Great Moments in the Annals of Virginia Transportation


by James A. Bacon

Two recent news nuggets provide a juxtaposition that calls into question the sanity of Virginia’s transportation policy.

Item #1: The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) will pay the lead contractor on the long-delayed Silver Line rail extension $207 million more as part of an agreement reached in July, reports The Washington Post. The Silver Line extension to Washington Dulles International Airport is four years behind schedule. Under the funding agreement, the cost of managerial incompetence will be borne… not by MWAA… not the lead contractor… not even the individuals riding the commuter rail system… but by users of the Dulles Toll Road on the theory that they will benefit from the reduction of traffic caused by the diversion of traffic to the rail line.

Which brings us to Item #2.

What are the odds that the projected Silver Line ridership will materialize? According to a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments survey, telework has surged in the Washington metropolitan area, increasing five-fold since 2010, cutting into drive-alone commutes and devastating transit commutes. The percentage of commuters using transit is one-third of 2010 levels.

Despite the history of overruns, chronic losses, and plunging ridership, the state and localities continue to pour money into mass transit. State support for the Department of Rail and Public Transportation in Fiscal 2023 is $144.6 million. At least that’s down from $201.9 million in Fiscal 2022. (That doesn’t include funds provided by localities and regional transportation districts.)

Look, there was a powerful case for mass transit a decade ago. Mass transit supported denser development and redevelopment during a time when people wanted to move back into urban centers. But times change! The back-to-the-city movement is losing momentum due to high taxes, high crime, and horrible public schools. Meanwhile, the response to COVID-19 made telework a viable option. While some telecommuters may return to office work, commuting patterns will never be the same.

It’s time to reassess our thinking about transportation funding, which was predicated on never-ending increases in commuting and vehicle miles driven.


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33 responses to “Great Moments in the Annals of Virginia Transportation”

  1. Eric the half a troll Avatar
    Eric the half a troll

    My drive to Union Station during rush hour yesterday evening says you are simply wrong in your assessment.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Yeah, I have been commuting from Great Falls to Ashburn and back daily for the past 6 months. You can almost feel the traffic increasing (and LOTS of Maryland license plates heading West on Rt 7 in the morning). The high water mark for work-from-home has passed although there will be some residual, permanent WFH.

      Given the number of Marylanders clogging the bridges and our streets I really have to wonder if the tax treaty Virginia has with Maryland is really something we should continue.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        13 mile commute? 😉 tough!

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    JAB must not drive much from Fredericksburg north and around NoVa or else he’d realize the folly of his thinking.

    It’s true that more folks are working from home but it’s also true that I-95 is chock-a-block at times daily AND weekends as is the beltway and I-66.

    They are definitely NOT “empty” highways in no way, shape or form.

    JAB might be partially right about whether or not transit will be used as people seem to almost prefer driving a car solo even as I-95 is a bumper-to-bumper horrid mess.

    VRE commuter rail is slowly getting back but is still way down and is now having a “free” month to try to get back some of the COVID folks that are now apparently driving solo on I-95. The ones that LIKE the variable price congestion toll lanes are quiet compared to the folks who hate them who are much more vocal but the key thing to be aware of is that no new lanes for I-95 will be built for a long time, if ever. To me, that means as we continue to grow and commute, people are going to start to have to make choices about using mass transit if they can’t convince their boss to let them work from home. Work from home is going to become a highly sought-after work condition and will be reserved for the “best”, most reliable, most valuable employees and the rest of the schmucks will have to commute.

    Finally, don’t forget , Northam and the GA allocated more than 3 billion dollars to add tracks between Washington and Richmond and some other I believe to Tidewater.

    The day will come, when someone who needs to get from Richmond to Washington or vice versa for work or to visit friends , rail will be a no-brainer to the infinite torture of I-95
    on a bad day.

    Transit/Rail is not dead by a long shot if you look at what the alternatives are.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “The day will come, when someone who needs to get from Richmond to Washington or vice versa for work …”.

      Won’t happen. Not at any scale, anyway. These are not high speed trains. That trip is too long for a regular commute. Northam and the GA’s allocation of $3b for improved / added tracks from DC to Richmond was more boneheaded than anything Metro has ever done.

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        added rail bridge over Potomac in addition to more tracks in places. Not high speed but will make a difference.

        Not saying daily commute but “work”, like you need a day or two at a meeting and you can choose rail or I-95 – and you have no idea if I-95 is having a “bad” day or not but rail will be fairly predictable just like METRO is much of the time.

        No new lanes for I-95 north of Fredericksburg in my and your lifetime,
        – let that sink in.

        1. how_it_works Avatar
          how_it_works

          No new lanes for I-95 north in your lifetime?

          Oh, what a shocker!

          Been living in this state for 34 years and one consistent thing in that time has been the building of new houses without the transportation infrastructure to support them.

          You can claim all you want that this isn’t a problem unique to Virginia. And perhaps it’s not. But the “DMV” consistently ranks as one of the worst metro areas for traffic congestion…and it doesn’t take a Federal government employee to figure out why.

