How about a Road Realignment and Closure Commission?

Load gun.
Aim gun at foot.
Pull trigger.
Raise taxes to buy another bullet.

by James A. Bacon

Out in Brainerd, Minn., Chuck Marohn is still thinking outrageous thoughts about transportation. Indeed, some of his ideas are so beyond the pale that even I haven’t thought of them — and I pride myself for spitting on the conventional wisdom. While virtually everyone else in the world is worrying about how to expand their state road and highway networks, Marohn is wondering how we can shrink them.

Core to Marohn’s way of thinking is that Minnesota (like every other state) has overbuilt its road and highway network to the point where routine maintenance eats up the entire budget. But we have reached the point where taxpayers won’t tolerate higher taxes. If Americans want to maintain a world-class transportation system, he asks in a recent blog post on Strong Towns, where will the money come from?

The assumption built into our current approach is that we’ve never made a mistake in choosing to build a piece of transportation infrastructure. NEVER. Every lane is necessary. No shoulder too wide. No interchange was ever unjustified and simply built because a politician got the funding. We have no redundant bridges, no unnecessary signals, no accesses that could ever be closed.

Minnesota, he suggests, needs the transportation equivalent of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. “We need to do the same thing with transportation. Let’s have a commission that looks at the entire system, prioritizes transportation segments and comes up with a list of what we walk away from. … We won’t get the economic results we want from our transportation investments unless we start asking a different set of questions. The toughest, and perhaps most critical, among them will be deciding what parts of our current system are no longer worth maintaining.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Think about the network of roads and highways as a portfolio of transportation assets. Businesses continually reallocate their capital from under-performing assets to what they hope will be superior-performing assets. But once a state builds a road, it never gets rid of it, no matter how traffic patterns might have changed. Thus, the Commonwealth gets stuck maintaining thousands of road-miles yielding very little economic return while it is starved for capital to build and maintain capacity in locations where it would yield a high rate of return.

In Virginia, the situation is actually worse than that. We are building new transportation capacity in areas that we know will offer a low rate of return. The Charlottesville Bypass. The Coalfield Expressway. The Bi-County Parkway. The U.S.460 Connector. Once we’ve leveraged ourselves with debt to build those facilities, we’ll then take on the enduring obligation to maintain them. A Road Realignment and Closure Commission is a great idea.

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15 responses to “How about a Road Realignment and Closure Commission?”

  1. Virginia is the 3rd highest state in the country in terms of road miles.

    how does this impact our road budget?

    greatly. everytime it snows, for instance, every road is eventually plowed and if you think this is not expensive – ask DK how much it would cost to plow his driveway which I understand is one of the longer roads in Great Falls!

    But let’s throw this back on Jim Bacon. How would you measure ROI for prospective road closures?

    bonus question: VDOT announces that it is going to do one of two things with respect to 600 series “local” roads:

    1. – no longer maintain nor improve them.
    2. – let the county pay them to continue maintenance and operations on a per mile basis.

    and if road miles are added – so does the cost of operation and maintenance.

    So the longer road that DJ’s long driveway connects to – would become the responsibility of Fairfax County taxpayers just like they are in every city/town in Va and 2 counties – Fairfax and Arlington…

    stepping back .. expecting a “swarm” here…


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      My driveway connects to a private road which my neighbors and I pay to have plowed.

      That road connects to a public road that gets plowed whenever the “powers that be” decide to plow it.

      My defense is an F-150 with 4WD.

      I think it would be great for the state to give road support to the municipalities. However, it then needs to lower state taxes and give the municipalities their won way to fund road maintenance. And no round trip skimming trips through Richmond either! Local taxes, collected locally that never come near the greasy fingered merchants of greed in our state legislature.

    2. billsblots Avatar

      More specifically, Virginia has the third largest number of road miles maintained by the state DOT. (Texas, NC, VA, I believe)

      It could have the third largest number of road miles, period, but I don’t know that for sure.

      1. VDOT lists such a high number of road miles because it assumes responsibility for most secondary roads in the state — in every county except Arlington and Henrico. Other state DOTs devolve responsibility for secondary roads to the local governments.

        1. and new subdivisions.. which in places like Loudoun and Stafford are significant.

  2. re: ” which my neighbors and I pay to have plowed.”

    and I’m betting for a typical snow season, it costs you MORE than the total gas taxes you pay on that F-150, right?


    Keep in mind by the way – there are FIVE kinds of roads in Va:

    1. – Interstate/limited access

    2. – Federally-signed routes like Route 1, 7, 29, 50 etc

    3. – State “Primary” roads which are the Federally signed roads PLUS some 3 digit State “signed” roads (not 600/700)

    4. – 3 digit 600 and and 700 series roads that are de-facto “county” roads that can and do go through other counties.

    5. – 1000 series roads that are usually subdivision roads.

    Most “ordinary” (non road geek) folks in Va – have no clue about the “signing” conventions – which have real impacts on things like design, operation and maintenance protocols – as well as how much money is allocated toward that purpose on a per mile basis.

    but back to the ROI issue.

    if you had a road commission and you wanted a criteria for “retiring” roads – wouldn’t you need to come up with some specific metrics that would presumably indicate some kind of “value” for a road?

