Transportation Performance Measures

The theme of the House of Delegates legislative package for the transportation special session is “transforming the delivery of transportation services in Virginia.” The reforms enumerated in the House Speaker’s press release yesterday would live up to that billing. At the top of the list of 10 proposals is the following: “Integrate performance measures, specifically on congestion, into the Statewide Transportation Plan.”

This reform will require Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to focus transportation investments on projects designed to relieve traffic congestion. By directing funds to improvements that optimize the capacity of existing roadways and transportation infrastructure, VDOT will more efficiently use available resources.

By evaluating improvements based on performance criteria, such as delay reductions or travel time improvements (achieved through better traffic signal synchronization, faster accident management, more telework opportunities, or other means), VDOT can move beyond “on-time” and “on-budget,” and focus on delivering transportation improvements that achieve direct benefits for commuters and travelers.

This is fundamental. As it stands now, road improvements can be made for all manner of justifications, including the nebulous concept “economic development.” I’m all in favor of economic development, but not when it is used as a cover for opening up new tracts of land for development when there is plenty of underutilized land already served by roads and other infrastructure. This measure would focus scarce road improvement funds on projects that relieve traffic congestion.

With these new performance metrics, it would be much harder to justify building something like the $400 million Route 288 project southwest of Richmond. That project was financed on the basis of an economic development justification — attracting a Motorola semiconductor plant to the Richmond region — that never panned out. Route 288 has helped reduce traffic congestion in the short run (we’ll see what happens in the long run after it has induced scattered development on the metropolitan periphery), but that same $400 million could have eliminated a dozen smaller bottlenecks that would have provided far more congestion relief.

In a huge conceptual breakthrough, House seems to be broadening the definition of what constitutes a “transportation improvement.” Business As Usual has defined it as adding more lane-miles of road. But the House is willing to consider any kind of investment — traffic light synchronization, accident-response management, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) — that increases the capacity of road networks. Such alternative investments have received short shrift over the years. Presumably, the House legislation would put them on a more equal footing for consideration.

Combine the elevated status of ITS projects with an increased emphasis on public-private partnerships (Number Two in the transportation reform Hit Parade), and this legislation can open up all sorts of previously unimaginable possibilities. Public-private partnerships might upgrade entire transportation corridors, for instance, with a mix of traditional road construction (new lanes), traffic light synchronization and mass transit — whatever combination of tools works most efficiently.

If there were a tool for combining that kind of flexibility with changes to local land use along the corridor — increasing densities, allowing mixed uses, adopting transportation management plans — Virginia could create some revolutionary possibilities.

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16 responses to “Transportation Performance Measures”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    If there is one thing that has been made clear on this forum for some time, you are dead set against economic development. You might accept some growth but only if it follows the extremely rigid patterns you prefer, with the marketplace forces blocked by zoning or other restrictions. Property rights is a dead concept on this site.

    That said, the performance measures are indeed worthwhile and should drive more of the decisions on maintenance priorities, system expansion, congestion pricing, transit vs. highway, etc. But it flys in the face of political reality, with the legislators in Virginia starting to act more like Congressmen and viewing the entire transportation budget as re-election pork. If you move those decisions down to the local or regional level, it is more possible to make those decisions on those bases. But the General Assembly would never allow the kind of massive shift of resouces to the congested corridors that such an analysis would lead to. The western part of the state would see already shrinking resources just disappear.

    That is why more legislative oversight proposed, rather then less, makes me worried about the motives of this plan. And if rational data-driven decision making is your goal, too, then waste no time in the halls at Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol.

  2. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Re: Property Rights. Why should property rights in dirt have more protection than property rights in other assets?

    One can make a very strong argument that, by allowing development to occur without regard to the status of supporting infrastructure and other public interest considerations, Virginia simply diminishes the value of other people’s property and forces up taxes (increased taxes confiscate personal property, i.e., cash). Are not these property rights just as important as one’s right to develop one’s land?

    This is all a matter of balancing competing interests. We truly do need to protect landowners’ rights, but we also need to protect citizens’ income and assets against confiscation in order to pay for infrastructure that makes development possible.

  3. “…by allowing development to occur without regard to the status of supporting infrastructure and other public interest considerations, Virginia simply diminishes the value of other people’s property and forces up taxes…”

    You and I mostly agree, but I think you’ve gone overboard this time. If you look around at the various jurisditions you generally find that the more densely populated ones have higher tax payments due. I have used this argument, and the fact that those areas also have higer living expenses, to counter the opinion of EMR and JB that urban areas are somehow more efficient.

