“Flash the Lights and Blow the Sirens”

As Doug Koelemay does not participate in this blog, I feel compelled to plug his e-zine contribution this week, “Flash the Lights and Blow the Sirens,” about the imminent demise of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, whose $500 million list of regional transportation projects no longer has a funding source.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the NVTA’s mission or how it is run, the slow unwinding of a key player in the Northern Virginia transportation debate is an important story. So is the frustration felt by many of its members. One particularly choice quote:

“It is one thing to be a donor region,” Loudoun County Board Chairman Scott York commented, “but through its inaction, the state is rendering it impossible for local governments to deliver the public safety, economic support and quality of life our residents and businesses expect.”

York suggested that rather than turn out the lights, the authority should consider reconstituting itself as a “Northern Virginia Statehood Commission.”

(Groveton: You can be the very first to donate!)

Doug was there, and he provides solid reporting (with just a teeny, weeny bit of an editorial slant) on a session that, to the best of his knowledge, none of Northern Virginia’s newspapers wrote about.

(Can anyone guess the derivation of the headline? The illustration above is a clue. For the answer, read Doug’s column.)

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  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    What’s interesting to me is the difference in attitudes about said transportation authorities between HR/TW and NoVa.

    HR/TW’s attitude seems to be “good riddance and don’t let the door hit you on your way out”…

    ..where-as in NoVa there seems to be wailing and gnashing of teeth – I guess depending on which of the defunded projects of the 300million are so important as to constitute a “crisis worthy of separate statehood.

    If the idea is that if NoVa should have destiny over it’s own transportation affairs (which I strongly support) why would we think that said voters would … if given the opportunity of another referenda would say anything different than the resounding “NO” in the 2002 referenda?

    “One of the biggest problems voters face in trying to control transportation policy is finding the right official to hold accountable. Throughout the nation, there are always a large number of overlapping government transportation bodies at the local, state and federal levels that spend transportation funds. With so many actors in the arena, it is next to impossible for voters to hold these public entities accountable for failures.

    In Northern Virginia alone, transportation bureaucracies include the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board, the National Park Service, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Highway Administration, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission, the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, and the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority.

    Talk about a need for less government.”


    If the NoVa TA plans to operate the same way the HR/TW planned to, why would that be any improvement over the current mess?

    It just looks like to me that, without referenda, you just turn over control of transportation from State level boosters of highways for economic development to NoVa Regional boosters of highways (and transit) for economic development.

    I think voters want more than this.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    NTVA – Rest in peace. The body was more responsive to developers than to citizens. $170 M for a trolley. If Arlington does not need major transportation improvements, then its citizens should be exempt from the taxes and fees.

    Decisions about taxes and fees and how they are spent must be made by elected officials. I can vote for or against Gerry Connolly. But I can’t vote for or against Scott York. I don’t want Scott York involved in making decisions about Fairfax County any more than I’d want Gerry Connolly involved in decisions about Loudoun County if I lived there.

    The General Assembly, at least the House of Delegates, was ready to reinstate the taxes and fees struck by the state supreme court. But none of the local elected officials wanted that. They do not want to be held accountable for raising the money and justifying how its spent. The NVTA takes them off the hook.

    I don’t want elected officials off the hook. I want them on the hook. Holding local elected officials directly accountable for the money they raise and how they spend it would result in better, more transparent government. It would also weaken the ability of those who thrive on the taxes of others.

    NVTA glad you’re on death’s doorstep. Rest in peace.


  3. Anonymous Avatar

    Heres an option

    Why don’t you raise the riders fees for Metro and VRE


    I don’t want to let the local officials off the hook but in their defense transportation has been a state responsibility in Virginia for a long time.


    “It just looks like to me that, without referenda, you just turn over control of transportation from State level boosters of highways for economic development to NoVa Regional boosters of highways (and transit) for economic development.”

    I would much rather have people from this region in charge of transportation dollars instead of a state legislature who clearly has no idea what is going on up here


    In the end though I keep going back to the 2002 sales tax vote. Have things changed since then. Or, are most people fine with their commutes and this whole tranportation “crisis” is just a scam for business as usual


  4. Anonymous Avatar

    NMM – at least a plurality, if not a majority, of NoVA residents believe in transit. Some because they use it; others because they want everyone else to use it; and finally, some because they think its sacred to the environmental gods. There are also sizable groups that think we need more road capacity; and some who just don’t want to pay more taxes.

    I think that an all transit referendum would have passed in 2002.

    I don’t know what would happen with a referendum today. The presence of developers on the supporting side would still hurt the pro-tax side.

    The best way to fix transportation would be to pass a law essentially imposing a five-year moratorium on any major zoning changes. Then people might be willing to trust the government with higher taxes. But then, transportation in Virginia is about enriching a few at the expense of many. So that would never happen.


