Millions for Transportation, Pennies for Congestion Relief

It’s a sad statement about the level of public policy discourse in Hampton Roads when the most pointed newspaper commentary comes from a Northern Virginia. Thank goodness for Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. (Let us also give credit to the Daily Press editorial page for publishing his column, even if it contradicts a lot of what passes for wisdom from its own pundits.)

The citizens of Hampton Roads are about to start paying a lot more in taxes to pay for major transportation projects that will do very little to address traffic congestion, says Schwartz:

Let’s start with Route 460 and the Southeastern Expressway. How did these roads rise to the top of the priority list, when so little is being done to fix existing congestion? Neither highway shows any real benefit in terms of reducing traffic on existing highways like I-64 and I-264.

Meanwhile, the investment that would make a real difference to one of the worst bottlenecks in the region – additional tunnel and bridge capacity across the James River (with transit) – has been pushed to the bottom of the priority list.

The Southeastern Expressway doesn’t reduce traffic on existing roads and saves very little time for drivers while sending them right back into some of the worst existing bottlenecks in the region. But it paves over hundreds of acres of critical wetlands and opens up a whole new frontier for real estate speculation.

Even more egregious is the proposal for a new Route 460 from Suffolk to Petersburg parallel to the existing 460. The current road is predicted to remain at Level of Service A (free-flowing) along most of its length through 2030. Meanwhile, drivers on I-64 and countless other roads throughout Hampton Roads routinely endure Level of Service F, or gridlock.

Today, Route 460 carries fewer than 10,000 vehicles per day compared to average daily traffic volumes on I-64 of 43,000 to 80,000 vehicles per day in the Williamsburg area alone. Route 460 would also divert few, if any, trips from I-64 according to the environmental study.

Route 460 is predicted to cost at least $1.5 billion. After pitching the road to the public as a private toll-road construction project, the Virginia Department of Transportation now says that taxpayers would have to pay at least $1 billion of the cost. This would divert revenues from more critical needs which could include both commuter rail and extended carpool lanes on the Peninsula. Worse, one of the private bidders to construct 460 has pushed for tolls on I-64 on the Peninsula and diversion of those tolls to pay for 460.

Schwartz’ alternative? Redevelop downtowns and older commercial corridors with mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that support transit and reduce the number and length of automobile trips. In other words (my words, not his): More Virginia Beach Town Center and less Indian River Road.

I have yet to see either the Virginian-Pilot or the Daily Press dedicate the reportorial resources to compare the costs and benefits of, and alternatives to, the Southeastern Expressway and the U.S. 460 upgrade, much less the behind-the-scenes politicking that moved those two projects to the top of the project list. If those newspapers dedicated one tenth the ink to scrutinizing those critical projects in the news papges instead of cheerleading them on the editorial pages, they might do their readership a real service.

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18 responses to “Millions for Transportation, Pennies for Congestion Relief”

  1. Rodger Provo Avatar
    Rodger Provo

    Jim Bacon –

    I think Virginia needs both:

    -additional efforts to rebuild our
    cities and older suburbs to handle
    fututre growth

    -and upgrading of transportation corridors such as Rt. 460 out of Hampton Roads to provide a second means for commerce, residential and tourist traffic to enter and exit a major 1.6 million populated metropolitan area with a sole major
    access point, I-64, which just
    can’t handle the demands for the
    region. Secondary roads serving
    that market such at Rt. 13 up the
    Eastern Shore, Rt. 17 into North
    Carolina and the existing Rt. 58
    and Rt. 460 heading west into Virginia aren’t up to the task.

    Think about it.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Rodger, I don’t disagree with you. But I would add one caveat: How about prioritizing road transportation dollars to address congestion hot spots? How about acknowledging that sometimes that greatest bang for the buck can be obtained through investments in modest, local projects rather than mega-projects that — oh, by the way — open up new greenfields for traditional suburban development.

  3. rodger provo Avatar
    rodger provo

    Jim Bacon-

    There is an awful choke point for
    traffic on I-64 in Hampton and

    Upgrading Rt. 460 provides a means
    to move traffic out of the region
    on an alternative route.

    We are lucky we have not had a major disaster to strike that
    region requiring a movement of
    many people out of harms way.

    The road system there can’t handle
    that need nor meet the needs for
    daily traffic for that region.

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    this is a familiar conversation.

    To relieve congestion (pick one):

    1. – invest in existing road improvements, signal timing, chokepoints, etc

    2. – build a bypass or beltway so that folks can take the alternative routes to avoid the congestion

    And no .. I don’t believe the folks who say we need both because when push comes to shove with limited dollars – they bail on the “both” argument and switch to “we need to spend limited dollars on new roads”.

    and THAT is how the new roads get the highest priority – because the advocates of the new roads KNOW that .. the money for the lower priorities will not never become available.

