Northern Virginia’s Transportation Quandry: Dozens of Cooks Spoiling the Broth

The following was submitted by Ron Utt of the Heritage Foundation and the Virginia Institute for Public Policy:

As the state legislature convenes in Richmond this June in a special session to revise Virginia’s recently enacted surface transportation program, a number of elected officials – ranging from the legislature’s Republican caucus to the Attorney General – have recommended that the state conduct an independent, comprehensive performance audit of the state’s transportation operation to determine areas of deficiency, improve program management, set clear goals and measures of accountability, and develop a plan to reduce traffic congestion. Such a performance audit was completed in Washington state in 2007, and the Idaho legislature is contracting with private consulting firms to conduct a similar audit in 2008.

Among the many findings from Washington’s independent performance audit were problems related to the large number of overlapping government bodies that had some responsibility – and some portion of the resources — for some facet of the state’s (or region’s) transportation policy. This balkanized system of responsibility, in turn, made it difficult to devote the combined resources of government to solving transportation problems, coordinate responses, or – most importantly — to hold any of these many public entities accountable for successes and failures.

In the event that Virginia agrees to conduct its own independent performance audit of the state’s transportation system, the auditors will quickly discover a mother lode of more than a dozen overlapping, costly, and redundant government transportation bureaucracies spending vast sums of taxpayer money in pursuit of contradictory – and often counterproductive — transportation policies and projects. Indeed, Northern Virginia may very well have the most confusing and redundant collection of transportation bureaucracies in the Nation.

A good place to start is with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the region’s metropolitan planning organization – the National Capital Regional Transportation Planning Board (TPB). Members of the Board (and overseers) include five northern Virginia counties and five incorporated cities, as well as the District of Columbia, three Maryland Counties, and six Maryland pseudo-cities. In addition to these two region-wide bureaucracies, each of the five Virgina counties and five cities may embark upon some of their own transportation policies and initiatives.

Serving as ex-officio member on the TPB are three Federal agencies — the National Park Service, the Federal Transit Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration – and also the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA). Although MWAA has no experience in surface transportation issues, it recently became a major player in NoVA transportation policy when it assumed responsibility for building the Dulles Rail project.

Recently added to this mix is the state government created and empowered (and then Supreme Court disempowered) Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), whose member jurisdictions are the same as those Virginia entities serving on the TPB. This new transit-oriented focus will be supplemented by the ongoing work of three other Virginia government entities with some responsibility for transit: the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation. The first two are responsible for operating and funding the Virginia Railway Express (VRE).

I know that this is getting confusing, but, unfortunately, there are still a few more costly bureaucracies floundering around the state and the region, and operating their own competing transportation fiefdoms. Among them is one of the biggest, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates the Metro and the companion bus system. In the original H 3202, spending priority on taxes raised is to satisfy any debt service obligations incurred by the new NVTA, while each year the VRE and WMATA would have had first claim on the next $75 million raised through H 3202’s unconstitutional tax scheme. Added to this steaming bureaucratic brew is the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, and the biggest player of all – the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Maybe this regional broth of bureaucrats makes sense, but I doubt it, and a perfect project for the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) and/0r the Auditor of Public Accounts (APA) would be to conduct a comprehensive financial audit to identify what it is that each of these taxpayer funded entities does, determine how much in administrative costs is required to keep them in operation, and provide an inventory of all personnel, as well as their salary and benefit packages. Such information would be a valuable supplement and assist to the independent performance audit that Virginia should conduct, and would also serve to inform taxpayers of the service tradeoffs incurred by big bureaucracies. For example, if the average Virginia pot hole costs $200 to fix, and if the average bureaucrat in any of the above named entities earns $80,000 per annum, then the public cost of each redundant bureaucrat represents 400 unfilled pot holes on Virginia roads. Think about it.

(Cross-posted at Tertium Quids)

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  1. Groveton Avatar

    “a number of elected officials – ranging from the legislature’s Republican caucus to the Attorney General – have recommended that the state conduct an independent, comprehensive performance audit of the state’s transportation operation to determine areas of deficiency, improve program management, set clear goals and measures of accountability, and develop a plan to reduce traffic congestion.”.

