Time for Better Scenario Planning

focus7by James A. Bacon

A century ago, developers set up street car lines to provide transportation access for inhabitants of the housing and commercial projects they were building. A new neighborhood wouldn’t sell if people couldn’t reach it. By necessity, transportation and land use planning went hand in hand. But when governments took over transportation responsibilities, developers started building wherever they could find a good plot of land, knowing that someone else would bear pay the cost of providing roads and transit service. The disconnect beween transportation and land use planning has plagued the country ever since.

The Innovative DOT,” a handbook of policy options for state transportation departments published by Smart Growth America, focuses on ways to re-establish that transportation-land use connection. The discussion contains a number of suggestions, some of them useful and some distasteful to a smart-growth conservative such as myself.

To my mind, the authors go overboard advocating the building of partnerships, the coordination of government agencies and the enactment of new mandates and requirements — actions which, it seems to me, would accomplish very little except entangle decision-making in even more delay and red tape. Sometimes, more planning is not the answer. 

But the SGA handbook does proffer one idea in this chapter that conservatives might be comfortable with: Conduct more scenario planning. The handbook explains:

Traditional long-range transportation planning efforts at the state and regional level typically treat development patterns as a constant, not a variable. Building a plan involves projecting status quo trends and determining future infrastructure needs based on the results.

Scenario planning differs in that it involves modeling and analyzing multiple scenarios for future growth in a region, typically a baseline scenario that reflects current transportation and land use trends and several alternate scenarios designed to illustrate how different building and development patterns might impact those trends. This approach makes the outcomes of various future growth scenarios — such as impacts on infrastructure costs, congestion, VMT, and emissions — transparent to decision makers and stakeholders.

Virginia transportation planning typically has fit the “traditional” model described by SGA, without benefit of “what if” scenarios to explore the impact of different policy approaches. That’s a function of the fact that local governments control land use policy, and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) passively receives input from local governments into its projections of future land use trends.

One positive change, enacted during the Kaine administration, required VDOT to conduct traffic-impact analyses of projects over a certain size to inform local government zoning decisions. I have seen no analysis on how useful those impact studies have been, but I suspect they would be of limited value precisely because they don’t provide “what if” scenarios for local councils and boards to consider.

Transportation and land-use models are big, cumbersome and expensive — too expensive for all but the largest jurisdictions to develop and maintain on their own. VDOT has the resources to build such a beast and it could spread the cost over all of Virginia’s jurisdictions. It would make sense, I believe, for VDOT to provide transportation-land use modeling capabilities both for internal purposes and to guide local decision making. Building a state-of-the-art system would cost millions but potentially save billions.

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7 responses to “Time for Better Scenario Planning”

  1. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    The efficacy of those TIAs is related to how much the localities in question care about their results. I haven’t followed the policy changes and how much teeth VDOT has in enforcement since 2011, but the gist I got then was that VDOT can run all the analyses it wants, but that ultimately the developer is free to do whatever the locality lets it do. Sadly, VDOT is not an independent engineering concern and takes its marching orders from politicians less concerned with moving people than appeasing donors and getting votes. If you get the chance, ask anyone attached to the IDSP program about the Go Karts Plus sign down in Williamsburg. To say nothing of the various highway projects the agency has to carry water on that its own engineers lament.

    There are a lot of smart, dedicated employees at VDOT – especially in the transportation planning department – that would love to be a warehouse for such models. Unfortunately, that is going to be contingent on the CTB and the General Assembly tasking them with those duties. And will be saddled with cumbersome overhead via Gov. Warner’s lasting leech on the state, VITA.

  2. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    And again, says nothing of the fickle legislature. The legislation that came out of the General Assembly that limited the number of dead ends a developer could build was rolled back the very next year. And the threshold for the size of a development that will trigger a TIA in the first place is – if memory serves – pretty large to begin with.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      LifeOnTheFallLine is quite right. If you don’t solve Virginia’s epic governance problems then all of Jim Bacon’s (and others’) good ideas are for naught.

      I sometimes don’t know how the few normal members in Virginia’s General Assembly can stand the annual GA sessions. Despite our former governor facing a 14 – count federal indictment the General Assembly blithely bypasses any serious attempts at ethics reform and passes a “feel good”, “do nothing” bill.

