Going Nowhere Fast: Virginia’s Transportation Dialogue

Northern Virginians are complaining again about their inadequate transportation infrastructure, and I can’t blame them. Traffic is terrible, especially on transportation arteries like Interstate 95, and I avoid going up there, or even through there, if I possibly can. NoVa is transportation hell — a point that was reiterated Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. As usually happens, however, participants defined the problem as not enough money.

“We are in the position (where) we don’t have more money,” said panelist Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, according to Inside Nova. “We have an open call for projects right now, but the reality is that’s for Fiscal Year 24 and 25. If you need more money on previously funded projects, I really don’t have it.”

Where will the money come from? Ed Mortimer, a U.S. Chamber official, said the federal government needs to do more. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine argued that Virginia is relatively undertaxed and should boost its gas tax.

Given the paralyzing political polarization in Washington, D.C., these days, I don’t expect any solutions coming out of the nation’s capital. But Richmond hasn’t reached the same level of dysfunction. What about a higher gas tax? Does that idea make sense?

True, Virginia does have a relatively low per-gallon tax on retail gasoline. But comparisons are tricky. The state also taxes the wholesale price of gasoline. How do state-by-state comparisons stack up when that is taken into account? Virginia also has all manner of non-fuel taxes, including a sales tax. Then there are regional taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads and an increasing number of tolls. Plus, many local governments supplement state transportation dollars with spending of their own.

Here is a state-by-state breakdown of transportation spending provided by the USGovernmentDebt.us website for 2018:

Virginia transportation spending as a percentage of GDP is lower than the national average, which suggests that Virginians are undertaxed. But there are 23 states that are taxed less. Just wondering, is transportation in Tennessee, which spends about 60% of  what Virginia spends, notably worse off?

Several key points were omitted from the Chamber forum discussion:

  • Transportation spending needs vary widely across Virginia. Conditions have reached crisis proportions in some places, and they are manageable in others. The appetite for higher taxes will vary widely.
  •  Traffic levels are, to a significant degree, a function of the size of the metropolitan area (larger metros almost universally have worse congestion) and land use patterns within the metros. More scattered, low-density, disconnected and autocentric land use patterns generate more automobile trips per household. Zoning codes and comprehensive plans have throttled the ability of real estate markets to meet the rising market demand for walkable urbanism.
  • Congestion on arterial highways reflects decades-long policies by local governments to co-opt inter-city and inter-state corridors for local traffic, thus displacing costs from local taxpayers to state and national taxpayers.
  • Virginia’s transportation funding system has evolved away from a user-pays system toward a spread-the-pain funding system, in which subsidies and cross-subsidies are rampant. Very rarely do users of Virginia’s roads, streets, highways, and mass transit systems directly pay their full costs.
  • There is rampant confusion between the cost of maintaining the condition of the transportation network and the cost of utilizing scarce transportation capacity during periods of peak demand. Variable congestion tolls on Interstates is more common now than in the past, but they are widely resented, and there is no appetite for adopting congestion pricing elsewhere.

It is impossible to have a rational discourse about transportation policy in Virginia without addressing these issues. When the go-to suggestions are mo’ money from Washington and mo’ money from Richmond, we’re getting nowhere fast.

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19 responses to “Going Nowhere Fast: Virginia’s Transportation Dialogue

  1. “Going Nowhere Fast:”

    What an apt title. One gets tired real fast of this endless, mindless, off the point, and totally confused and useless dialogue arguing for more money to fund more of a totally failed solution – more concrete roads. Please, please, please, stop it, and think for a change. A good place to start thinking is found here on this blog at:

    https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/the-fiscal-fix/

  2. Virginia law conditions rezoning on the applicant proffering the costs to alleviate the impacts on public facilities, including the transportation and transit networks, caused by the additional construction. But local governments rarely obtain reimbursement sufficient to cover the added costs.

    NVTA has always been a shill for the real estate development industry. I’d like to see a chart that shows the amount/percentage of added transportation/transit costs funded by new development allowed by rezoning.

