Seventy-Five Years

Seventy-five Years” is the first of three columns exploring the thinking behind the House of Delegates’ transportation agenda. The House plan to restucture the institutional arrangements that Harry F. Byrd put into place in 1932 is one of the most sweeping reform proposals of my 30 years of reporting on Virginia government. Incredibly, the Mainstream Media has brushed it off as a figleaf or subterfuge to avoid raising taxes. The MSM coverage of the transportation debate amounts to nothing less than journalistic malpractice.

This column documents that the transportation debate is taking place at two levels.

  1. Institutional reforms. Virginia’s mechanisms for building and maintaining roads, defined nearly 75 years ago, have not kept pace with the dramatic shifts in human settlement patterns. The MSM is not covering this discussion at all, indeed, is barely even cognizant that a discussion is taking place.
  2. Who pays? Virginia’s transportation system clearly needs more money. The question is who pays for the improvements. The MSM has mischaracterized the debate as a simple one, between more taxes/no taxes. But the issues are, in fact, far more complex.

Future columns will take a close look at the keystone solutions the House proffers for transportation reform: the creation of Urban Transportation Service Districts and Urban Development Areas.

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11 responses to “Seventy-Five Years”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I don’t think the House Republicans have done much more than the Senate and to be honest – and I think the Senate has been more truthful about what they think the solutions are whereas the House is playing with fig leaves and feather fans.

    They’re basically using the “reform” message to hide their “no new taxes no matter what” philosophy and the truth to this can be found in what they actually put on the table to start with.

    The House could have brought forth potential change by putting true institutional reforms on the table – especially those outlined in the JLARC report:

    which included reform of the road classification system AND also how roads are allocated funding – no matter what overall level of funding is decided/agreed/passed.

    Instead they argue about amounts not how those amount would be used.

    For instance, putting on the table SPECIFIC congestion toll proposals for NoVa and Hampton and US 460 and/or I-81.

    Also – an actual plan for transitioning to a classification and allocation system where localities have an Actual dog in the growth/land-use/road HUNT.

    JLARC had (still has) the Roadmap. All that was needed was putting those recommendation into legislation.

    The HOUSE .. could have/should have put something on the table that was a framework for meaninful reform.

    Instead, they basically, in my mind, put together such weak and tepid proposals that they actually knew (and hoped) that the Senate would not take them seriously.

    I suspect they did not want something that the Senate would agree to.

    Before we expect the Senate themselves to consider reforms as a COMPROMISE from the “show me the money first” approach, the House had a responsibility to put on the table something that was perceived as credible from even those who advocated more funding.

    Funding transportation on a year-to-year basis based on what is “left-over” or worse decided by whoever is left standing after an Education vs Transportation free-for-all – is Bogus and irresponsible in my view.

    Planned Highways – whether you agree with them or not – require assured year-to-year allocations if they are to not spend decades on a wish list and double or triple in cost because of inflation – which is.. by the way … EXACTLY the way VDOT was doing that resulted in cries of “REFORM”.

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry, I think that you make reasonable arguments, but if we feed the beast first, it will never be reformed. There are quite a few entities that benefit tremendously from the existing system. (The exact nature of the benefits may differ, and not all benefits are economic. Understanding the system is a benefit, for example.)

    Reform means changing the rules. Those that benefit may not prosper under a reformed system. Moreover, everyone who wins today faces a risk that he/she won’t win, at least by the same margins, tomorrow.

    Those that oppose reform have been largely able to prevent reform from occurring. For example, one reform might be the elimination or restriction of the CTB. Another reform might be mandatory transportion impact fees. If VDOT is given more money, doesn’t the case for reform become even harder to achieve? If not, why not?

    I once had an interesting converstation with an outstate senator who strongly supports feeding the beast more. We talked about a number of subjects, including the need to defer development where roads are inadequate and the need for mandatory impact fees on all development. The senator agreed that these changes should occur, but he honestly confessed that he thought interest groups could stop these changes in the GA.