      When faced with the straightforward problem of raising revenues for transportation to make up for the shortfall caused primarily by a frozen gas tax what happens? Does the General Assembly simply raise the gas tax? Does it index the gas tax to general inflation? Of course not. They pass a Rube Goldberg law that separates driving from paying for roads. I still commend Bob McDonnell for solving the funding chaos “by whatever means necessary”. It’s just a shame that our hapless General Assembly can’t be trusted to take a simple solution instead of a politicized power grab.

      Asking VDOT to provide multi-scenario planning to the General Assembly would be a waste of time. It would be like giving your dog a Rolex.

  3. VDOT has to approve the curb cuts whether they do the TIA or not except for cities and towns and even then if the road in question is a US signed road or a State Primary road, they still call the shots.

    you may hear from time to time local county issues about signage or right-in, right-out entrances or new traffic signals.. all of that involves VDOT.

    on the gas tax.. I don’t know how long it takes to get the reality to be recognized.

    right now – only about 18% of our transportation revenues come from the fuel tax. The fuel tax is dead as a sustainable fund source because more and more people are buying much more fuel efficient cars – and the higher the price of gasoline – the more people will buy fuel efficient cars.

    this is not a Virginia-only problem. It’s a problem across the country even in areas that have recently approved gas tax increases and have much higher gas taxes than us.

    the gas tax only “worked” when cars got crappy mileage… and there were no better fuel efficient options available. Now, we have cars that get 2, 3, 4 times the gas mileage that cars used to get in the heyday of the gas tax revenues.

    in order for the state to collect 75% of their transportation revenues form the fuel tax – the tax would have to be about 5 times more than it is right now.

    and once that was done – it would then accelerate the process of people buying more fuel efficient vehicles.

    the fuel tax is doomed as a sustainable source of transportation revenues.

    1. Well stated on the gas tax circling the drain. The new jumbled tax system will produce growth in revenues. The gas tax won’t. Moreover, we will see more and more non-gasoline-fueled vehicles.

      The two biggest remaining problems – building roads for economic development purposes and failing to collect the costs of damage to roads and bridges caused by heavy trucks.

      1. the state does not believe even with indexing the gas tax – as they have done – that they’ll take in substantially more revenues unless the price of fuel goes up – and the purpose of the indexing is to compensate for the inevitable shifting of older less efficient cars being retired and replaced with more efficient new ones. All the indexed gas tax does – is hope that gasoline becomes more expensive and the index effectively compensates for the higher fuel efficiency.

        I keep posting this – it’s Virginia’s fuel tax revenues:


        here’s what it says:

        “Motor fuel taxes fell by 16.4 percent in December and are down 18.4 percent for the
        fiscal year.

        After falling to the lowest monthly average of 2013 in November, U.S. regular gasoline
        retail prices increased slightly to reach an average of $3.28 per gallon (gal) during
        December. The annual average regular gasoline retail price, which was $3.51/gal in
        2013, is expected to fall to $3.46/gal in 2014 and $3.39/gal in 2015.”

        Motor Fuel Taxes Revenues: $607,500 which is 15% of the revenues.

        the money from the general sales tax is $837,800

        (new vehicles) – Motor Vehicle Sales and Use Tax $ 859,200

  4. We have “scenario planning” at the local level. have had it for a few years.

    it basically looks to the future in terms of land use and transit.. etc.. and the premise is that we will not get enough transportation funding allocations to build roads as we have been building them and we’ll fall further and further behind and experience more and more congestion as a result.

    but I have to say – the way they go about getting members of the public to participate is a lot like the Reality Check events where you get people off the street who mostly do not have a great depth of understanding of how transportation and land-use currently work and they end up doing things like designation great swathes of land to be ‘dense’ and to be served by transit.

    of course, none of them actually would want to live in such circumstances themselves. they all return home after the exercise to their standard subdivision homes…. and write letters and send emails advocating that new growth be directed to these “compact” developments … served by transit.

    Oh.. and one more small detail.. while the premise is that we do not have enough money to build “enough” more roads – the cost of the transit necessary to serve the proposed compact development is never addressed either.

    I have, in general, a low opinion of “scenario planning”. I see it as a dumbing down of a real understanding of the real world we live in and instead a “managed” activity to get people to “choose” the “better” path.

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