    But, owning both rural and urban property, I can also tell you that part of the difference is what you get for your money, fire, police, and ambulance services, for starters. Then there is the fact that your real estate is worth more. So, I can’t agree with all of your argument: to at least a partial extent, you are getting a fair deal for what you pay, and not all of what you say about diminishing the value of your property is correct.

    If we as homeowners have not been paying the full amount due for the services we get, and if infrastructure has suffered over the years as a result, then it is disingenuous and unfair for us to call for new development to pick up 100% of the accumulated slack that we partly caused.

    So, whilie I agree with the premise of your argument, I can’t agree with the extent, necessarily. I don’t think we have all of the metrics to decide what is far for developers to provide with 100% certainty, and I’m not sure we have the metrics to decide, either, how much of the benefits they provide flow to us.

    At the same time, when assessments are increasing 13 times as fast as incomes, something is going to have to give.

    That leads us to your statement “Why should property rights in dirt have more protection than property rights in other assets?”, to which I would respond, and why less?

    I don’t pay property tax on my stocks or cash, why property tax on dirt? The only thing my house has to pay taxes with is my income, and that is all you should be allowed to tax. Then the assessments don’t matter, until the property is sold and becomes income, and the county would have to learn to live with the cash flow that is generated. Part of that cash flow would be the sales of new developments, and the profits of the developers.

    If I have a hundred shares of stock, the value of that stock may go up and down, but I still have a hundred shares of stock. If I have a hundred building rights, the value they represent may go up and down, and in addition they are subject to expropriation or denial by the government.

    It is a matterof balancing competing interests, as i said in the pendulum post. But even as one who shares your condition in Fairfax, I think your position is overstated, and you are guilty of pushing the pendulum the other way. Your position is a very popular one, and with good reason, but it is also true that the high capital costs of new infrastructure are temporary and the gains threrefrom are not. The currrent methods of measuring and assigning those costs leave a lot to be desired. We might need a stronger door closer, but we can’t slam the door shut.

    Otherwise, Anonymous 9:08 is correct, I believe. Property rights is a dead issue on this site, unless those rights can be exercised in urban areas. Despite JB’s protestations to the contrary, my observation of his remarks is that he prefers lopsided regulations to ones which favor everyone equally.

    For myself, I’m not in favor of pushing the pendulum, squeezing the balloon, beating up on developers, or beating up on farmers.

    Anonymous is also correct in saying that sany analysis of traffic problems would logically result in more resources for the most congested corridors (Yes, Jim, more alternative resources, in addition). And the only way that can happen without SW VA resources disappering is if more money is made available.

    Just as homeowners have not been paying their way and now complain that newcomers are raising the need for resources, SW VA has not been paying their way either, for decades. Regardless of how it is done, when new money is made available, its going to come from HR and NOVA, mostly. But if it is raised on a regional basis, the old regime of sending NOVA money south will continue under the new layer of government and taxation.

    Homeowners have not been paying their way for a long time, and neither has SW VA. Both have been lulled into a false sense of security by living off the largesse of other sectors of the economy. But now the whole boat is sinking, not just the urban bow or the rural stern, and we are all going to have to bail together in order to bail ourselves out.

  4. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Ray – the big problem is the current Fairfax County Board of Supervisors who have elected not to use any of the same tools that are being used in places such as Loudoun, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Arlington, Alexandria, Stafford, etc. It’s the practice, not the theory where I disagree with you and others.

    I agree that there needs to be balance. But that’s what we don’t have in Fairfax County. Our supervisors simply bargin for and collect very little in proffers. (And axiomatically, residents pay for the infrastructure and suffer consequences when it is lacking or overused.) For example, Prince William County collects around $3900 for a single family home for parks and recreation facilities. What is Fairfax County’s target proffer — Nothing, nada, zip. Rather, the County taxes each child who plays youth sports.

    How about cost overruns for the Silver Line? I have in my possession a copy of a November 2005 letter from Tony Griffin, County Executive, to Pierce Homer. In the letter, Mr. Griffin (probably without legal authority) promises to pay for a share of cost overruns. “We intend either to use a ‘pay-as-you-go’ approach using general revenue or through bonding approved in a referendum.” Etc. Etc. Etc. Reads as if residential real estate taxes could increase to pay for a rail line that will not reduce any traffic congestion. This is not balance.

    The pendulum may well have swung in many Virginia locales, perhaps, even too far against landowner’s rights. But there’s been no movement whatsoever in Fairfax County. We still place dirt above all.