    • Here is one of the relatively few times, that I largely disagree with TooManyTaxes. Yes, there is a time and place for proffers, but they are often false, even counterproductive solutions, in most instances of urban and suburban development. Wrongly imposed in these wrong places, and circumstances, proffers throttle wealth and health creating projects that are sorely needed by create vibrant life enhancing places and communities that, taken altogether, spin off wealth and health far beyond their costs to society. That is why The Fiscal Fix is the only real solution to building truly modern urban and suburban development today. There are exceptions to this rule but far less the most of us imagine, otherwise Virginia development would be far better than it has proven to be.

      Again, please see:
      https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/the-fiscal-fix/

  3. Let’s get to the bottom of the alleged double taxation thing re: wholesale gaso tax.

    That does not seem true as Southern Va. often has the lowest gaso price in the Country. Amer Petroleum Inst lists state-by-state taxes so if there is added tax not shown there, it woud be nice to know.

    I will say Ca. has added a carbon tax and, to keep motorists happy, that tax is not shown at the pump. They send that invoice directly to the gaso suppliers. So there can be hidden state cost add-ons.

    Liberals want hidden taxes, Repubs want no new taxes. Take your pick. Good luck.

    • PS- Repubs want to change to miles driven tax, so large low-MPG vehciles are not penalized. So that is big change to implement…maybe we could do that as compromise but not easy.

      Re: underpayment, I bet Md. De. etc are collecting tolls on out-of-state drivers. We do not want to do that. I feel we score low on charging out-of-staters…like to see something on that metric.

  4. That state tax chart above is based on percentage of GDP, not actual dollar amounts or percent of household income or revenues per VMT. Not quite sure that chart Jim chose is the right one. The main transportation revenue sources remain the motor fuels taxes, with tolls – another user fee – catching up. The last president to raise the federal tax was Reagan, right? So 30 + years of inflation has eroded that. The Virginia General Assembly was too clever by half and set up a percentage tax, assuming (incorrectly) that gas prices would continue its annual hikes. So the revenue projections were inaccurate.

    I was on this blog arguing for a pure gas tax increase, state and federal, when I worked for the Chamber of Commerce, hence before 2006. Still works for me.

  5. Dear Jim,

    My solution to our traffic woes is, first, build a TIME MACHINE that will set us back to the year 1945, and 2) Take a multi-media presentation of our transportation woes back then and show them what will happen if they don’t. We will be sure to bring EM Risse along so that he can coach them in proper land-use. And 3) We, Bacon-nauts shall thence sally forward in time nine years to tell the U.S. Supreme Court not to foolishly make an rulings that ensure White-flight over public schools, thereby leading, simultaneously, to urban blight and suburban sprawl; advance then eleven more years years to advise Congress and President LB Johnson not to pass the 1965 immigration act, and subsequent amendments which will bring tens of millions of persons to be settled in large swaths around American cities, and that this same juncture bring funds hot off the Federal Reserve 2019 printing press to pay for an outer beltway around DC. It will all work splendidly and both our regional and national woes will be addressed in an errr… TIMELY fashion! I am always surprised by my cleverness in civic affairs!

    Your most humble & obd’t servant,

    Andrew

  6. Andrew, I understand your point in these current times, but the great flaw within your overly cynical and fatalistic analysis is that the Ballston to Rosslyn Corridor, conceived and started in equally depressingly time, has been a fabulous success. And this is the case with many other failing communities, that at their lowest and most hopeless points, have been newly built in powerhouse places over the past 50 years. This includes the dying cities of New York, Boston, and Baltimore, raised from the dead into vibrant places, only to decline in the past decades. So revival is not in the hands of fate, or hidden within the stars, it’s within us. These rebuilt places litter the East Coast from Maine to Florida. Many have risen and fallen up and down, rich and poor, several times over their histories.

    • Dear Reed,

      Of course you are right to remain engaged in searching for practical solutions to these problems. It’s just our leaders seldom admit that they, themselves, were wrong; the other party, of course, is “always wrong”; in this, our collective leaderships differ little from another prideful, if more murderous, set before the middle of the last century, who would insist that “der Fuehrer hat immer recht”, “The Fuehrer is always right.” Mostly, I was just having a little fun.

      Sincerely,

      Andrew

  7. Money alone will not fix the problem in the urban areas where there is not enough room for more lanes without taking down trees that act as sound barriers to residential and actually having to take commercial properties that often line the major roads.

