Revisiting Transportation’s Black Hole

by James A. Bacon

Earlier this week, I published data compiled by the Richmond Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization illuminating the vast disparities in regional transportation funding — not just in absolute dollars, but on a dollars-per capita basis. In FY 2012 and FY 2013, Northern Virginia got the lion’s share of state transportation spending, putting an end to the canard that the region was sending far more transportation tax dollars to Richmond than it was getting back in return — for those two years at least. (See “Rethinking the Black Hole of Richmond.”)

Of course, those numbers did not come close to ending the argument. While it might be true that NoVa was getting a disproportionate share of transportation dollars based on population, it could be argued that the picture would look different if we considered how much NoVa residents were paying in transportation-related taxes.

Now comes data compiled by a Bacon’s Rebellion reader who goes by the pseudonym Hokie. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from Virginia Tech with a concentration in transportation and infrastructure systems and now works in Hampton Roads.

There is no publicly available data on how much each locality contributes in motor fuels taxes, but the Virginia Department of Transportation does report the number of Vehicle Miles Traveled for each locality. On the assumption that there is a strong correlation between how much people drive, how many gallons of gasoline they purchase and how much they pay in the motor fuels tax, Hokie used VMT as a proxy for the fuel tax.

The disparity between taxes paid and money received is even more acute than the numbers I reported previously. On a per-capita basis, Northern Virginia received about 4.4 times as much transportation spending as Richmond. On a VMT-per-capita basis, NoVa received literally 10 times more money than Richmond. The disparity doubled because residents of the Richmond transportation district drive twice as many miles on an average yearly basis!

Click to see more legible image.

Two caveats: First, the state and federal motor fuels tax accounts for only half of Virginia’s transportation tax revenues. The state also funds  transportation through tolls, the sales tax, auto sales tax and vehicle license fees, among other sources. Northern Virginians are more likely to pay their proportionate share, if not more than their share, of those taxes. Second, spending patterns will vary regionally from year to year, depending upon which mega-projects are getting funded and where. These two years happened to reflect heavy spending in NoVa, and are not necessarily representative of earlier years, or years to come.

What the numbers should do, however, is put an end to the pandering of NoVa politicians on the campaign stump that they’ll “go to Richmond and fight for NoVa’s fair share of transportation dollars.” In the past two years at a minimum, they got a lot more than their “fair share,” whether measured by population or Vehicle Miles Traveled.

Indeed, we can expect other regions, Richmond and Lynchburg in particular, to begin mobilizing to get their “fair share.”

A debate over who is subsidizing whom on a regional basis could turn into a fractious and unproductive free-for-all. But it could prove beneficial if it spurred Virginia to move to a more explicitly “user pays” funding system that encouraged regions to build only economically justifiable projects that can support themselves financially instead of looking for “someone else” to pay the tab.

Note: See Hokie’s full spreadsheet here. He presents additional data, comparing VMT with and without Interstate mileage, and comparing dollar disparities based on an “ideal funding” scenario.

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  1. DJRippert Avatar

    I think this is great. Congratulations to Hokie and to Jim Bacon for publishing the data. Now, if Hokie can do this for transportation why can’t our $45B+ per year state government do it for everything for the last 20 years?

    If it turns out that the money flows have been pretty square across all areas for the last 20 years it would go a long way to calming everybody down.

    Even if the money flows aren’t square across all areas for the last 20 years it’s quite possible that the inflows and outflows aren’t as drastic as people think.

    Why isn’t this something provided by our state government? Are they hiding something? Are they incompetent? Are they lazy? Do they think nobody cares?

  2. DJRippert Avatar

    ‘Indeed, we can expect other regions, Richmond and Lynchburg in particular, to begin mobilizing to get their “fair share.”’

    They should do that.

    However, I must ask one question – if the Richmond transportation district has data going back for years, why do they only present the last two years. While I appreciate what they’ve done I have a sneaking suspicion that it represents “cherry picking” the data. Maybe not but it seems a bit off.

    1. I don’t think the Richmond region is cherry picking. They just started collecting the data a year ago. I’m guessing that it would be quite a chore to go back and break down the projects listed in previous 6-year plans.

      I can’t help but wonder if VDOT doesn’t have all that data itself.

      Someone ought to get JLARC to go through this exercise. It would be far more authoritative than anything that Hokie and I came up with. I’m surprised that no one has asked them to. Could be that the politicians are scared of what they’d find.