    Ronald Reagan is rolling over in his grave.

    The modern Republican Party is an abortion of double talk. Gone are the days of, “tear down that wall”. Here are the days of “performance audits”. I guess the modern Republican Party would say, “Mr. Gorbachev, empanel a commission to review the implications of removing, and failing to remove, that wall.”.

    Yeah – let’s study the matter some more.

    We need asphalt not paper.

    And the Republicans wonder why Obama is leading McCain in the polls. The reason is the first word in Obama’s campaign slogan – change.

    Meanwhile, I remain stumped by Jim Bacon’s comments. The Virginia Constitution DOES NOT grant any power to the localities. The all-seeing, almighty General Assembly can make laws that temporarily give the localities power but there is no constitutional sharing of power. If the debate over proffers didn’t prove this, I don’t know what will.

    If the all powerful Wizards of Oz in the GA want to change Virginia’s transportation process – they need only legislate it so. Or, if they want to wash their hands of the mess they need to put forth a constitutional amendment granting the power to tax and build to local government (at some level). In the meantime, they have the power and they deserve the blame.

  2. Groveton Avatar

    Lest there be any doubt –

    “Those best fitted by their intelligence, business experience, capacity and moral character do not hold local office.”.

    Justice John Forest Dillon, circa 1865

    This was not some academic legal interpretation. It was a man with an agenda. An agenda to eliminate political power at the local level.

  3. Groveton Avatar

    “Prince William can’t ban dangerous dogs or install photo-red cameras. Fairfax County can’t require cars to stop for pedestrians at marked crosswalks or mold zonomg ordinances to its particulat needs. Arlington can’t declare English Ivy a “noxious weed”.

    Michael Neibauer, Journal Newspapers, June 27, 2004

  4. Groveton Avatar

    The 1989 General Assembly granted permission to Fairfax County to form a special tax district to improve the Route 28 road corridor. The anabling legilation specifically protected the county’s right to change future zoning. However, when the Board of Supervisors amended the zoning ordinance in late 1989 to place more restrictions on uses permitted in the district, the 1990 General Assembly revoked this authority for a thirteen-year period.

    League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area Education Fund, October, 2004

  5. Groveton Avatar

    Living side by side with Maryland’s urban counties, which enjoy constitutional home rule, Northern Virginia’s jurisdictions are acutely aware of the detriments of a strict Dillon Rule adherence by the courts and legislature uopn local actions. Montgomery County, MD adopted an adequate public facilities provision in its subdivision regulations in 1973. It also created a program for the transfer of development rights from the rural upper portion to the more urbanized lower section of Montgomery County. Fairfax County has been unsuccessful in many attempts over the years to persuade the Virginia General Assembly to enable it to provide such programs.

    League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area Education Fund, Oct. 2004

  6. Groveton Avatar

    For several years the county sought enabling legislation aimed at preserving more trees during the construction process. In 2001 a minimal bill pased, which helped a little. The county’s request for more comprehensive legislation in 2002 was held over at the request of the development community; a watered down version passed in 2003.

    League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area Educational Fund, OCt, 2004

  7. Groveton Avatar

    Much of the general climate of distrust between local and state elected officials can be attributed to the General Assembly’s oversight of local authority. Fairfax County, with a population of more than one million people, must look state legislators from throughout the Commonwealth, from Newport News to Norton to Westmoreland County, to determine what governmental authorities are needed in this largely urbanizing county-for diversification of the local tax base, for educational programs, for land use and land growth management, for the environment, and for many other aspects of our lives. It may be time for Virginia’s legislature to reconsider its role vis-a-vis local governments.

    League of Women Voters of the Fairfax Area Education Fund, OcCt,. 2004

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: balkanization

    do a GOOGLE search with the phrase

    “Northern Virginia Regional”

    do the same phrase and substitute for NoVa – Hampton Roads, Richmond, Charlottesville, etc.