          1. LarrytheG Avatar

            Grasshopper. Have you been to Charlotte, Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles?

            I admit we’ve got it bad but these other metros are just as bad and actually worse IMO.

            Have you driven I-81 or I-64 lately?

            VDOT is building the 4 billion dollar HRBT as well as another half billion to widen I64 and similar spending on I-81.

            Some folks want to be able to drive anywhere they want, anytime they want without congestion.

            Last time I checked VDOT was in the top 10.

            https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b84df6d5316a652ddaba3211eb7c7285ebcdd653689cec43b90fb08a994a8304.jpg

          2. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            I’m not even talking about Interstate congestion.

            I’m talking about things like this:

            My house is in a rural area. If I leave my driveway, to get back to where I started making only right turns is about a 20 mile trip.

            In 70 years, when my house is gone and the corner where it was has a Taco Bell and a used-car lot, barring a major change in how development is done around here, it will STILL be a 20 mile round-trip, because no through roads linking existing roads will have been built.

            And I-95? How much of the traffic on I95 in the Fredericksburg area is traffic entering and exiting within 1 to 2 exits? That’s local traffic using an Interstate because, surprise surprise, the local roads are inadequate for the local traffic.

            That isn’t an appropriate use of an Interstate. They are not supposed to do what should be done with local roads, if only they existed.

            Thought experiment: Take a current map of Northern Virginia. Remove all the roads that aren’t through roads. Compare it to a map of Northern Virginia from 1865. How much difference is there?

          3. LarrytheG Avatar

            but you CHOSE to live in that rural area and rural areas don’t get funding like major roads do unless the county wants to add to it and both Spotsy and Stafford have done referenda to do that but far more rural roads than funding.

            All states have the rural funding issue. They allocate based on how much gas tax that rural area generates for their population – their share and that’s what they get in road infrastructure. The urbanized areas don’t subsidize them.

            The county can choose to increase taxes and fix those roads, right?

            is your point about interstates that they should not be used as “local” roads?

            I’d agree but again, VDOT allocates money more or less according to what a given locality generates and if the locality wants more/better , they have to pony up the additional.

            VDOT is not a source of infinite funding…

          4. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Yes, but–my point is–the rural area I live in will not be rural forever.

            At some point it will be built up.

            And, if it’s developed the way things have historically been developed, you’ll have several thousand homes and the accompanying businesses all feeding onto the same roads that exist now. A road that links existing roads will likely not be built.

            And it is different in other states. For example, many of the rural areas out west have a 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile grid of roads. Many of them may not be paved, but guess what? When the development happens later, they can be paved and that 300-home subdivision will be built in one of those 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile blocks and it will likely have 4 access points on each of the 4 sides (and these access points may line up with other access points for development built on adjacent blocks, creating…a new road that links up with other new roads, making a thru road!)

            Compare and contrast with Virginia, where a 300-home subdivision is built off a Byrd-era 2-lane road and has no other access points, just a single access point to a 2-lane road (and which almost always ends up getting added to the VDOT system, so we get to pay to maintain what is essentially a dead-end road that contributes NOTHING to connectivity). Even better when the residents of that 300-home subdivision demand a traffic light, because surprise surprise, getting into and out of their neighborhood is so hard with all the traffic on the 2-lane road!

            And yes, my point about interstates is that they should NOT be used as local roads. That is not why the Federal government funded them, even if that’s how they are used in Virginia because she doesn’t like to spend her own money on her transportation needs.

            As far as VDOT funding, isn’t this the state where the gas tax wasn’t increased since 1985? Increase the gas tax and spend it on ROADS. Not bike paths and public transport.

          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            I agree with the top two points but the folks out west had different land ownership process than Virginia where much of it is owned by private owners and has been since 1700 and until Byrd came along, none of it owned by the state.

            Few states in the East have the grid concept you speak of.
            You’d be chopping up a whole bunch of private parcels and to do so for “future”, you’d get lawsuits out the wazoo.

            Totally agree about the interstates and local traffic but
            do you realize that Route 1 was/is also a Federal highway?

            How would you stop the local traffic?

          6. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            As far as funding goes, I do not know how other states allocate funding, but in Virginia, for cities, it is based on lane miles. In Northern VA there is an additional gas tax on top of the normal state tax and the cities do get some of that, so for cities they do get additional funding if their gas stations sell more gas.

            But even if they don’t sell a drop of gas, from VDOT they still get X dollars per lane mile per year.

            And, by the way, VDOT as of about 10 years ago didn’t actually do any audits to ensure that the cities are actually spending that money on roads. They would occasionally send someone by to make sure that the pavement was in acceptable condition, but that’s about it. I had asked the city manager of the city I lived in back then several times for information showing how the VDOT funds were spent, he could never come up with that info so I suspect they knew that VDOT would never ask for it and didn’t bother keeping track.

          7. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Oh, and if you’ve ever heard of the “back 40” or “40 acres and a mule”..

            out west (roughly west of Pennsylvania) parcels of land were divided into 40 acre lots.