      1. re: ” I can’t help but wonder if VDOT doesn’t have all that data itself.
        …. I’m surprised that no one has asked them to. Could be that the politicians are scared of what they’d find.”

        My suspects are that VDOT and elected – local and state don’t want the numbers because it will bring taxpayers into the discussion.

        but the opaque process has seriously damaged the taxpayers trust and led to an 80% opposition to increasing gas taxes because they feel the money is not accountable and higher taxes just perpetuates a political slush fund game.

        VDOT’s reputation is also tarnished by fiascos like the Pocahontas Parkway and the Cville Bypass and it seems that as soon as those faux pas get older and less remembered, they can’t help but gen up a new one to keep the “churn” going – though I will admit that for the most part VDOT’s job is like trying to drive a car with a hornets nest hanging from the ceiling.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      “I can’t help but wonder if VDOT doesn’t have all that data itself.”.

      One would hope that VDOT doesn’t just throw away data. Of course, they did “find” an extra billion dollars they didn’t know they had a few years ago.

      1. re: ” Of course, they did “find” an extra billion dollars they didn’t know they had a few years ago.”

        Here’s how that happened and it’s directly related to transparency.

        VDOT would always have more projects than they could fund but they got pressure from localities to put their favorite roads on the “build” list.

        So VDOT would do that but since they did not have enough money to fund them all – they would “round-robin” putting a little more money towards each project to show they were “funding” it but every year the total price of the project would also increase so they had this money set aside but they never got any closer to funding many.

        so the money that was “spread around” got stranded.

        See VDOT would show the increased allocation but few noticed the price also went up AND no one would know from one year to the next how much the next allocation would be and in some years for some projects it was zero dollars even if 50% of money was allocated.

        Now many MPOs use Year of Construction and that at least can be compared from last year.

        but many/most localities promise their constituents road improvements and they “prove” them by show people the VDOT “priority” list on which many projects would sit 10 or even 20 years.

      2. let me add one more thing. The REASON there is better accountability in the MPOS is Federal Law.

        We’d not even know what Va and VDOT are doing if you did not have the MPO Constrained long range and short range funding plans.

        And sadly, many people do not know this.

        If you asked for a list of all projects that WILL be built in the next 5 years in NoVa (or Blackburg, etc) where would you find that info?

        try it. find out simple info. how many projects are definitely for construction WHERE YOU LIVE.

        Can you find them? A good start is VDOT’s Dash Board but it has some serious flaws. If you live where there is an MPO – you’ll have a much easier time finding this info under TIP or short-term plan.

  3. I agree with DJ about using a longer time span and I also think you’d need to include all the revenues collected from each locality – gas, auto excise, sales, and other.

    If you did that over 10 or even better 20 years – you’d get a more clear picture because VDOT tends to try to square things but the way that roads are built – it can take a while.

    For instance, I’ve pointed out if you travel SOUTH on Route 29 to Lynchburg – you’ll see miles and miles (virtually to the NC border) of new interstate grade roadway that had to cost like the devil.

    It’s NOT actual interstate in that it does allow SOME at grade intersections but the physical design of the new “bypasses” are virtually identical, in other places, they basically added 2 more lanes to an existing 2-lane separated by medians much like 29 is just south of Cville.

    but I applaud Hokie’s very useful contribution. Thank you.

  4. Virginia’s whole non-transparency of transportation funding leads to a mountain of bad impacts that range from developer involvement in road proposals to regional envy based on little more than unfounded suspicions (that then play out in other non-productive ways) but the worst absolute impact is the inability to hold VDOT and the localities accountable for how transportation money is spent, how it is prioritized, and allows localities evade responsibility for their transportation allocation and spending.

    If we had the same level of un-transparency for other county spending, heads would roll but the current system just plain sucks (that’s a “technical” term. 🙂

  5. re: evading responsibility

    Local County Comp Plans will often contain roads that are supposed to support/mitigate growth.

    but unlike schools or utilities there is no capital facilities plan for roads.

    and if you live in an area with an MPO, you can find which roads have viable funding in out years – called a Constrained Long Range Plan – and also a TIP – which is roads that will get built within a rolling 6 yr window.

    What localities do – to mollify those who know more road capacity is need is show those roads on the Comp Plan map – but no “start date” for the upgrade – but it’s on the map.

    and the reality is that most of these roads just don’t have assured funding and the longer they sit there unfunded, the more expensive they become … so the localities basically have no capital plan for roads since they are using the “wish list” approach.

