Willey (since departed about 20 years ago) was famous for snagging extra transportation dollars for Richmond projects. I guess that’s why there’s a bridge across the James River named for him. But, dude, look at all the money spent on the Mixing Bowl and the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. It’s not as if NoVa hasn’t had a lot of money pumped into it.

        If you’re concerned about “Richmond” playing regional favorites, look at all the Public Private Partnership money flowing into Tidewater right now. None of that P3 money is going into Richmond.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          I have no idea if the funding allocation is fair and neither do you. As you have correctly stated on many occasions, the ROI analysis required to make sense of the transportation spending is sorely lacking.

          Frankly, it will remain lacking until the very mayors and board chairpersons who signed the letter to McDonnell start actively campaigning for or against candidates for the state legislature. For example, an urban cresent transportation rating for each candidate would go a long way to stifling the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond’s worst behaviors.

          As for the “larger MSAs are more congested” … I am not at all sure of that. Here is a scorecard for traffic congestion in North America. New York is #6:

          1. Read the TTI report. It makes the point that congestion is correlated with size. TTI does not posit a perfect correlation, only that a meaningful relationship exists. Thus, “very large areas” have a higher percentage of congested lane miles than “large areas,” which have more than “medium” areas, which have more than “small areas.”

  4. What about network management? VDOT is a network operator and must manage as such. I’ve worked with enough engineers and marketing people over the years to know one cannot easily afford to expand a network to handle growing peaks. Network usage at peak periods must be priced at a premium or the operator will go broke. We will continue to see things such as Express Lanes, mandatory paid parking, parking taxes. Discounts for car and van pools.
    And network operators also build capacity where it is needed, not where some landowner wants better access. The CTB needs to be abolished.
    DJR is right about Echo Boomers. They’ll live in the city until they have school aged children. That little pocket park doesn’t cut when the kids are six and seven. Larry is going to have neighbors for the next 50 years.

  5. re: neighbors -yup. re: time lost to congestion – converted to dollars – converted to tolls – are people willing to pay to buy down congestion?

    if not.. then it must not be the problem it is claimed to be. I-95 will not be expanded between Richmond and NoVa unless tolled.

    re: local roads, regional roads, roads of Urban Crescent significance.

    priorities? I would expect that roads of direct significance to the Urban Crescent itself would be identified but I’m guessing it’s going to be adding capacity to I-95 and I-64 and RoVa is not going to pay a penny to do it unless the urban crescent caucus stages a takeover of the GA.

    of course – it would be a real shocker if the individual localities and regions in the Urban Crescent are found to be pursuing their own interests under the guise of the urban crescent banner. SHOCK!

    In FreddyBurg – there shock and outrage that the HOT lanes were slipped in under the radar…a stealth process!

    I think toll roads are where the funding will come from – not gas taxes and not sales taxes and certainly not property taxes.

    I think McDonnell is done and who knows what happens to Connaughton since he’s not running for Gov.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    “In FreddyBurg – there shock and outrage that the HOT lanes were slipped in under the radar…a stealth process!”.

    I told Chap Petersen several years ago that the politicians who supported the HOT lanes were going to pay the price once people started receiving those multi-hundred dollar monthly bills.

    In many ways, the Urban Crescent signatories may be protecting themselves from the HOT lane (and other vastly overpriced toll road) blowback by sending that letter.

    The frozen gas price since 1986 has resulted in a multi-billion dollar deficit in transportation funding over the last 25 years. This is not what was done in the other states. Virginia is an outlier that has, once again, screwed the pooch with its utterly incompetent state government.

  7. re: ” In many ways, the Urban Crescent signatories may be protecting themselves from the HOT lane (and other vastly overpriced toll road) blowback by sending that letter.”

    The Gov and most all elected officials have publically supported the HOT lanes. What the Urban Crescent letter was really about was
    trying to get the General Assembly to increase taxes so that the local
    elected won’t have to take the hit for advocating tax increases.

    it’s the same old, same old where the local officials want more money from the state – and they want someone else to increase taxes besides themselves.