    But even if you did that – you need to put that cost on the folks who live in the urban areas – not the rural or other areas; even if you could do that, it would not amount to much – as the denser urban areas have many more people and the rural areas far fewer.

    On the Federal gas tax – it no longer pays it’s own way – it needs direct subsidies from the federal budget and many in Congress are advocating stopping the subsidies or even returning Federal tax to the states to collect.

    On the State side – the share of the sales tax that transportation gets – generates MORE money than the gas tax!

    And the problem is that cars have gotten a lot more efficient and increasing the gas tax no longer “works” – it just encourages folks to buy more efficient cars.

    And TMT is wrong – proffers don’t pay for regional transportation – only local close proximity to new development. Once those cars from new development leave that area and get on the major roads – that funding comes from the State (and for NoVa and Tidewater – a supplementary regional tax.

    The bottom line is that “MO” money is NOT going to come from the Feds nor the State – it’s going to come from the region which has the congestion AND these days – in both NoVa and Hampton – tolls – dynamic tolls that vary the toll according to the level of congestion.

    Virginia is not alone nor unique on this – it’s going on in most every large urban area in the country – you just can’t build more roads in these urban areas without huge costs, impacts to existing residential – and taking down existing commercial development.

    Oh yes.. you can play the blame game – but the reality is the problem is us and our desire to drive anywhere and everywhere anytime we want to – and the result is what you see in NoVa.

    Sorry TMT, Proffers won’t fix that – and neither will higher taxes on tractor trailers – it’s just too damn many cars for the road network and the fix is not going to be more roads. More roads, even if you could pay for them – would just encourage more development and more driving.

    Perhaps Mr. Schucet has some thoughts…. As I recall, he was a proponent of tolls………

  8. I think it would be great if we could toll every vehicle on Aden Rd and Valley View Drive in Prince William County on a weekday afternoon that is registered to a Stafford or Spotsylvania county address.

    Why? They’re using those two-lane country roads to avoid the I-95 mess. So much so that Valley View Drive has the nickname of “Stafford County Parkway”.

    It doesn’t help that these drivers speed, tailgate, and violate stop signs, and more than a few sound (and smell) to have straight pipes with no catalytic converters because they (Spotsylvania) aren’t subject to emissions tests.

  9. I see the Stafford and Spotsylvania drivers as essentially NoVa folks who are trying to beat the system by moving south and commuting daily north. I have no sympathy for them at all and do consider them part of the problem – in general exurban commuting by folks who earn good salaries but want to commute to the exurbs so they can buy more house. These folks are actually causing “externalities” and they point out the real problem which is not just how many miles you drive on the highways but WHEN you drive those miles.

    I-95 between Fredericksburg at NoVa at 2am is a piece of cake – whereas as 6am it is chock full of commuters, many of whom who PREFER to drive solo and completely max that stretch of highway so that east coast travelers trying to get through the Washington area are just screwed, blued, and tattooed.

    And as I have said before, NoVa is not unique in this – take a trip to Chicago or Houston or LA in the commute hours and what you get is pretty much the same – it varies only in degree as to which one is the “worst” or next to “worst” or 8th or 10th. They all have the same basic issue with too many folks who want to commute to the exurbs AND who want to drive solo every day.

    AND – they want the Feds or the State to do something to “fix it” with the really ignorant presumption that more money is the answer because it will get them more lanes.

    That won’t happen – for a number of reasons but the more relevant is that there is not enough unused land available for those lanes and if you actually want contiguous lanes – you have to tear down commercial businesses and put sound walls up against existing residential neighborhoods. That is not only ungodly expensive – it generates enormous opposition from those affected.

    We can blame this on “government” but the reality is – it’s us.

    we love our cars, we want to drive anytime, anywhere we please and we do not care if it adds to congestion – that’s someone else’s problem. And if you really do add lanes – all you do is encourage more folks to drive more often than they will when it is congested.

    Them’s the simple facts. We got whiners and blamers out the wazoo but the facts are pretty simple.

    Nova folks who move to the exurbs – bring their onerous driving behaviors with them – a pox on NoVa drivers also.

  10. I don’t know about Houston or LA, but I do know about Chicago.

    The Chicago area is VERY different from the Northern Virginia area in terms of traffic and transportation.

