Is Smart Scale Working Like It’s Supposed to?

Republican legislators in Northern Virginia (the few that are left) are wondering what happened to Virginia’s Smart Scale mechanism for allocating transportation dollars. Smart Scale was established during the McAuliffe administration to score proposed transportation projects on key metrics such as congestion relief, economic development, safety, land use, and the environment. But somehow 84% of the transportation dollars raised through Northern Virginia regional taxes were directed to transit projects, assert Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax. Only $8 million per year of the $200 million in state funding has gone to highway projects.

“These recommendations are nothing short of outrageous and demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that SMART SCALE scoring is failing,” said LaRock in a prepared statement yesterday. “It is not following the legislative mandates imposed by the Virginia Legislature in 2014. Northern Virginia’s notorious congestion will not go away if 70% of the estimated benefit of projects comes from Land use, Economic Development, and Accessibility, with another 18% from Environment.”

In a letter to Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sharon Valentine, LaRock and Hugo requested a thorough review of the Smart Scale scoring process, which was legislatively mandated to give congestion mitigation the greatest weight in the scoring process.

Wrote LaRock: “I am pressing for a thorough revision to the Smart Scale process to significantly increase the weighting of congestion relief and get this rating program fixed and functioning so our precious dollars benefit drivers and not developers.”

Bacon’s bottom line: I don’t know what to make of this. The purpose of creating Smart Scale was to take the politics out of transportation funding by providing the Commonwealth Transportation Board objective metrics by which to judge a project’s worthiness. The impetus behind the initiative was to create a more effective tool for combating traffic congestion.

Several years ago, the General Assembly enacted three regional taxes — a Sales tax, Grantor’s tax, and a Transient Occupancy Tax — with the goal of raising $300 million a year to be spent on Northern Virginia transportation projects. As I recall the politics of the time, political support was derived from the expectation that most of the money would be dedicated to addressing traffic congestion.

I do find it remarkable that 84% of Northern Virginia’s regional funding is going to mass transit. It’s conceivable that building a mass transit capability is the best way to tackle traffic congestion — after all, building new street and highway capacity is incredibly expensive. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Smart Growth/mass transit constituencies, which may include real estate interests that want to develop land around the Silver Line’s METRO stations, have worked behind the scenes to stack the Smart Scale methodology.

I just don’t know. The media doesn’t attend CTB meetings anymore, so no one has been reporting on the deliberations in Richmond. Whatever the truth of the matter, I sense that LaRock and Hugo have identified a politically potent issue for the vast majority of Northern Virginians who don’t take mass transit.

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6 responses to “Is Smart Scale Working Like It’s Supposed to?

  1. Nobody ever won an election in Northern Virginia (or anywhere in VA, really) by standing firm on the claim that transportation funds are allocated fairly and spent wisely. The opposite assertion is universal.

  2. There are complaints against Smart Scale but some of them are not based on facts but perceptions.

    There is a slew of information about how Smart Scale works – and it primarily is focused on safety and moving people so projects have to demonstrate that they do that – AND they compete against other projects and most ordinary road projects don’t score well unless they demonstrate they improve safety and the movement of people.

    In fact – the I-95 bridges over the Rappahannock River did not score well on SmartScale because a lot of the traffic is solo-driven cars doing daily commutes from the Fredericksburg region to NoVa.

    VRE, on the other hand, scores well… because it moves thousands of people a day – taking hundreds of cars off the road.

    That’s also what dynamic tolling (HOT) is about. The idea is to get people to HOV and those folks who do – drive free and most days cut 30 or more minutes off of their commute.

    When you just add more free lanes – you actually encourage more people to drive solo AND in Fredericksburg’s case – more new solo commuters moving to Fredericksburg for “affordable” housing – many of who have every intention of commuting solo to their job in NoVa.

    It’s not sustainable to do that.

    The region is still growing – adding more people and more cars – and more people who want to drive solo – and the region has very few places left where a new road could be built and even then – the cost to acquire the land – which is valuable development land is just not feasible.

    A new road in rural Va costs 2-5 million a mile. A new road in NoVa costs 100 million a mile.