    If new corridors are needed for TW/HR then fine.. let’s build them and toll them and that will do two important things.

    First – it will ensure that there truly is a demand and not just something someone is claiming

    Second – the road gets paid for while allowing other money to actually be spent for congestion relief.

    and I’ll give a real life example.

    There is now a toll road to the Outer Banks.

    It works just dandy. You get yourself an EZPass transponder and you use that wonderful new road to get to where you want to go.

    Nothing could be simplier and more appropriate.

    We need to apply that same common-sense to US 460.

    and .. who is it that says folks will not divert from I-64? If it is VDOT..and the folks who advocate spending tax money for the road – I’d take it with a grain of salt.

    For myself, would I pay $10 or $20
    to avoid being the 24th car in the left lane trying to get around a tractor trailer for 13 miles – only to finally get around him and find myself right back in another 24 car “train”?

    I say .. the folks that want to do that for free.. great.. give me the $20 alternative.. and I won’t be the only one…I’m betting…

    Money and Tolls in HR/TW .. taken from taxpayers .. should be spent on improving the existing transportation network – FIRST with other roads .. especially ones like 460 being done with separate TOLLs.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    What about safety and those hot spots? These potential projects could save lives and prevent injuries as well as reduce the most frustrating kind of delay… one related to a death or significant emergency reponse and clearance times. If simple traffic safety fixes were implemented quickly, capacity could be preserved and everyone’s trip would be alot more reliable. Let’s face it, a significant frustration of the general public is not the length of the trip, it is its reliability.

    It’s a sad state of affairs when one only focuses on congestion and capacity issues (like this blog) and not on safety and the number lives lost on our highways. You should take a cue from the RTD as they are beginning to cover the issue for the true impact on our daily lives.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Jim said “…rather than mega-projects that — oh, by the way — open up new greenfields for traditional suburban development.”

    Dulles Rail to Loudoun County for $5 plus billion is certainly the ultimate mega-project opening up new greenfields…

  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: safety and hot spots

    I’m in complete agreement.

    That’s why I’ve always advocated performance standards and criteria for ranking projects.

    We could argue about whether to weight …say congestion higher than accidents stats or better define what a choke point is, etc but the point is .. use a standard set of criteria by which to evaluate improvements so that you can get your rank ordered list.

    The condundrum of “fixing existing” verses “building new”, in my mind, reveals much about attitudes.

    .. say .. the choice is really about land-use .. and fixing exiting roads means enhancing and utilizing infill

    .. as opposed to .. developing greenfields with new roads…

    .. my mind… if someone is advocating new roads that go where water/sewer is not -what does that mean in terms of subsequent land-development?

    Not only will it not be infill, but it will be low density.

    From a policy point of view – is this a good thing?

    The folks who build houses will say YES because they feel that the MARKET if for subdivisions – not INFILL… homes…

    so .. they support new roads.. rather than fixing the existing ones… making the existing ones less congested, fixing the hot spots .. and making them safer.

    But the supporters of new roads will never say that they prefer new over old – they’ll always say we need both – but in terms of priorities – which projects get funded first – they choose the new roads because many truly believe that money on existing roads is thrown away … because in their minds.. what is truly needed is MORE CAPACITY via more pavement verses more capacity from investing in the current road network.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    A few years ago, JLARC did an analysis of VDOT and how it does business.

    It made some important observations that to this day have not been acted upon – and those issues – still impact issues like US 460, congestion and fixing existing roads verses new roads.

    Two important findings:

    1. – That VDOT highways districts were not aligned according to modern day demographic and geographic realities.

    .. plain english – original boundaries drawn according to 1922 Congessional districts.

    so we need to revisit how the districts are drawn especially with regard to demographics and geography.

    2. – JLARC recommended that Transportation in Virginia be divided into three distinct areas.

    a – intra-state roads of statewide significance that “connect” Virginia

    b. – regional roads

    c. – local roads.

    JLARC recommended that VDOT’s mission be the roads of statewide significance.

    That Regional organizations such as MPOs and Transportation Authorities deal with Regional roads

    and then counties/cities deal with their local roads.

    If we did this – we would not be having bizarre discussions with respect to whether or not US 460 is the responsibility of the HR/TW MPO/Transportation Authority.

    Furthermore – a Regional Authority, consisting of all member jurisdictions .. would have a lot more role and interest in roads like the Southeastern Expressway – in terms of benefits to the Region…

    as opposed to a VDOT-dominated conversation… with the jurisdictions that the road would be in – made even worse by the arbitrary VDOT district boundaries.