    I don’t think it is balkanization to recognize that there are Regional issues that really cannot be adequately addressed without a regional framework.

    Whether it is health care, parks, water/sewer, jail, libraries or ….transportation…

    to NOT cooperate as a region is duplicative, wasteful government.

    and .. to cooperate is NOT balkanization

    I think some clarification as to the differences between regional cooperation and balkanization would be helpful.

    Next, it will not make any sense at all to contemplate any major changes/reform to Va Transportation entities without recognizing the influence of the Federally-mandated MPOs.

    Either recognize the legitimacy of the MPOs (which are Fed transportation planning cousin to the Va – mandated Regional Planning Districts)….

    recognize this – and develop a strategy that incorporates them or start the process to decertify the MPOs and get them out of Virginia altogether but don’t damn them and pretend they don’t exist – because as long as they do exist in Va – Transportation “Reform” must include them.

    I also agree with what Mr. Utt says about the many, many different players, funding streams, alphabet soup but I do not see a recommended alternate vision but rather a very unproactive idea of a “study” to “figure it out” – a tacit acknowledgement that a suggested strategy/vision is not forthcoming as part of the “constructive” part of the criticism.

    Virginia has been cited in various other studies as having an efficient transportation system in comparative metrics with other states.

    I’d be seriously interested in hearing some specifics about the major things that VDOT and Virginia are not doing “right” as compared to other States who have got it “right” and what the differences are.

    If we acknowledge that Va is among the more enlightened States but it is still not good enough – we need to recognize that we’re talking about more than reforming VDOT – but instead the transportation process used by many States including Va – a much higher BAR.

    I’d agree with using JLARC and the Auditor of Public Accounts but if we are going to have them make recommendations – what don’t we actually implement them?

    JLARC pointed out years ago that the boundaries of the VDOT districts were arbitrarily drawn according to 1922 Congressional Districts and made a recommendation to change the boundaries to better align them with the current demographics.

    That recommendation was made 5 years ago.

    Why has it not been implemented?

    Why do the Republicans call for
    audits and reform when their own legislation does not address the prior recommendation for reform?

  9. Groveton Avatar

    A lengthy but excellent piece regarding the history of Dillon’s Rule in NC (including its significant weakening, by statute, in 1971).

    One key comment:

    In sum, the North Carolina courts have generally recognized,
    albeit belatedly and inconsistently at times, that Dillon’s Rule no
    longer applies.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    In terms of transportation – would a non-Dillon Virginia be doing transportation any differently than currently?

    One thing that Va and NC have in common besides Dillon is that they are among only 4 states where the DOT handles ALL roads including local ones.

    Most State DOTs only deal with roads of Statewide Significance and many have road districts.

    JLARC recommended reforming Transportation to restrict VDOT primarily to Statewide Maintenance and the design/construction/improvement of only roads of Statewide Significance and leaving regional and local roads to regional and local governance.

    I’m still not clear how Dillon plays into this.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “We get what we deserve by accepting elected officials who worship at the throne of the big developers. With officials like this in charge, I’m better protected by the Dillon Rule than if it were repealed.”

    This is the same basic theme from Darrell in HR/TW perhaps with “big port interests” tacked on to the “developer” interests although I’m not sure I’ve heard Darrell support the Dillon Rule.

    Here is what I would like to hear:

    How do we get past this problem with citizens not trusting their elected NOT to get in bed with developers and business interests and instead to gain citizen trust?

    Is the system itself such that it predisposes developer/business control of the transportation process and citizens are doomed to having little or no say – little or no trust?

    Or are there reforms that could be pursued and if there are what types of legislation should the GA pursue along these lines?

    The ONLY place in the US with an elected MPO is Portland, Oregon where by all accounts the process is messy but indeed has widespread citizen involvement.

    Is this what Virginia needs to do – to require that MPOs and Transportation Authorities be elected?

    Is this an opportunity for the folks in HR/TW since their MPO just failed it’s certification review?

  12. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    This debate is an example infinite rebuttal loops, the closest thing in the universe to perpetual motion.

