Spending Your Transportation Tax Dollars More Wisely


I had lunch the other day with Nick Donohue, Virginia’s deputy secretary of transportation, and he brought me up to speed on developments in state transportation policy that have occurred since the good ol’ days when I covered Commonwealth Transportation Board meetings. It was just a casual chat, and I wasn’t taking notes, but a couple of points stood out.

First big test for new-and-improved P3 law. Last month the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) issued its final Request for Proposal to design and build an estimated $2.1 billion in improvements to Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway. The McAuliffe administration is not ideologically committed to privatizing the project. Rather, it has a clear idea of how much it will cost VDOT to do the job. If a private consortium can meet the project specifications at lower cost, VDOT will go the public-private partnership (P3) route. If not, VDOT will handle it.

Weeding out worthless projects. The new system for scoring transportation projects according to six sets of metrics such as congestion mitigation, safety, environmental impact and economic development, has already proven its value. Numerous projects in the Six Year Improvement Plan, with total costs running into the hundreds of millions of dollars, were demonstrated to be of marginal value. They’d been moving slowly through the bureaucratic pipeline, and it wasn’t anybody’s job to question or re-evaluate them. But the new scoring system, which ranks hundreds of proposed projects on the “bang for the buck” they deliver, laid bare the flimsy justification for the projects. More worthy projects have been elevated in their place.

Defense of express lanes. It is getting increasingly expensive to expand the capacity of Interstates and other transportation arteries by widening them. In urbanized areas, the highways are getting hemmed in with expensive commercial property. The cost of purchasing Right of Way and running the regulatory gamut is getting prohibitive. How, then, do we increase the capacity of these vital transportation corridors? By using more express lanes. Express lanes do three useful things: (1) they provide a congestion-bypassing option that didn’t exist before; (2) they raise money to continue making improvements to the corridor, and (3) they double as HOV lanes that give preferential access to buses, vans and carpools. As a practical matter, the most cost-effective way to increase capacity of many highways is to encourage more shared ridership.

Bacon’s bottom line: The system for raising transportation revenues is still a mish-mash that decouples a driver’s use of public roads from the payment for those roads. Riddled with subsidies and cross-subsidies, the arrangement encourages excess driving. The McAuliffe administration has not seen fit to grapple with this legacy of the McDonnell administration, but it has made great strides at least to see that the funds raised from this dysfunctional revenue-raising system are at least spent more carefully.


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12 responses to “Spending Your Transportation Tax Dollars More Wisely”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    Should come as no surprise that the usual political suspects in the Fredericksburg Area – including the Chamber of Commerce are OUTRAGED.. .. yes OUTRAGED that they actually have to provide real metrics that demonstrate real transportation benefit to their favorite pork projects!

    yes indeed… someone at the state level has totally upset the politics of road building… and they’re not at all happy about it….


  2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    My observations are the two groups most outraged by the need for scoring transportation projects are: traditional developers and their minions (e.g., chambers of commerce) and the anti-auto branch of the smart growthers. Both are seeing their ability to use words alone to get in the pockets of taxpayers weakened substantially and are quite PO’d about that.

    I guess that’s probably a good sign for the rest of us.

    Also, the Donohue remarks point out the importance for elected officials to manage existing programs and bureaucrats effectively and efficiently. Whenever I see it done, at least to some degree, I find it refreshing.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    the curious thing about HB2, now Smart SCALE is that it basically was a stealth bill in the GA. I’m trying to recall how it got legislated as I can recall no champions of it – certainly not developers and not Smart Growthers either – although I think you’ll find that the metrics are far more aligned with Smart Growth principles – for instance, UDAs – designated growth areas get points over projects outside of UDAs unless those projects score high in safety or congestion relief.

    There is also (I think) a little bias against new roads – which is probably a good thing. There is a substantial onus on them to prove they have benefits to the existing transportation network -beyond claiming they will provide individual benefit such as a “connector”. They have to show not only how that “connector” benefits the roads it connects to – but also in a cost-effective manner… which is tough for expensive roads…especially when they are taking developed property for their right-of-way.

    So Virginia has now moved from “new road” fixes to making existing roads deliver more – ergo – the express lanes on the urban interstates – not only NoVa but Hampton and now Fredericksburg where the plans are to extend the toll lanes to the Rappahannock River.

    And of course the SOLO daily drivers are fit to be tied… they think it’s totally unfair and argue vociferously that new untolled lanes should be built.

    The I-66 tolls are also playing out in a similar way.

    I’m waiting to see how I-64 and I-81 are going to play out but both highways in their current 2-lane configurations are nightmares that generate 20-30, 40 car “trains” that line up in the passing lanes.
    Something has to change.

  4. “Express lanes do three useful things: (1) they provide a congestion-bypassing option that didn’t exist before; (2) they raise money to continue making improvements to the corridor, and (3) they double as HOV lanes that give preferential access to buses, vans and carpools.”

    And they are the antithesis of “egalitarian.” Those ‘Lexus lanes’ are the perfect illustration of elitist privilege for the wealthy, at the expense of the poor suckers slugging it out in the regular lanes. Rub their noses in it? No need to give them the finger; you’re not alongside long enough to make the gesture.