    But he also indicated that, at some point, if things got bad enough, the building industry would need to give up and agree to some changes. If we pay higher taxes and give VDOT more money, we will have prevented things from getting “bad enough,” such that change would be compelled to occur.

    If the Senate were to prevail, we will never see meaningful changes.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    TMT – that’s my point.

    The Senate is saying – “The only way to fix transportation is with more money”

    The House is saying – “more money will not fix the WAY we are spending that money” but then they do not lay on the table those reforms that they deem necessary to be done before the conversation moves on to money itself and where it will come from.

    For instance, some money can come from non-tax sources such congestion pricing and electronic TOLLs which is a viable strategy already in use in other places in the US and the world.

    So . the House guys strut the congestion pricing rhetoric… but when the actual legislation is introduce and passed.. it’s not there.

    They put a small amount of money on the table… but then no reform for objective selection of projects to spend that money … so they leave in place a completely political status-quo process for transportation decision-making.

    If the House truly believes in Reform as a necessary condition to funding then they have to Walk-the-Walk if they want credibility.

    The Chair of the House Transportation Committee basically dismissed most all of the rudimentary reform legislation by saying “this is really radical stuff” and thus bailed… leaving the HD with little more than rhetoric.

    So the question is – Did the House make an effective case to the Senate for reform?

    err… no… they snuck in the back door and dropped a mud pie on the desk and ran out…. real brave boys…

  4. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “There are quite a few entities that benefit tremendously from the existing system. ….
    Those that oppose reform … do so … Another reform might be mandatory transportion impact fees. If VDOT is given more money, doesn’t the case for reform become even harder to achieve? If not, why not?”

    Don’t give VDOT more money – do this:

    1. – Make localities responsible for local roads from now on (Grandfather the existing ones but phase transition all of them over …. a decade or so.

    Let them use Traffic Impact fees OR other means including property taxes to pay for subdivision and secondary roads but make it clear – it’s THEIR options on HOW and make clear .. that now it IS in their interest to use care in making land-use decisions.

    Allow localities to make a condition of rezone approvals – the formation of HOAs for ALL new subdivisions for road maintenance and CDAs for commercial development.

    2. – Let VDOT use congestion pricing and electronic tolls on major roads of statewide interest for maintenance money and network optimization, congestion mitigation.

    3. – Regional roads – done by MPOs who can agree on forming a Transportation Authority that can levy a 2% tax on gasoline.

    Require that approval must be obtained via Referenda and sunset it so that it the Regional Tax has to be reaffirmed by voters every two or four years.

    4. – New Transportation Money – to be approved ONLY by voters and tied not only to specific projects but to specific new taxes to pay for those projects.

    The projects themselves are BID by private sector not VDOT.

    In other words – let voters decide if the “crisis” is of such proportions that they ARE willing to pay more taxes to fix it.

    Put these things on the table – or come up with something that is competitive..

    If the Senate won’t listen to it.. take it to the voters in 2007…

    I’m betting if something like this was done – that individuals Senators who opposed it.. would be on the spot – to come up with THEIR plan and if that plan basically was more taxes…for the status quo..then their opposition is going to have their lunch… on election day.

  5. Ray Hyde Avatar

    If government makes the decisions about who should pay, then there a multiple options for spreading the costs around to those that benefit the most. But if you think that the building industry should pay more and the rest, not, then think again. The costs will utimately come back to you (us) but in ways the government does not control.

    Larry’s idea #1 is a good one. De-grandfathering the streats ofer a few years will help ensure that existing owners aren’t getting a perpetual free ride. I think you could say the same thing about bonds: existing residents aren’t immune from the costs, but every new resident is now able to help defraay them.

    Likewise for real estate taxes with a percentage increase cap. If my budget needs to go up 110% and existing residents are capped at 105%, then the reamaining 5% must be divided up against the new residents. Next budget cycle, the new residents become existing residents: even though they are starting at a higher base, their increase is also capped at 5%. Eventually, when the place stops growing, and new infrastructure is not needed it would all level out and everybody pays the same.