  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    ya’ll might want to look on page 28 of the Mary Peter’s proposal where she is advocating a fairly complete re-do of MPOS.


  6. Darrell -- Chesapeake Avatar
    Darrell — Chesapeake

    Decided to take a side camping trip on the way back from vacation in TN. Visited a campground down by Martinsville. They sure do have some nice roads all over. Maybe if the GA could figure out how to get some jobs down there, they could pay for them. Then the city folk wouldn’t be hounded for more and more taxes. Nova is good at jobs, Rova is good at roads. Maybe a little horse trading would help solve both issues.

  7. charlie Avatar

    What was the NVTA going to spend money on?

    IF we have a roads crisis in NoVA, here is where the $500 million would go to roads:

    *Route 3000 (Prince William County Parkway) Widening
    * Route 15 Road Widening from Evergreen Mill Rd to Leesburg town limits
    *Interchange at Edwards Ferry Road and Route 15 Bypass
    *Mulligan Road (Old Mill Road Connector Road)
    *Chain Bridge Road/Eaton Place Intersection Improvements
    *Route 28 Grade Separation Overpass (B-Line and Wellington Road, Manassas)
    *Route 7 Widening from Rolling Holly Drive to Reston Parkway
    *Roadbed Reconstruction (Falls Church Streets, Routes 7& 29 within City Limits)
    *Roadbed Condition Assessment (Falls Church)
    *Manassas Dr/Mathis Ave Intersection Improvements
    *Route 28 Frontage Roads (Pacific Boulevard between Dresden Street and Moran Roads)
    *Southern Collector Road (Purcellville)
    *Route 7/Route 659 Interchange
    *Route 1 Widening
    *Municipal Parking Garage Design and Finance (Falls Church)
    *Bridge Replacement at Chain Bridge Road and Kenmore Drive

    Out of these, only the the Rt 1, the Rt7&659, southern collector road, rt 28, rt 7, mulligan rd, and pw parkway were over $1 in funding.

    I've only heard of 1/2 of these roads, and none of them solve any real problems. Fixing Rt 7 might be nice, but isn't there a nice toll road you can use instead?

    The NVTA was a waste, and the projects are best dead. As an Arlington resident, it is stupid to spend Fairfax money on a Columbia Pike tram.

  8. Hmm, VRE needs $3 million. Metrorail’s needs are exploding.

    I suggest we can’t fix these problems, therefore we should “smart manage” them. A per-mile congestion variable value charge on all trips by rail would solve everything. The per-mile congestion variable value charge would give riders the choice of wearing a GPS hat or convenient implant to automatically deduct payment seamlessly along the rail-based trip, or get off the train at each stop and go through a toll payment kiosk. The millions of Metrorail and VRE riders trying to do their supermarket shopping and other unnecessary trips at 9am would re-evaluate when faced with a dynamically generated market price. It would also encourage environmentally friendly alternatives such as walking.

    It’s the smart thing to do. There is no other solution.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: Martinsville – Darrel is correct – there ARE indeed some very expensive new roads – basically an interstate-grade Rt 29 running from the NC border to I-64 where it morphs into the Charlottesville mess.

    re: NVTA

    An interesting aspect of Mary Peters proposal is a switch from just a list of projects of which some folks openly question how they help overall congestion – to a system where performance – congestion reduction AND mobility are incorporated.

    …..”To be eligible to receive this funding, transportation projects
    would need to (a) be Title 23 or Title 497-eligible, (b) be located within a metropolitan region
    with a population greater than 500,0008, (c) be intended primarily to provide mobility and
    associated safety benefits or to mitigate the environmental impacts of transportation activities9,
    (d) meet the MM Program’s performance and benefit-cost requirements….”

    page 28

    Now – the important thing here is not summary rejection of the entire Mary Peters proposal because one might disagree with some of her advocacy for incorporating PPTA – but to see this as an opportunity to push for using performance metrics and cost-benefit – the things that many complain right now – are not being used for transit – AND for roads.

    Right now, NVTA makes a 300 million dollar list of projects without any warranty on system-wide performance – which is basically the way we do a a lot of roads in urban areas.

    We’ll never get rid of political influence in decision-making but moving to a system that requires performance metrics for congestion reduction and cost-benefit and the like is at least one way for citizens to know that an entity like NVTA has picked a project that scores low in congestion reduction – and to put them on the hot seat for such choices.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: Bob’s transit suggestion

    How about this – a portable EZ-pass that you can carry with you and every time you use transit – you accumulate toll credits for the HOT Lanes or even vice-versa?