    Fairfax has had the ability to levy an income tax for some number of years now to pay for additional transportation infrastructure but what have they done? They have complained about the Dillon Rule that restricts them but Va specifically allows Fairfax tax authority that many others don’t have but they still complain – and refuse to raise taxes that they have the authority to do. They can also offer referenda to their citizens for Transportation infrastructure.

    fess up DJ. How come Fairfax won’t levy an income tax?

  8. Fairfax County will not levy an income tax surcharge for transportation because the Supervisors know the public does not trust them on transportation/infrastructure issues and because they prefer to blame Richmond and the Dillon Rule. The status quo is a great system for elected officials. They get substantial sums of campaign contributions from landowners and developers; have an excuse as to why they are not responsible for making land use decisions (Comp Plan and re-zonings) consistent with state law (which assumes localities will NOT approve land use changes that overburden transportation capacity); and can avoid the political risk of raising taxes.
    The entire system is broken and corrupt. Giving it more money without reforms that will gore some big oxen is little more than theft.

  9. James, off topic for the thread, but I know you’re tracking the ever growing trend in arts, culture, and entertainment in Richmond. Check out this nugget of information in an article on the rise of freelancers in the entertainment industry:

    We all know New York City and Los Angeles are major entertainment hubs. But EMSI’s data is still startling: The nation’s two largest cities account for nearly 1 out of every 5 entertainment and sports-related jobs in America. The New York City metro area has the most jobs in entertainment and sports-related fields of any MSA (with more than 116,000 estimated in 2012), followed by L.A. (112,528). These two have nearly four times the number of jobs as Chicago, which has the third-most in the US at nearly 37,000.

    Of the 50 most populous metros in the U.S., Los Angeles is also the most concentrated in entertainment and sports-related workers. With a location quotient of 2.06, L.A. is more than twice as concentrated as the national average of 1.0. Nashville, with an LQ of 2.02, is close behind, followed by San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas, and Austin, Texas.

    Since 2008, Austin has blown away every other big metro in terms of its job growth in entertainment and sports jobs (18.4%). Second is Richmond, VA (13.4%)

    1. Very cool stuff. I’ll clip this. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to follow up.

    2. Fascinating information. I sure would not have guessed it.

  10. TMT has it right. The local elected sign on to these “letters” to try to get Richmond to increase taxes instead of them doing it locally.

    So then they blame Richmond for not helping them.

    This is tried and true – not only in NoVa but in Hampton Roads where people hate the idea of increasing the gas tax and also hate the idea of tolls.

    they want “Richmond” to fund their roads, i.e. the oft-repeated Mantra that “roads are a State responsibility” – like the State has some grove of money trees that they use for roads instead of the gas tax or some other tax.

    You have to face up to it. People have been led by the nose … willingly so, in fact, to believe that money for roads comes from somewhere else other than taxes or tolls on them.

    Think about it. If you were to ask the average person how much the people in their country generated in gas taxes each year – how many folks would have a clue? But try this. Get them to make a guess and see what kind of answers you get. Ask folks how much one mile of road costs and see how many know that. My point here is that people don’t know, and don’t want to know, and local officials also don’t want them to know.

    People in NoVa could actually find out by consulting the revenues that VRE generates from the 2.1% tax on gasoline – each county gets that tax and then has to share it with VRE but there is an accounting for that tax but try to find it in your county budget.

  11. Potomac Clubber Avatar
    Potomac Clubber

    I live in Prince William County and have worked and commuted from both Richmond and Northern Virginia. It is always faster for me to drive home the 100 miles from Richmond then it is the 20 some miles from points North. The bottom line is that there is no and I mean no traffic in Richmond. Richmond can get by for the next 3 or 4 decades with just maintaining the existing infrastructure they have.

Leave a Reply