    However you go about it, I’d say that grandfathering some costs and phasing new ones in over time would go a long way to ease the antigrowth angst that is cuased by sudden changes.

    AS for HOA’s, Yuck. If we can’t make the government we have work, then adding more layers won’t help. It will just cost more.

  6. Gold_h2o Avatar

    First – excellent reporting. You (along with Del. Athey) did a great job of explaining the history of the Byrd system to reader, particularly in regards to how it was unfair to County Govnt’s when it comes to generating tax revenue and how that resulted in the current mess we are in.

    Hindsight is always 20/20, but looking back, was taking a cities right to annex county property really the best thing that could have happened? The change resulted in the low-density, scattered form of development that we all loathe, right?

    Or, was the right to annex taken away more as a civil rights issue as opposed to a growth/tax issue? In other words, is our current form of scattered growth and development simply an unintended consequence of a civil-rights decision?

    I’ve said it once, and I will say it again, borrowing money (in the form of bonds) is fine, but it’s a slippery slope to be on if you are not going to provide a way to pay back the bonds….the same thing can be said for turning roads back over to localities….they will need a revenue source to pay for the new costs…..and increasing property taxes is a tough sell, particularly in a tough real estate market.

    Eagerly awaiting parts 2 & 3.

  7. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    On the other hand, the data appear to show that VDOT’s maintenance costs per lane mile for secondary roads are much more efficient than those of local governments for local streets. The data “for 2005 are: 97,579 lane miles (VDOT secondary), 27,675 lane miles (local streets), $5,149 (VDOT maintenance per lane mile), and $12,257 (state aid per lane mile).” (“VDOT’s Efficiency Edge,” Sept. 21).

    Perhaps, VDOT is actually better at maintaining roads than in designing or building them.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “Or, was the right to annex taken away more as a civil rights issue as opposed to a growth/tax issue? In other words, is our current form of scattered growth and development simply an unintended consequence of a civil-rights decision?”

    Excellent question!

    Why was this issue not addressed by the HD as part of it’s “reform” package.

    Compact development, mixed-use, etc attempted on a local jurisdiction level within the context of the realities of MSAs (Metro statistical Areas) leads to uncoordinated, even competing actions with respect to economic development and infrastructure.

    A good example is that roads don’t end at jurisdictional boundaries but we all know that each jurisdicitions is forced to focus on it’s own priorities that supersede Regional priorities when it comes to roads because that’s how VDOT treats them with it’s antiquated classification system – and something that JLARC pointed out .. needed reform.

    A clear example of this is secondary roads carrying more traffic than designated primary roads that also connect two jurisdictions.

    Uncoordinated upgrades to such roads results in improvement not coming online at the same time.

    The annex issue itself may be partially or fully OBE because the landscape has changed with regard to the way that DEQ handles wastewater discharge permits.w

    DEQ now issues in advance of an action discharge permit – a wastewater allocation permit and the total allocation for any stream or river is finite – a defined limited based on how much treated sewage the river can assimilate without being significantly degraded.

    What this means is that the number of permits are handled cumulatively for the river basin and individual localities essentially compete for a limited number of available permits – and when the total allocation limits are met – no more permits.
    t cannot under the new rules – be exceeded.

    This effectively limits sewer connections for any locality unless they want to build very expensive higher-technology plants – the costs of which would be passed on to individuals who want water/sewer connections.

    This will have a direct impact on the scape and scale of service areas and especially with regard to cities adjacent to counties where BOTH are seeking competitive allocation permits.

    The result is that the City/County might well end up “sharing” a permit by negotiating .. their Comp Plans.

    For more on this – see the article:

    At any rate.. where is the HD on this issue?

    I’m still of the opinion that the HD is hiding behind the “Reform” rhetoric because I see no real meat in their proposals that they carry forward out of committee, much less present to the Senate to demonstrate that money alone is not the answer.