    If VDOT actually provide true transparency on a per locality basis in terms of funding available for the roads in their 6yr plan (not the same as a TIP because a TIP by law cannot show roads that have no identified funding whereas the 6yr plan often does but roads are represented as “funding allocated” and a column that says “to go” and a 3rd column that shows “cost”. The problem is that if the road sits there on that plan – which can be 10, 20 years, no matter what is allocated – they take forever to reach enough to start construction because every year they sit there – the cost for the road goes up – and of course there is no column showing that additional allocations keep up with, often likely not – inflation.

    But this plan is often touted by localities as roads in their Comp Plan that will get built.

    this has started to change a little – at least for secondary roads which now have dropped to almost nothing.

    but this is the kind of chicanery that goes on between VDOT and the locality in disclosing to taxpayers and citizens the truth.

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    I know you guys will find this hard to believe but I’d be very happy to be authoritatively shown that NoVa hasn’t been getting ripped off by the state legislature.

    Not only would I feel a lot better about paying the taxes I pay I’d be a whole lot more open minded about paying even more taxes for sensible programs.

    Creigh Deeds really needed this analysis before he said that he would have to raise taxes if he were elected governor. If he had the analysis, he could have said, “The analysis demonstrates that the system is fair. The problem is that there just isn’t enough money to get everything done we need to get done.”.

    I probably still wouldn’t have voted for him but it would have been a closer call.

  7. I would love to say this data shows authoritatively that NoVa hasn’t been ripped off. But it’s only two years. To know more conclusively, we’d have to look at the past 10 to 20 years. At least we know that NoVa isn’t getting ripped off *right now.*

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      It’s only two years and it’s only transportation spending. I’d want to see all taxes and all spending for the last 20 years.

      Interestingly, Canada does this for all of it provinces. It would seem that Virginia could do this for its regions.

      1. well it’s not the state that is saying NoVa is getting more or less money than it should.

        It would be the job of those who say that to find and produce some evidence.

        But when you figure in METRO’s costs, the only jurisdiction in Va to have a subway and it receives direct funding from the State and the Feds – you can be sure that alone if far more than what other jurisdictions receive.

        If Thelma Drake and folks go forward with their idea – it would seem at some point – that localities funding would have to be provided – otherwise it would lack credibility.

  8. re: JLARC

    Review of Virginia’s Transportation Planning and Programming
    Dec 2010

  9. Northern Virginia needs a bigger budget because drivers from Culpeper and Fredericksburg come into the district during peak periods and overload the roads. Also, I heard a few people come over from Maryland for daily road clogging.

    Get rid of those factors and the funding would look more like Hampton Roads for 2012.

    I find it hard to believe the NOVA VMT is lower than Hampton Roads and Richmond.

  10. DJRippert Avatar

    At the end of the day, there isn’t enough money for transportation in Virginia. Even if the allocation was perfect it wouldn’t mean that the problems were solved.

    On a tangential subject … perhaps the political elite should consider The Black Hole of Innovation in Virginia. CNBC just released the Top 10 States for Technology. Maryland is on the list. So is North Carolina. Virginia? AWOL.

  11. DJ, did you not just accuse Bacon of cherry-picking?

    Please explain why you failed to mention this:

    Top Five
    1. Texas
    2. Utah
    3. Virginia

    and this: Transportation and Infrastructure:

    North Carolina 11
    Virginia 33
    Maryland 43

    You’re getting as bad as the political Ads – not only out of context but omission of relevant related facts!

    I guess it’s no longer considering “fibbing” – everyone is doing it, eh?

  12. I thought TollRoadNews “take” on the US 460 proposal would be worth sharing:

    excerpt: “….15% tolls

    Under the present plan tolls are only expected by VDOT to support $216m of $1,396m or 15% of the capital cost of the project which makes little economic sense”

    guess who is paying the rest and where that money comes from?

    Either way – gas tax money or general fund money – it’s basically an end-around to a major commitment of taxpayer money – without a bond referenda or any other accountability to those who will pay the subsidies.

  13. JLARC? No one cares about them. Their reports are automatically sent to the dumpster. We wouldn’t be having many of these problems if the GA actually read those reports.

