Stop Shortchanging Road Maintenance!

The General Assembly had the right idea in 2007 when it passed legislation to enable Virginia’s urban counties to take over responsibility for secondary roads from the Virginia Department of Transportation. Accountability for road-building decisions should be seated at the same level of government as accountability for land use decisions.

But as Jonathan Gifford, a public policy professor at George Mason University, explained in a report to Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton, there was one little problem: There weren’t any takers. “County officials,” he wrote, generally agreed that state payments, as currently set under the Virginia Code, will not cover all the costs of a local road program for maintaining secondary roads.”

Gifford then explored a range of options for secondary road policy, from sticking to the current policy, which effectively means doing nothing, to raising budgetary allowances for secondary roads, implementing performance-based maintenance contracting, empowering localities to raise revenues and imposing devolution upon the counties.

Ultimately, it all boils down to money. There’s not enough of it, and county supervisors don’t want to impose new taxes upon their citizenry. What’s the solution? Here’s my proposal. VDOT should jack up maintenance payments to levels that approximate costs. Where does VDOT get the money? By fully funding its maintenance budget, even if it means sacrificing new road construction.

Remember, the state’s top should be to maintain the existing road network. Allowing the system to deteriorate will not save money — it will only postpone expenditures. Because roadways deteriorate at an exponential rate over time, the postponed expenses will increase exponentially over time. Such a policy is incredibly short-sighted and stupid.

How, then, do we fund new construction? Through mechanisms like tolls, time-of-day pricing, tax increment financing and a Vehicle Miles Driven tax in which the users (drivers) and beneficiaries (property owners) of roadway improvements are the ones who pay for new infrastructure, not the general public. For details, I refer the reader to any number of past articles and blog posts.

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