    There is lots of fear and loathing with respect to the new Transportation Authorities but what they do offer to HR/TW and NoVA is the OPPORTUNITY to take more control of their respective destinies – as REGIONS rather than have VDOT – in concert with specific localities making decisions that.. preclude a legitimate prioritization process – for the Region.

    It’s a chance to pull back from a dysfunctional approach to transportation planning – and this is not my opinion – this is JLARCs.

  9. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    HB 3202 is the result of special interests lobbies – it fails to produce any significant reduction in traffic congestion.

    To me, HB 3202 is a example of how badly the political process has become completed corrupted by lobbyists and special interest campaign “contributions”.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I don’t understand how a BILL – HB 3202 can be stated as to not produce any significant reduction in congestion.

    Doesn’t the bill, set in motion, a way to fund future projects?

    Isn’t it up to HR/TW to pick/choose the projects that may or may not address congestion?

    Or is the idea that congestion reduction is not doeable and any money collected.. for that purpose .. is a scam.. for new roads?

    Is the idea that ANY money for roads – is – in every case – just a scam and that the cure is .. no more money for roads?

  11. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun


    HB 3202 specifies exactly which speculative economic development state and port highway, brudge, and tunnels are allowed to be constructed using the billions of new taxes, tolls, and fees created by HB 3202.

    The Hampton Roads Planning Distrct Commission prepared traffic congestion projections.

    The “package” of 7 major “projects” fails to offer any meaningful reduction in the percentage of our region’s severly congestion lane miles.

    The $4.4B port authority’s so-called 3rd Crossing is intended to handle traffic we do not yet have and that is truck traffic due solely to the port authority deciding to expand their port and add thousands on trucks to our clogged highway system.

    The Hampton Roads Transportation Authority portion of HB 3202 doesn’t contain solutions for reducing traffic congestion in our region. It was not designed to reduce traffic congestion in our region.

    Sure, the special interest advocates of HB 3202 marketing HB 3202 as a “soultion” – but – it is not.

    Yes, much can be done to reduce traffic congestion in our region.

    The $9B to $12B worth of HR/TW highway projects HB 3202 allows do not really improve traffic congestion, and in some cases, such as Suffolk, it will significantly increase local traffic congestion due to many more long trains blocking local roadways that are now train free.

    This is due to increased port frieght being moved by rail – and the failure to fund grade crossing flyovers.

    This is due to the so-called 3rd Crossing not really being a 3rd Crossing, but rather its design increasing traffic congestion at the MMMBT (Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel) – and failing to significantly reduce traffic congestion at one of the region’s worse bottlenecks, that being the HRBT (Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel).

    Glaringly absent are funding or inclusion of additional tubes for the HRBT.

    HB 3202 is a lobbyist list of highways – not a list developed by elected representatives with the goal of reducing traffic congestion and thereby improving conditions for the locals that are forced to pick up the tab for building the highway projects on the list.

    HB 3202 is all about the Hampton Roads Partnership forcing their plan down the troats of the locals – even when we already rejected this failed “list” in a regional referendum held in November 2002 – a list rejected by a 2 to 1 margin.

    Yes, much can be done to reduce traffic congestion in our region – HB 3202 is not it.

  12. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Thanks for explaining.

    so the jurisdictional votes were not truly for creating the authority but instead voting yes for these projects?

    So the new Authority is really just an administrator for these fixed and unchangeable projects?

    The Authority itself cannot modify, delete or add new projects?

    I’m confused.

    Were the localities voting for HB3202 or a Regional Transportation Authourity or what?

  13. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    When Governor Kaine signed HB 3202 into law on April 4th, 2007 – the new TW/HR regional transportation authority was created.enacted. It had only the power to toll all roadways within our region. The money from the tolls can only be used for the list of 7 projects documented in the bill.

    What the local governments were voting on was another part of HB 3202 – a complex list of regional fees and new taxes.

    It was a “all or nothing” vote, meaning no local government could pick and choice from the list of new regional fees and regional taxes.

    All money raised from the new regional fees and regional taxes can only be used for the 7 projects – and to pay for the costs related to running and staffing the new regional authority.

    When Senator Stolle briefed the Virginia Beach City Council prior to their vote to adopt the new regional fees and regional taxes, he stated the new authority was powerless and was only created as a “conduit” (his exact word) to keep the bond debt off of the state books – and to keep the bond debt of the local cities books.

    There is a loop hole, however, as HB 3202 states that the projects that can be funded using all of the new tolls, taxes, and fees are those listed in the HRPDC 2030 Transportation Plan.