    There is one escape:

    Fundamental Transformation of governace structure to reflect the organic structure of human settlement patterns.

    The Planet is real, Continents are real, Regions are real and so are Aplha Communities, Alpha Villages, etc.

    Nation-state borders, State lines, county / municipal boundaries and all the byproducts such as MPOs and COGs are excuses to not do the public’s business in an efficient way.


  13. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse

    With direct democracy at the Cluster scale and representative democracy at each of the organic components of settlement above the Cluster — Neighborhood, Village, Community, Regional, etc., the most important elected position would be your Cluster representitive on the Neighborhood Board.

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    NOT to get in bed with developers and business interests and instead to gain citizen trust?

    Developers and business interests are not citizens?


  15. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Citizens are individuals representing only themselves.

    People who represent Developers and other business interests are not representing citizens interests.


    A guy pursuing a maximum FAR in Tysons goes home that night to a Fauquier County Farm where he advocates 50-acre minimum lot sizes on the land around his farm.

    get it?

  16. Anonymous Avatar

    “People who represent Developers and other business interests are not representing citizens interests.”

    What makes you think so?

    Business interests are owned by citizens, no?

    I think that harping on Developers and Business interests as if they are not us is wrongheaded, unhelpful, and divisive.

    It is no way to get things done. Those are the very guys you need on your side the most. What have you got to offer?


  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    It’s not divisive to recognize that the interests of citizens may not be the same as interests of businesses.

    The way to “get things done” is to NOT pretend that business interests are the same as citizens interests.

    One all the players admit this – then you have an opportunity to collaborate on compromises.

    Developers who want FARs without a plan to upgrade the LOS or worse – the plan is for those who are adversely impacted to pay –

    is not needing developers “on your side”.

    What I offer is honesty.

    We need to be honest about recognizing that the interests of developers and businesses is not the same as citizens interests…

    and saying that it is so.. is denying realities…

    which leads to controversy, counter-productive development restrictions, demonizing both sides, knee-jerk opposition, NIMBY, and worse.

    When you are honest from the get go that what benefits business interests .. MAY NOT be a benefit to citizen interests – then you have the basis for an honest dialogue.

    and ultimately – if citizens are shut out of the decision process by back-door arrangements between developers and govt decision-makers – you destroy trust…

    which leads to people not trusting government… and we see this right now.

  18. Anonymous Avatar

    There are different interests between developers and existing residents. Indeed, at Tysons Corner, there are splits among some of the developers and landowners. That, in and of itself, is not the problem.

    The problem comes when the decision-making process is stacked or distorted to cut some interests from the ability to influence the process.

    The previous Tysons Corner Task Force, which recommended the 1994 Plan, had very divergent interests represented. The meetings were often tense and confrontational. But the diversity of views forced the group to come up with compromises. The final recommendation included more density, but with strings attached. But virtually everyone could support the final version, at least when one held one’s nose. There was no big controversy at either the Planning Commission or the Board of Supervisors.

    Similarly, Arlington’s planning process for its Orange Line rail corridor included diverse interests. No proposal could survive unless it satisfied the developers, citizens groups and county staff. A plan was adopted and implemented. Perfect? No, but it seems to be working fairly well.

    Now comes the current Tysons Corner Task Force. It was clear that a truly balanced structure would not permit landowners to obtain the desired densities. Realistically, a balanced task force would not likely be able to go much beyond the 78 million square feet that was recommended for Tysons by the 1994 Task Force. And that density was conditioned on the arrival of Dulles Rail, plus 18 new lanes of roads and streets, along with some intersection improvements.

    Since such a result was not likely acceptable, the new Task Force was effectively constituted to avoid the big internal fights. It is dominated by parties who favor large-scale increases in development without any significant plan to fund and construct the necessary level of infrastructure. There simply are no aggressive advocates on other sides of the issues on the current Task Force. The internal fights (it’s too big) have not occurred despite the claims that the Task Force is representative.

    The end result will be continued attacks on the Task Force’s recommendations by citizens groups. Heads I win; tails you lose – is not good government in action. The level of trust is zero.