    1)Somehow they are able to operate toll roads that cost 10 to 20 cents per mile.

    2)Most of the roads are on a grid pattern. Here’s a little thought exercise for you: How many places in Northern Virginia, if you were to start from a certain point and, only making right turns, would it be more than 5 mile round trip? (I can think of at least a half dozen without looking at a map).

    How many places in Chicago would be the same? (Not many if any–at a minimum you’ll find a grid road at least every mile, and even in the sticks it’s that way).

    3)Because most of the roads are on a grid pattern, instead of turning right (at a T intersection) and then having to turn left (at another T intersection), you can just go straight on a road that continues for many miles, instead of having to continually make left and right turns to navigate the road spaghetti of Virginia.

    3.5)This means that there are many more alternative routes and you don’t need to use an Interstate to go one exit up (which is NOT what they’re for but how they are used around here, because too often the alternative is a road that hasn’t been improved since Byrd was in office). How much of the traffic on I95 in the Fredericksburg area is going from exit 126 to exit 130? Too much.

    4)Even the newer roads in this area are screwed by poor design and planning. Go to historic topos and look at the area of Coppermine Rd and Sunrise Valley Drive in Herndon. Today there is a traffic signal at that intersection with a sharp curve just before it. Back in 1983 Sunrise Valley Drive was called Horsepen Rd and there was no curve, the road was straight.

    I am pretty sure that by 1983, it was known among most in the engineering profession that putting a curve before an intersection is a bad idea because of something called “stopping sight distance”.

    Yet here we are, with a road designed well after 1983 with a curve before an intersection that had so many accidents they needed to put a traffic signal in. (They even screwed that up, by the way—they installed the traffic signal, then repaved the road, which screwed up the loop detectors they had just installed a month prior–so the traffic signal was operating with no functioning vehicle detection for several weeks).

    What moron designed this? What moron approved it?

    There are several more examples of this sort of thing I can list here—and those are just what I’ve found during normal driving–I wasn’t making any effort to FIND them.

    5)You can actually drive through several traffic signals in the Chicago area without having to stop for any of them. It seems that they are using the latest microprocessor technology to keep the traffic signals in coordination and making some effort to keep it working.

    6)The various DOTs in the Chicago area do not appear to be an employment program for drug addicts, unlike VDOT.

    7)The drivers in the Chicago area seem to be much more competent than the ones in the Northern Virginia area. As one example, they know how to make a left turn without the help of a green arrow.

    8)The traffic in Northern Virginia sucks even on weekends. This is obviously NOT commuter traffic. The roads are inadequate to even handle a simple weekend trip to the grocery store without it turning into a all-day affair.

    • Circles, in lieu of intersections, alleviate this.

      Smart growth cures problem in different ways.

      Long linear growth often works better.

      How things work together is often key solution, Holistic.

    • Grid streets are absolutely critical to a functioning transportation system.

      The lack of a grid street system makes me pessimistic that NoVa’s traffic problems will ever be solved.

      • Not sure I agree, but it’s a huge subject in any case. It seems to me that uses, their placement, relationship, interaction, and demand rule and dictate function. Is Rock Creek gorge bad, a positive or negative, how, and why, and for and against whom?

        • The confluence of the Potomac River, I-66, I-495 Capital Beltway, and Dulles toll Road ruined traffic access throughout Northern Virginia. And, yet despite all of than ruination, the Ballson to Rosslyn Corridor thrived from start to finish.

          • Even in the most rural parts of Ohio, there is a bridge over the Interstate every mile.

            Seems they didn’t let that Interstate ruin their traffic access.

            By the way, very few roads were cut by I-66 because very few roads existed to be cut by I-66–that can be seen by looking at historic topo maps.

  11. As far as sound walls–why don’t we just enforce the already existing laws against “exhaust system modifications”?

    The main reason sound walls are needed is because of the jerk who has to have an exhaust system that can be heard from 2 miles away. Said jerk is most often found in a pick-up truck or a Harley Davidson motorcycle (“loud pipes save lives but I’m so concerned about my safety I’ll ride in jeans and flip-flops and I’m only wearing a helmet because it’s illegal not to”).

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