    The GOP in NoVa is “running” on this issue but it’s a cynical thing – they just see a way to get votes by demonizing Smart Scale. And it might work – people ARE frustrated but VDOT and the CTB are committed to Smart Scale as a process. It can and will be tweaked when justified but what’s going on right now is just plain old politicization and pandering.

  3. Re Smart Scale, Larry says, “In fact – the I-95 bridges over the Rappahannock River did not score well on SmartScale because a lot of the traffic is solo-driven cars doing daily commutes from the Fredericksburg region to NoVa. VRE, on the other hand, scores well… because it moves thousands of people a day – taking hundreds of cars off the road.”

    Whoa! Is Smart Scale about specific infrastructure to provide traffic congestion relief, or about diverting people to other modes of transportation that might eventually provide general congestion relief? And how are these apples compared to those oranges? I can see how both might address traffic congestion, but one is highly localized and the other is systemic. And we need BOTH. Does Smart Scale recognize those differences with an allocation to each?

  4. Smartscale DOES recognize the difference – there is a phrase – COSS

    2.3 SCREENING PROCESS

    VTrans Needs Screening

    All projects submitted for the SMART SCALE process must pass through an initial screening process conducted by the OIPI team and demonstrate that the project addresses a need identified in the Commonwealth’s long-range transportation plan – VTrans. VTrans needs are updated once every four years. VTrans assesses the State’s transportation needs within four categories

    Corridor of Statewide Significance (CoSS) – key multimodal travel corridors that move people and goods within and through Virginia, serving primarily long-distance / interregional travel;

    • Regional Networks (RN) – multimodal networks that facilitate intraregional travel within urbanized areas;

    • Urban Development Areas (UDA) – areas where jurisdictions intend to concentrate future population and employment growth and development consistent with the Code of Virginia (§15.2-2223.1)1; and

    • Transportation Safety Needs – statewide safety needs identified in
    VTrans2040 will be eligible for funding under the District Grant Program.

    The needs categories selected by the applicant will determine which screening criteria VDOT, DRPT, and OIPI will apply to the project application.

    http://www.a-npdc.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/SMART-SCALE-Technical-Guide-2017.pdf

    SMART SCALE Technical Guide page 16

    Smart Scale is pretty comprehensive. It is not without some flaws that need to be addressed but more often than not – many critics haven’t spent much time really understanding it and truth be known – some just want to go back to the good old days of back room politics way of doing roads.

    Smartscale is VERY TRANSPARENT – EVERY Project gets scored and all projects and their scores appear on one spreadsheet

    you can find them all right here:

    smartscale.org/projects/fy-2018-projects.asp

  5. re: ” Wrote LaRock: “I am pressing for a thorough revision to the Smart Scale process to significantly increase the weighting of congestion relief and get this rating program fixed and functioning so our precious dollars benefit drivers and not developers.”

    For Northern Virginia – the weighting factors are these:

    Congestion Mitigation 45%
    Economic Development 5%
    Accessibility 15%
    Safety 5%
    Environmental Quality 10%
    Land Use 20%

    http://smartscale.org/about/default.asp

    What LaRock is really complaining about is this:

    congestion mitigation

    Person Throughput – 50 percent

    Person Hours of Delay – 50 percent

    so that’s why transit wins on the scoring which is based on cost-benefit.

    SmarScale prioritizes moving people – not cars for congestion relief.

    The other thing to point out here :

    ” three regional taxes — a Sales tax, Grantor’s tax, and a Transient Occupancy Tax — with the goal of raising $300 million a year to be spent on Northern Virginia transportation projects. ”

    NONE of these are fuel or car taxes. ALL of them are paid for by all citizens so what should that money NOT be used for non-road transporation?

  6. The biggest complaint about transportation is the level of congestion that leads to other problems as well. Funding transit, in some locations, can reduce congestion when the transit is used. If transit is not part of the funding mix, something is clearly wrong.

    But we also have many areas in the Region that don’t have the density to support transit. But they too have congestion. I think part of the complaint is that projects in these areas are not being funded under SMART SCALE.

    I think SMART SCALE is better than the good old boy system it replaced but also needs to be monitored so that all transportation needs are meet to the extent fiscally achievable. And its not just adding lanes but rather intersection improvements that are important.

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