    For instance, if the state wanted to close the road that DJ’s driveway connects to – how would they justify it?

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    The Charlottesville Bypass is probably too little too late but do not try to claim with a straight face that there is not a capacity/congestion issue on 29 North — and one with real economic consequences for shippers using that highway. I’m no expert on that Northern Virginia project either, but again — don’t compare that to widening some rural highway with no traffic — the challenges there are real.

    I fully agree that more decisions could and should be based on ROI, and that might include changing maintenance or snow removal schedules. But as I’ve said before, it isn’t the engineers and planners who got us where we are today, its politicians responding to the demands of voters and donors.

  4. If VDOT – unilaterally lopped off the secondary and subdivision roads -that alone would change the landscape.

    Much of what local officials do – is to use secondary roads for residential home development – developments whose roads are “free” to the buyers of the homes.

    Take away those two things – and a lot of the politics changes.

    Curb cuts on major highways invariably requires major infrastructure upgrades for things like additional lanes, traffic signals and left/right turn lanes – that the developer or the county has to pay for – as well as the improvement to the secondary roads – as well as the subdivision roads.

    this is what happens in 46 other states – where development essentially has to pay for itself – at least transportation wise.

    we have in Va a bad system. It encourages the counties to make bad economic decisions that harm the state not them.

    It’s time for us to confront the realities here and to take away from the developers and the counties the tools that undermine VDOT and state taxpayers.

    As soon as the county and the developers how to “own” the transportation costs – you’d see big changes in the way both do business.

  5. One approach as a “start” could be for the State to propose that all roads that dead end in a housing development (and not because of geographic features) – be recognized as not a functioning/contributing part of the road system that “connects” places and truly serves as a public road that serves general mobility.

    All cul-de-sacced subdivisions would become in Va what they are in 46 other states – and that is the responsibility of the owners, an HOA or a county road.

    the next step would be to determine for other roads – just how many members of the public they actually serve – do they actually “connect” places and serve the general public beyond the local residents?

    give all home owners the option of deciding if they want the road they live on to be a “cut through” or a “dead-end” .

    why not?

  6. I’ve just learned there is a charge being made that Arlington County is receiving tax money from NVTA to alter the Boundary Channel Drive Interchange, not to improve traffic flow around the Pentagon, but rather, for a better entrance to a new aquatic center being built in Crystal City. The law requires the new tax money to be spent to relieve traffic congestion. Why are elected officials violating the law?

    Could it have to do with cronyism and other people’s money?

  7. shaunalex Avatar

    Always found it odd that the Commonwealth/VDOT get new inventory every month of roads they never ordered, nor want. All those 1000 series roads you mentioned are built by housing developments and must be accepted into the State’s inventory for their lifetime. How funny it would be if trailer after trailer showed up at the docks of big box stores every week with inventory they didn’t ask for. But at least they could sell that. VA just has to keep paying for those roads.

  8. I think the ones that are not connecting roads in communities are legitimate candidates to be “returned” to the county and/or to the residents.

    this is a clear subsidy that other citizens in other land-use patterns not only do not get – but they end up subsidizing.

    Over time – VDOT should start returning these roads and then think about decommissioning 600 series roads that are dead-ends… do not connect, etc..

    If you go to 46 other states – roads like that belong to the county or do subdivision HOAs.

  9. reed fawell III Avatar
    reed fawell III

    Perhaps the most important word in this concept is the word “realignment.”

    We have rarely built roads in the past to reduce traffic. Mostly we have worked to do exactly the reverse. We’ve worked to increase traffic. To do it we enlarge the capacity of certain roads so that we can increase the volume of their traffic and its speed as it passes though.

    Hence we widen still narrow channels that sever apart neighborhoods and limit access. Thus we limit points of ingress and exit that relieve traffic, that slow and dilute traffic, spreading it out by offering as many options as possible to get from point A to point B.

    In short we channelize traffic into ever more bottlenecks requiring ever more short term fixes. Whatever the short term relief, the long term of this sort of road building always brings more traffic problems than ever.

    We need now to undo these mistakes of the past, not repeat them. This requires realignment that opens up existing roads to far more alternatives of flow and disbursement so that traffic can get to point B in a myriad of different ways depending on where people start out. Instead of what we do now which is to force all these people to go the same way to get to Point B, irrespective of where they might be coming from.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      These suggestions have particular relevance to congested suburban areas. Here many problems might relate to Interstate roads highjacked for local uses and Interstate like roads built mistakenly to serve (mis-serve) local uses.

  10. re: ” We have rarely built roads in the past to reduce traffic. Mostly we have worked to do exactly the reverse. Weโ€™ve worked to increase traffic. To do it we enlarge the capacity of certain roads so that we can increase the volume of their traffic and its speed as it passes though.”

    that strikes me as a pretty profound comment – seriously. You think differently about these things sometimes and I’m actually starting to appreciate it ………………….. but don’t get carried away… ๐Ÿ™‚

    for instance, we don’t work to increase water/sewer or transit or even schools or libraries or fire stations in that same way. There are limits we all seem to accept for those things – but not roads…

    the only thing I can think of – off the top of my head is the adage: ” if you charge more for something, you’ll use less of it” but not sure it fits.

    maybe our infatuation with cars and personal mobility is just different than other stuff.

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