    This, in one regard this makes HB 3202 a “blank check” as the HRPDC controls the list of projects that HB 3202 will allow money to be spend on.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: loopholes and blank checks

    The 2030 Transportation Plan is way more than 7 projects and it can and does change with new projects added.

    So the HRPDC (MPO) controls the projects for the TW/HR Region and they “could” choose congestion-reducing projects over new so-called sprawl-inducing roads.

    I think an important observation to make is that the HRPDC MPO is .. NOT UNIQUE neither in Virginia nor the Nation.

    Virginia has about a dozen MPOs and there are hundreds across the Nation and they all function very similiarily to the HRPDC.

    I’ll be the first one to admit that the process for determining priorities for a Region are vulnerable to undue influence from business and land-development interests.

    Fair to point out that VDOT receives encourage from the same business community via local elected officials – who, in turn, tell VDOT that they support certain projects for “economic” development.

    Is the idea that VDOT would be replaced with an MPO much difference in terms of the “potential” of the process being co-opted by business interests?

    Locally.. in my area .. local elected officials have time and again supported VDOT building new highways rather than congestion reducing projects so I’m not sure how this changes.. too much with an MPO replacing VDOT in the decision process.

    And.. I really don’t know how you’d accomplish better Regional planning… without some entity like an MPO… call it whatever one wants to call it – but a way to Regionally coordinate and cooperate on all issues that have regional implications including transportation.

    So .. again.. I’m not sure I see anything particularily unique with respect to this entire issue in HR/TW.. it walks/talks a lot like other regions across Virginia and the Nation.

    Is the process just flat WRONG across Va and the Nation?

  15. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun


    “re: loopholes and blank checks

    The 2030 Transportation Plan is way more than 7 projects and it can and does change with new projects added.

    So the HRPDC (MPO) controls the projects for the TW/HR Region and they “could” choose congestion-reducing projects over new so-called sprawl-inducing roads.


    I apologize for not making this reality about HB 3202 and the HRTA/”7 projects” more clear.

    HB 3202 is a huge political bait & switch.

    I predict the only real improvements we will see will be the new 3rd Crossing and two more tubes for the Midtown Tunnel.

    That’s it folks. There is not enough money to do anything else.

    Your hope that somehow HB 3202 and the HRDPC 2030 Transportation Plan might be changed in the future for the better flies in the face of the reality and history of the Hampton Roads Partnership and the folks appointed to the HRPDC/MPO that the Hampton Roads Partnership control.

    Larry … good luck holding your breath for the other “projects” in HB 3202 to be completed – trust me, this bill is only about the port getting what they want.

    The rest of the
    projects” in HB 3202 are political fodder added into the bill to help “sell” the bill and give political cover to the local government electeds that the Hampton Roads Partnership have pressured into voting against the will of the people – and FOR their agenda.

    Reality: Only the 3rd Crossing has a completed EIS – I predict that only the 3rd Crossing will see the light of day in the next 10 years. That and some more tubes at the Midtown Tunnel – to help move more port trcking traffic.

    Frnakly it is obvious to many of us that pay close attention that those that think that some better “projects” will come from the Hampton Roads Partnership and the HRPDC/MPO they control – – are deluding themselves.

    HB 3202 is a huge scam – it is simply a means to use local tax, fee, and toll money to fund the state ownder port expansion and handle all the new trucks the port will be dumping unto our region’s highway system.

    The other scam is that the General Assembly is trying to take a page from the Enron playbook and attempting to hide billions in bond debt – off the state books, and off the local government books.

    No one really believes the HB 3202 has any intention of reducing traffic congestion for the locals.

    The business lobby could care less about locals stuck in traffic – HB 3202 is all about buisness and tourism (so called “economic development”.

  16. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I thought I’d share this because it is rich with irony.

    We’ve been told that MPO governance in HR/TW is held hostage by business interests and that citizens have a very different ideas about which projects should have priority but they are locked out of the process because the leaders of the MPO are not directly elected.

    Then we have folks who say that Portland, Oregon has “got it right” when it comes to Transportation Planning – and that we could learn a thing or two from them…

    fair enough

    I offer the following:

    “Metro,…is the regional governmental agency for the Oregon portion of the Portland metropolitan area. It is the only directly-elected metropolitan planning organization in the United States…”

  17. Reid Greenmun Avatar
    Reid Greenmun

    Fair enough. My bad.

  18. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    How about citizens lobbying the GA to require that Transportation Authorities be directly elected in Virginia?

    I see one huge benefit. The public would know – with certainy – one way they could impact the transportation decision process even if they did not completely understand all the different parts.

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