  11. Anonymous Avatar

    “a portable EZ-pass that you can carry with you and every time you use transit – you accumulate toll credits for the HOT Lanes or even vice-versa?”

    Sure. Let’s get something for nothing.

    Every time you use transit, you already don’t pay for your trip, and the excess is paid by – auto drivers.

    Presumably, the HOT lane operators will want to see cash in their pocket for this program. Where is it going to come from?

    You could add a surcharge to the transit fee to pay for it, but that wouldn’t be any different than just paying the darn toll. Why use transit to encourage people to drive?

    Sorry, I forget, that’s exactly waht it does – as Bob says, every driver hopes someone else will use transit.

    Anyway, how is this any different (in concept) from charging non HOV drivers and paying HOV drivers, except my plan is transparent as to wherre the money comes from?


  12. Groveton Avatar

    Doug’s column was excellent. It was a clear articulation of something I have expected (and hoped) would happen. Namely, the GA’s willingness to take NoVA’s money but not to address NoVA problems would finally start a backlash. Maybe the backlash has started.

    The 2002 sales tax referendum is something of a red herring (at least with regard to what I understand of it). Here’s what a real referendum should ask:

    1. NoVA will take responsibility for all NoVA transportation concerns. This includes, but is not limited to, raising sufficient funds for transportation, priortizing transportation spend and managing transportation projects.

    2. The governance of this function will be performed by a Transportation Board directly elected by popular vote by the citizens of NoVA.

    3. All transportation taxes currently paid by the citizens of NoVA to the state of Virginia will be ended. In addition, a maintenance of effort clause will be developed to ensure that all localities will continue to provide the same level of ongoing funding of non-transportation programs as had been maintained prior to the implementation of the transportation resolution. Why is this necessary? It has been clearly demonstrated that the General Assembly will allow dishonest jurisdictions to use increases of state support intended for one thing (education) to reduce their contributions for that same thing – thereby further transferring responsibility for their costs to others.

    4. All entities in NoVA will be granted city charter status under the Virginia Constitution. They will be self-funding and self-financing with respect to transportation. In addition, a constititional amendment creating a regional transportation lockbox will be passed.

    How would people react to that referendum?

  13. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    NoVa jurisdictions already have the ability to opt-out of the State as … I believe Henrico and Arlington have.

    NoVa has the same problem that HR/TW does – but they don’t recognize it as well.

    NoVa already has an embedded power structure for transportation that is oriented to more infrastructure for economic development.

    This is the mantra – that if we don’t build more infrastructure, we’ll get gridlock and kill the golden economic goose.

    Mary Peters is suggestion that each project on NVTA’s list should do 2 things.

    First it should show how much congestion reduction will result.

    Second, it should have a cost-effective value.

    In other words, Peters is advocating a truly blasphemous concept – that money spent on transportation actually provide MEASURABLE transportation benefit – as opposed to it being used to leverage more economic development.

  14. “that money spent on transportation actually provide MEASURABLE transportation benefit – as opposed to it being used to leverage more economic development.”

    100% agreed. If you truly mean those words, it means mass trasit funding will be $0. Good riddance.

    “This is the mantra – that if we don’t build more infrastructure, we’ll get gridlock and kill the golden economic goose.”

    Are you implying “more roads” by “more infrastructure”? Because if you are, you’re high. There are no new roads. We ran through the actual numbers in the past. Less than 1% annual growth in lane miles. The Kaine/Warner mantra is “we can’t build our way out of gridlock” and therefore there are no new roads. The only infrastructure that counts for them is mass transit.

    You can’t drink your way out of thirst. You can’t eat your way out of starvation.


  15. “NoVA will take responsibility for all NoVA transportation concerns.”

    Oh please, I can’t trust NOVA politicians and transit/planning staffs to put up a singular stoplight much less plan and manage a real transportation plan. If you put both the money and authority in their hands all you will get are more poorly considered ideas like extending VRE without expanding capacity. Yeesh, more money for John “Choo Choo” Jenkins to waste on his precious trains, trains that don’t go where they need to go.

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    Groveton’s Ballot Question.

    Based on my experience, most of the local elected officials in NoVA would, at least tacitly, oppose your plan. Your plan seeks to unite authority and accountability in the same place. Most local officials that I’ve seen, be they Rs or be they Ds, are scared sh__less of accountability. No one would mistake Gerry Connolly for Harry Truman or Ronald Reagan.

    The “fellers who own land” would strongly oppose your proposal. Today’s divided mishmash permits them considerable room to manipulate the process — to gain big time on the backs of taxpayers for just the price of campaign contributions. Manipulating elected officials who have both the authority and responsibility would be much harder to do.