  19. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “interest” money has so completely corrupted our government at virtually every level that my version of Fundamental Transformation is this:

    1. – no money – period

    or a weak compromise – all money is instantly reported – and it must go through VPAP or a VPAP-like government agency.

    any money found to be flowing through other sources – is a felony for both the contributor and the recipient.

    2. – no more PACs used as money laundering conduits

    take a look at VPAP at some of the “Leadership for Va PACS” that receive very large contributions and then look at how the PACS disburse these funds.

    Instead of there being a record of Dominion giving 5K to a specific legislator – there is only a record of 50K to a PAC which then gives the intended 5K to the specific legislator.

    this stinks to high heaven

    3. – Citizens right of Referenda

    no matter what the idiots in Richmond do – for love or money – the citizens have the ultimate right of veto…

    4. – Citizens right to direct recall elections – no cause required other than the fact that the voters want the guy/gal out.

    If EMR says that this is the first step in Fundamental Transformation – we’d finally know where to start.


  20. Anonymous Avatar

    “It’s not divisive to recognize that the interests of citizens may not be the same as interests of businesses.”

    If they are not the same, they are sure hard to separate. Businesses need citizens for employees and customers, and citizens need businesses for supplies and jobs. Symbiotic, to say the least.

    I think they are more the same than different, and demonizing big interests, developer, and profits is divisive and non-constructive.


    “The problem comes when the decision-making process is stacked or distorted to cut some interests from the ability to influence the process.”

    I think that is a better description. If there was actually a decision making process, then it would reach the same decision regardless of who drives it. There are already decision systems or expert systems that do this for limited problem sets. “What is the best adhesive under the following conditions that can meet this performance?”

    People who want the ability to influence the process are not looking for the right answer, they are looking for “their” answer.

    That said, it is better to have diverse interests. But as long as the process is subject to “influence” anyone who gets a result they don’t like will make the “special interests” claim.

    That’s why I say you need to back away from the result, and focus on the process. Once you have a process that everyone agees cannot be swayed by individual special interests, or which automatically balances/attenuates diverse interests, then you have a chance.

    The problem with a situation in which the diversity of views forced the group to come up with compromises, is exactly that. Each view insists on getting SOMETHING they want. This precludes the option of starting with a blank sheet and thinking clearly about what is the BEST thing to have, and how do we get there from here.


    I still like Groveton’s proposal: allow all the money and tax the pants off it.

    I think Referenda are good, but they are subject to special interests, too. You should have seen all the maneuvering in Oregon over proposition 39, or whatever it was. Each side suing the other over the wording of the title, each accusing the other of out of state influence (funding the process), and forged signatures.

    It was a horror show, and it isn’t over yet.

    Citizens right to recall. Right. Like the Dems or the Pubs won’t work like crazy to prevent their guy from being recalled – even if it is clearly what the people want.

    It isn’t about governance, it’s about money and power.


  21. Anonymous Avatar

    I found this on another Blog but it raises the question of how do you change government.


    “Sure, you can file your tax form or buy a fishing permit online, but so what?

    Contrast that with sluggishness with non-government action. Within minutes of the 9/11 attacks, websites were carrying eyewitness accounts that were as reliable as any that the BBC ran a day later. Within days of Hurricane Katrina, while the US government was still in paralysis, other websites had sprung up, linking the various relief agencies and helping people to track missing friends and relatives.

    Technology, in other words, can enable us to decentralize public services and empower private or voluntary groups to deliver things better, quicker, and more locally. It enables millions of people to get involved in service delivery, where before it was run by an elite few. It allows the competition of millions of ideas where before things were decided in Whitehall. It means you don’t have to have a top-down social and policy structure. It can be led by the people – what Hunt and his colleagues call ‘collaborative individualism’.

    They have a point. But how can this bottom-up revolution get started if big state institutions remain intact, crowding out everyone else? How will a thousand flowers bloom if state deadwood keeps out the sun? Time to get out the pruning shears.”

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