            A 160 acre block consisting of four 40 acre parcels is 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile, which is why that is the block size in many rural areas out west. You can see this in maps of parts of Ohio, all of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and other states west of them. (I think Florida also was surveyed this way, there is a definite grid pattern to their roads).

            Also, the right of way for the roads that surround these 1/4 mile blocks is often 66 feet wide. That is the length of a “chain”. (20) 66 foot chains makes 1320 feet, which is 1/4 mile.

          8. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Oh, and if you’ve ever heard of the “back 40” or “40 acres and a mule”..

            out west (roughly west of Pennsylvania) parcels of land were divided into 40 acre lots.

            A 160 acre block consisting of four 40 acre parcels is 1/4 mile by 1/4 mile, which is why that is the block size in many rural areas out west. You can see this in maps of parts of Ohio, all of Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and other states west of them. (I think Florida also was surveyed this way, there is a definite grid pattern to their roads).

            Also, the right of way for the roads that surround these 1/4 mile blocks is often 66 feet wide. That is the length of a “chain”. (20) 66 foot chains makes 1320 feet, which is 1/4 mile.

          9. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            And VDumb has been babbling about widening I-81 for over 20 years now, so it’s probably about time they got around to starting it.

          10. LarrytheG Avatar

            they did not have the money and wanted to toll it and there was opposition to tolling …

            where do you suggest they get the money to fix it? raise the gas tax on everyone?

          11. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Raise the gas tax? Isn’t that how other states get the money to upgrade their transportation infrastructure?

          12. LarrytheG Avatar

            Not entirely.

            First, 46 states have additional taxes at the local/county level over and above the state gas taxes.

            And more and more states are using tolls to pay for major infrastructure projects – like VDOT is for things like the HRBT and I-95, I-66, I-495.

            Also, only about 1/3 of transportation funds in Va come from the gas tax. 2/3 come from sales taxes.

            right?

          13. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            You mean like that additional gas tax in Northern Virginia?

          14. LarrytheG Avatar

            yes and in Hampton roads and the PRTC gas tax.

          15. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            From that report: Virginia’s worst rankings are in maintenance disbursements per mile (27th) and urbanized area congestion (27th).

          16. LarrytheG Avatar

            which seems counter to their rankings for cost-effectiveness and highway performance, no?

          17. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Maybe the report is just garbage?

          18. LarrytheG Avatar

            from Reason! no way!

          19. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            I have been to Chicago. What’s the average block size in suburban Chicago compared to the average block size in Northern Virginia?

            Block size = how far you have to drive to end up where you started making only right turns.

            In almost all cases, it’s less than a mile in suburban Chicago. At a minimum there are major east-west and north-south roads spaced every mile. Go look on a map if you don’t believe me.

            In Northern Virginia? My guess would be at least 5 miles if not 10 miles, not that anyone has ever calculated it that I know of (and I bet that it’s closely correlated with the average size of the plantations that once existed in Northern Virginia..)

            And what’s the significance of block size? That tells you how many parallel routes there are, which could be used as alternative routes in the event of an accident, a road closure, or traffic congestion.

          20. LarrytheG Avatar

            I don’t know but I know and you know what the traffic is like there on the expressways – even a 1 am!

          21. how_it_works Avatar
            how_it_works

            Funny you should mention that. 25 years ago, at 1am, I66 between the Beltway and 234 was pretty much empty. I’d be driving home from work and I’d be the only car around for about 1500 feet in each direction.

            Now, it’s got a lot more traffic at 1am.

        2. how_it_works Avatar
          how_it_works

          No new lanes for I-95 north in your lifetime?

          Oh, what a shocker!

          Been living in this state for 34 years and one consistent thing in that time has been the building of new houses without the transportation infrastructure to support them.

          You can claim all you want that this isn’t a problem unique to Virginia. And perhaps it’s not. But the “DMV” consistently ranks as one of the worst metro areas for traffic congestion…and it doesn’t take a Federal government employee to figure out why.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Using AMTRAK to get from Richmond to Washington and back is already a no-brainer. I have not done it recently, but before the pandemic, I would go to D.C. about twice a year to spend the day at the Smithsonian. The train ride took about two hours, about the same time, or less, that driving that route during rush hour, and without the pain and expense of trying to find a place to park downtown.

      On my trips, it was obvious that there were a fairly good number of “regulars” aboard.

      1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
        James Wyatt Whitehead

        No can do. Amtrak cancelled starting tomorrow in Virginia.
        https://wtop.com/local/2022/09/amtrak-cancels-all-long-distance-trains-as-freight-rail-strike-looms/

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          all fixed now?

  3. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Given it goes to Dulles, I think the line will have more utility than you are giving it credit for. The lack of that option has been a major drawback for that airport (sure did love the T when flying in and out of Boston last year, and used light rail when our son was in St. Louis and could take it all the way out to Scott AFB or near.) The Silver Line delays have been unconscionable.

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