    The 3rd-rate newspaper, the WaPo, would fight this one tooth and nail since your plan is not progressive (no transfer of NoVA dollars to the Descendants) and the developers (who cause real estate ads to appear and disappear) wouldn’t like it. The WaPo likes to keep Virginia developers happy.

    But, having said this, the ballot question might still pass.


  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    there ARE folks who trust VDOT more than they trust local officials.


    re: Bob/infrastructure

    what is your solution to congestion in NoVa? Is it not MORE infrastructure?

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: local decision-making

    who should be responsible for regional roads and roads that connect Virginia (interstates and major primary roads)?

    Think of someone running for Governor – and think of what kind of a transportation platform that they offered that would snag your vote.

    What should the next candidate for Governor of Virginia offer NoVa to get their support?

    note: no answers of a separate (51st) state of NoVa will be accepted.

  19. Anonymous Avatar

    Don’t Arlington and Henrico still get state funds? They ony manage the roadwork themselves, not pay for it.

  20. Anonymous Avatar

    it means mass trasit funding will be $0. Good riddance.

    Come on, Bob. There is SOME mass transit that is worth while, even some bike trails are worthwhile.

    Let’s not get too carried away.


  21. Anonymous Avatar

    what is your solution to congestion in NoVa?

    Congestion is too many people going to the same place at the same time. Find out whare they are going and move those places someplace else.

    Yes, that means more infrastructure, maybe as in a whole new city. Stop thinking small, and think earlier.


  22. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Let’s rephrase the question:

    what is your PRACTICAL solution to NoVa congestion that is politically feasible?

    I’m all for thinking out of the box – as long as you can show that they are at least somewhat realistic.

    Let’s pretend that the air quality issue goes away – that plug-in electrics become not only real but very common.

    What is your solution for congestion in a plug-in electric world?

    Do you REALLY think you are going to get RoVa to pay for NoVa roads that are bloated with plug-in electrics?

    dream on… fella….

    what is YOUR solution for NoVa congestion in a plug-in electric world?

  23. “Come on, Bob. There is SOME mass transit that is worth while, even some bike trails are worthwhile.”

    Not when you calculate cost/benefit. I’m not being carried away, I’m being precise. Mass transit boondoggles should be paid from general funds and the users should bear a more realistic share of the cost. Bike trails and beautification should not be discussed in terms of transportation.

    “what is your solution to congestion in NoVa? Is it not MORE infrastructure?”

    More capacity on existing roads, some new highways where it makes sense to build. All decisions should be made after a cost/benefit analysis. Virginia needs a voter referendum process so things like a cost/benefit analysis requirement can be made a legal requirement. Washington state did it by referendum.

    “What is your solution for congestion in a plug-in electric world?”

    You’re falling for the hype. Electric cars are nowhere near being a realistic option. But I’ll accept your fantasy hypothesis. Fund roads from vehicle registration fees, or just out of the general fund. It’s the same thing — everybody drives.

    Even the irrelevant few who don’t drive still benefit directly from roads. Last time I checked, the free range organic fair trade tofu was delivered to the Farmer’s Market by truck, not metro.

  24. Bob, AMEN!!!

    Mass transit in NOVA is little more than a feel good boondoggle for a select few local pols who ensure that the “benefits” inure to a select group of constituents. As to the “real” benefits of mass transit, particularly rail, they are few and far between given the limited scope of the systems in terms of destinations and capacity.

    Unlike most successful systems, the NOVA systems came too late in the development game in a region whose development patterns aren’t optimized for mass transit.

    There is no real bang for the buck in continued investment in systems like VRE. It’s too limited, serves too few and is fraught with problems brought about by freight rail ownership of the tracks.

    Given the limited scope of the system and a commuting “pattern” without any pattern, all it does is give people like Jenkins the opportunity to put on their engineer’s hats and play with really large scale train sets.

  25. Anonymous Avatar

    I beleive Winston and Shirley who say that SOME (around 2% of present installed capacity) meets effective cost benefit critereia.

    That’s it, everything else is better done with cars, which even Ed Glaeser concedes have “technological superiority”.

    Mom’s right. One Capital Hill politician once said that “Anyone who thinks Metro is about transprtation doesn;t understand what is going on. It is nothing more than a national monument.”

    My solution is still build a new city from scratch. It is completely practical and a lot cheaper than what we are going to do instead.

    Bob is right. We all use/benefit from roads and the difference between pay/get probably isn;t worth spit, except as a red herring argument to stop all growth.


    From the Los Angeles Times

    Measure aims to fight traffic by curbing growth in Santa Monica
    The ballot measure would halve the rate of commercial construction for 15 years. Meanwhile, the city’s proposed general plan suggests capping heights based on buildings’ use.


    I’d suggest that amounts to marching orders to go build a new city someplace else.


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