    The HD either has to carry water on this – or stop pretending to.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: “The data “for 2005 are: 97,579 lane miles (VDOT secondary), 27,675 lane miles (local streets), $5,149 (VDOT maintenance per lane mile), and $12,257 (state aid per lane mile).”

    $5K verses $12K per mile?

    That’s a huge difference.

    I suspect that these two numbers are not equivalent.

    Either VDOT is not adding their associated overhead/administrative expenses or something… else is gong on.

    And it’s not VDOT efficiency per se – because both VDOT and localities can and do contract this work out on a per project bid basis.

    A good question to be answered is what exactly ARE the maintenance costs for roads in Va especially subdivison and secondary roads – the ones that are being proposed for transfer to the localities.

    Also.. it’s important to realize that it’s NOT the maintenance costs that are the 600lb gorilla…. it’s what happens when a locality approves construction of a whole bunch of homes and that action requires NEW CONSTRUCTION which runs $10 million or more per mile not counting land acquisition costs.

    Consider a case in Spotsylvania where three years ago, the BOS approved 1500 new homes.. on Route 1 about a mile from an I-95 interchange.

    The costs to UPGRADE the road insfrastructure to handle the additional 15,000 auto trips per day range from $30 to $60 million dollars not counting the costs of upgrading the interchange from a diamond to a cloverleaf.

    When this rezone was approved – several of the BOS expressed reservations about the road issue. They were voted down by a majority of the BOS who said that it was a VDOT “responsibility”.

    How many times has this phrase been uttered by BOS… when considering new development in Va? Even the developers make this claim in their proposals.

    What IF a locality had to consider these costs – like Loudoun County – when they consider development proposals?

    What would happen if it became known that they approved a development proposal – and in the process accepted responsbility for $60 million dollars worth of road improvements as a direct consequence?

    The voters would have their heads.

    This is what is going on across Virginia when developers make their proposals.

    Both the developers and developer-friendly BOS’s are essentially misleading the public as to the impacts of the development – both fiscal and impacts to existing roads.

    And again… a simple law forcing ALL localities to fully disclose to voters – the road costs associated with development would have been a simple but very effective “reform” for the House to pitch to the Senate …

    … and one that would have been very difficult for the Senate to oppose without their vote being brought up at election time…

  10. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Larry – The data I quoted came from the staff of the House Appropriations Committee through a contact of mine.

    How about a friendly amendment to your proposed new law – the local government would be required to disclose the impact any proposed rezoning on all public facilities? I have some good friends in a local civic association in Fairfax County. This group adopted a resolution requesting the Tysons Corner Task Force, which is considering 20+ major changes to the Comprehensive Plan for Tysons, also set forth the likely affect on all infrastructure. So far, there is no indication that this reasonable request would be honored. Again, why the silence from the MSM? Too busy cheering for tax increases to do a basic job of reporting.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    TMT – sure I’d accept that friendly amendment.

    Such info is often already provided – but it’s provided by a consultant paid for by the developer rather than an independent analysis.

    So – a law that required an independent analysis – paid for by the applicant – and done by a 3rd party certified by the state to perform such analysis…

    Part of this WAS done with respect to VDOT reviewing Comp Plans for build-out projections on roads I believe.

    But don’t let the developer nor the developer-friendly BOSs generate a bogus analyses – that’s the point.

    I read the article in your DW5Ls blog about Fairfax .. essentially charging taxpayers for the support work required for permitting development vice having the developers pay 100% of these costs.

    Spotsylvania County, to it’s credit, now charges developers virtually ALL costs related to their proposals – and they’re essentially doing this with the use of documentation standards which require full info about the project. …. and it let’s developers figure out the least costly way of providing that info.

    We now see .. “incomplete” proposals not going forward.. as the developers try to figure out essentially how to put the best face on impacts.

    This is where mischief .. happens in terms of full disclosure of impacts.

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