    Hey, I use them; I rely on them. The only way I can readily get from my home in northern Virginia to my second home in the Middle Peninsula is by driving in the middle of the night, or by Express Lane. Thank God they are there. I have the lane reversal times pasted on the back of the sun visor. EZ-Pass is a fact of life; I don’t think twice about spending the extra amount to make the trip at a decent, hassle-free driving speed (at least, today, north of Aquia); life’s too short not to pay the tolls. But what about those who can’t afford the extra cost? Who will build roads in Virginia for the ordinary people who just want to get from home to the high school and Costco? McCauliffe won’t. He’ll just build more express lanes to rub in that disparity of wealth and privilege. Given the entrenched factions at the GA, that’s about the only realistic way to get something done to fix a desperate situation; but it hurts that we can’t agree to do better. Sanders offered no solution. At least Donald Trump is still talking about the decline of middle class life as a problem, says he’ll change it — and a lot of people take him at his word: ‘Believe me.’ A lot more, however, consider him a joke.

    Or both of them. There’s a great article beginning on the front page of today’s WaPo: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/for-millennial-voters-the-clinton-vs-trump-choice-feels-like-a-joke/2016/08/13/306d85a2-609c-11e6-8e45-477372e89d78_story.html These are my children and their friends and the conversation in restaurants among educated young people in northern Virginia. Do they expect I-66 or I-95 ever to be widened for the general public? No; but they accept the necessity for getting around, even at extra cost. They are resigned to earning what it takes to pay the tolls. They are not resentful of the privilege of using Express Lanes. They simply have given up hope that government is capable of providing any better solution.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      One of the reasons tolled lanes are being built in this area is because they can pass the air quality standards and many non-tolled lanes cannot. Unless a transportation project passes environmental review, especially as to air quality impacts, it cannot be added to the region’s Constrained Long Range Plan or Six-Year Transportation Improvement Plan. And without those, no federal money is available.

      In terms of Larry’s comments on scoring, some objective scoring is better than the old system that was largely dominated by lobbyists for developers and road builders. But then, as we all know, politics can trump measurements. The Silver Line, Phase 1 did not pass federal funding guidelines, but the Republicans and the Democrats got together and got the Bush administration to fund it anyway. But some objective scoring is better than no objective scoring.

    2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      There are no express lanes on Belway in Maryland. Still to get from my place in Easton back to DC or anywhere around the DC Beltway I am now leaving Miles River around 4 AM and no later than 4:30 A.M. Otherwise there is 50% to say 95% threat of a substantial delay caught in traffic on beltway.

      Absent some unforeseen tech solution, I see no solution but for “smart growth” that is forced on local leaders and interests by strict Building Moratorium on all new construction until those leaders come up with and execute such a region wide smart growth plan. I think this is what in practical effect happened to create the Ballston-Rosslyn Corridor after the newly built Beltway emptied out and destroyed Arlington’s old downtown.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    I am pained a bit by the egalitarian comment because the lower income who work in urban areas also cannot afford to live where they work and have to commute.

    no real good answer for that other than to get a carpool or get in the non-toll lanes like a lot of others.. the more affluent are always going to leverage that affluence to their own benefit whether it be private or public facilities. They sit in sky boxes and the Hoi polloi get the cheap seats….

    When you look at a map of NoVa and trying to draw a line for a new road to parallel I-95 or I-66 – good luck on that…. even if VDOT had the money the NIMBY response would be massive and overwhelming.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    speaking of drives and commutes – let me introduce Russian car crash videos to those not familiar. If you think drivers in NoVa or other parts of Virginia are crazy – you have seen NOTHING!

    Russian drivers have novel ways to deal with crowded roads and congestion!!


  7. AlongThePike Avatar

    As long as SmartScale continues to ignore induced demand and measures vehicle delay rather than something useful like access to jobs as a function of time and cost it will produce flawed results. Probably not any more flawed than the results we were getting before, but still deeply flawed.

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      I think the singular biggest plus to SmartScale is that metrics can be improved based on experience… as time goes by – flaws identified – and -unlike prior experience – those flaws can be addressed in the metrics.

      looks to me that access to jobs is addressed – page 46:

      induced demand – is there an accepted/agreed to way to account for induced demand versus expected growth – especially on a network scope?

      we now have an antidote – tolls… 😉

      I’m not sure actually how tolls are addressed in SmartScale?

      Bosun – are you around?

  8. Sorry, Larry. I left state service before all this HB2 stuff got started. The only solution to NoVa traffic is to double deck any road up there with 4 or more lanes. Simple. Bosun

    1. LarrytheG Avatar

      @Bosun – any idea how this bill may have got born and passed? it don’t sound like some bill that some Patron put in the hopper and it wiggled it’s way to approval…

      sounds like it had a “plan” to pass the GA and get a signature…

      it’s really a game changing bill .. it fundamentally changes the way roads are selected – and I’ve not heard one kind word about it from the local governing bodies… etc… They say they liked the political games better!

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