    MPO? Have you ever heard of the Hampton Roads Third Crossing? It’s been on transportation plans forever. MPOs may work up where you live but down here they are just a good ole boy club, albeit one that is currently in a family feud between North and South over future of the HRBT. What doesn’t get listed here are the various bottleneck death traps that haven’t been upgraded since the 60s. You know you are in one of these areas when the pavement resembles the black streaked aftermath of The Big One at Talladaga Speedway.

  14. The MPO in HR was seriously reprimanded by FHWA during a certification review.

    the FHWA is keeping an eye on them and up our way FHWA wrote a “reminder” to our MPO that transportation plans have to include ONLY projects for which funding has been identified for.

    This moves us away from the wish list shell game that has been played and if your MPO is still playing that game, I suggest you make formal complaint to FHWA.

    if you actually read the report, you will see that much of the problems are sourced at VDOT who basically tells the MPOs what things are allocated (or not) – and VDOT has always (and still does) get around MPO transportation plans by refusing to fund what they disagree with and withholding funding for what they want until it appears in the “official” plan.

    When VDOT plays that game – the MPO has two choices – not include the VDOT preference and have that funding go elsewhere or include it and in order to do that to meet FHWA requirement, they have to remove the project they want that VDOT will not fund.

    Darrell – it’s a long way from perfect but you have far more influence over the MPO than VDOT and I know for a fact that FHWA has a close eye on the HR MPO.

    at the end of the day, your own elected have to agree on a regional plan also.

    if they can’t do that or won’t it lets VDOT do their thing in the vacuum.

  15. VDOT has their own agenda. Their folks have their own views on what is best and for decades before MPOs came along – they held sway over decisions and decision- making processes which have been often – political.

    The MPOs now have the opportunity to set up their own prioritization process AND to do studies so that is at least some non-VDOT analyses available.

    But again – when the “appointed” “elected” members of the MPO Policy group cannot and will not agree among themselves, they forfeit decision-making to VDOT and as I said, VDOT’s point of view often is not the same as the region’s view.

  16. The spreadsheets explain why Senators & Delegates from RoVA aren’t jumping on the higher tax bandwagon. The differences in VMT and income say a lot, even though the gas tax should be indexed and separate taxes levied on hybrid and electric vehicles. Fees on big trucks need to go up, up, up, as well.

    BTW, the citizens’ advocacy efforts in Fairfax County for Tysons effectively shifted $403 million (2012 dollars) over the 40-year planning period from taxpayers (federal, state and local) to landowners/developers. This compares the staff’s original position to the BoS-adopted position, while maintaining the same percentage split among federal, state and local shares. Bottom line, the Tysons landowners were willing to absorb the additional $10 million (before inflation and interest) annually for the next 40 years. They were willing to pay a full 59.5% (say 60%) to get the density and the roads & transit needed to support that density. Shouldn’t other developers be willing to make comparable payments?

    Would the real estate development industry be willing to support a legislative package that raised gas taxes and related fees, but also required those seeking re-zoning and/or up-planning to shoulder 60% of the costs of new or supplemented transportation facilities? If not, do they really care about transportation or are they looking for more corporate welfare?

  17. indexing the gas tax.

    I would assert that when we dedicated .5% of the sales tax that we did exactly that.

    We’d have to go back through the historical data but

    shows that the .5% generates 526 billion dollars a year – while the unindexed fuel tax brings in 851 billion.

    when the economy expands .. the amount brought in by the .5% also increases – and probably a lot more than if you did not have that but did have the gas tax indexed.

    I’m lazy… so I’ll just leave the assertion – perhaps some will flesh out the data. You’d just have to go back a few years and capture the historical revenues for fuel tax vs sales tax money.

  18. DCWastrel Avatar

    We definitely need to fund more transportation alternatives: bike lanes, expanded bus and metro service, street cars…the works. My concern is that, with the exception of something like expanding bus service, most of these developments have a rather long path to reach reality, going through both the legislative/policy process and then the time required to actually build out the new infrastructure. Meantime, we’ve got increasingly acute transprotation congestion that can’t be addressed in the short term.

    Ideally, we’ll see more people biking and carpooling in the short term to help mitgate these pressures. At least on the carpooling side, there’s some organizations that are trying to promote the practice by making it a bit easier (cf , , etc). Still a ways to go, but if we can combine social networking technology with smartphone access to make coordinating schedules between people easier, there’s no reason we can’t make much more efficient use of our existing infrastructure.

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