    I suspect that, if Fairfax County approached these issues similar to what is being done every day in other nearby communities, I would probably agree with you.

    I’m not arguing today that new development should pay for everything. But, it ought to pay for something.

  5. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    very good discussion especially with regard to “dirt” property rights.

    I have a simple question. I own 5 acres and I pay significant taxes on it – 5 times what I used to and I have no improvement is services – at my door. My increased taxes have gone to benefit others mainly.

    But here is my question. Why can I not sub-divide my property into multiple apartment buildings? It would benefit me enormously AND provide quite a bit of affordable housing to the community.

    Why cannot I sell my property to someone else who will then build a bunch of apartments on it? Again, it would benefit me enormously and provide a public benefit.

    I think the answer to that question – may have quite a bit to do with “dirt” property rights and “restrictions” on such “rights” but I ‘ll await others opinions.

  6. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Anonymous 9:08. I don’t know how anyone can say that I am “dead set against economic development.” I have spent the better part of my professional career advocatingeconomic development. But might define economic development differently than you. In an economy like Virginia’s with three percent unemployment rate, the goal should bot be to simple-mindedly create more jobs — solving some other state’s unemployment problems. The goal should be to increase the quality of job, increase per capita incomes, and improve living standards.

    I have written extensively about what it takes for Virginia to prosper in a globally competitive nad knowledge-intensive economy. I have written extensively about how to create the conditions for creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and the need for regions to be able to develop, recruit and retain human capital.

    Once you make the breakthrough to understanding that “economic development” is more about developing, recruiting and retaining human capital — not breaking ground on new real estate projects — then you realize that issues like traffic congestion, housing affordability, a clean natural environment and a host of intangibles associated with the quality of the built environment rise to the forefront.

    What you think of as my being “dead set against economic development” is a failure to recognize that I have moved to an entirely new paradigm for how to achieve it.

  7. Larry, I’m in a similar position, althought my land is only 1.5 acres it is within nine miles of the pentagon and halfwy from the Pentagon to the new BRAC loacations at Belvoir. I can throw a stone from where I live to areas that are wall towall townhouses, yet the chance I could do the same is slim and none. My only real chance to improve is what my neighborsare doing – supersize the house.

    Here in Fauquier there was a big brouhaha over auxiliary housing units, or additional homes built on an existing large lot for family members. A man tried to find an affordable lot for his sone nad couldn’t, so he aplied for and got permission for an auxiliary unit, but it was a major headache over how the unit was measured – did the front porch count – and the allowed unit is tiny – 900 sq ft.

    Well, while this was going on the son and wife had a second baby, only it was twins, so now they had five people in 900 sq ft. The upshot was that Mom and Dad moved to the small house and new family took over the large one.

    I think you should be able to do somewhat as you please. Maybe a twenty unit garden apartment is too far out of character for your neighborhood, but maybe a couple of duplexes isn’t. I don’t know. This is where it starts to get fuzzy: what is really an imposition and cost to my neighbor and what does he perceive to be an imposition and cost?

    You say there is no difference in services to your door, but it could be that there are now five firetrucks nearby when there used to be one. And anyway, the services that you get do cost more, even if they are the same. If your taxes have doubled in ten years, that’s about the same as the general cost of living: a lot of things have doubled in ten years.

    A lot of things are cheaper than ten years ago, too. Renewing auto registration ought ot be a couple of mouse clicks, but the cost is going up. Go figure.

    I’m pretty close to believing that we were better off before we had zoning, and if your neighbor really screwed up, you could sue him. Now we have reached a point where zoning is a bigger nuisance than the problems it was supposed to cure.

    I have in my possession three, count them, three different letters from three successive county officials which describe what I am allowed to do with 170 acres, and yet, when I tried to do it, “Oh no, you can’t do that, we made a mistake.”

    AFTER I was $200,000 into it. I hate it when you can’t trust the government at their own written word.

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Ray, we both live in Virginia, but Virginia must be located on two different planets! Or Fauquier and Fairfax are subject to totally different state laws.

  9. Anonymous Avatar


    Check out this article,

    I am sure there are land owners who spent a lot of money on site plans, engineering studies, etc. only to be zoned out of being able to develop their land.

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    My earlier question essentially asked the question: “if I own land and I can make money and provide a public benefit by developing it more densely – than why am I prevented from doing so?”

    and a secondary question – WHO wants to prevent me from building more dense .. and WHY?

    What would happen if ALL regs for more dense development were removed?

    These seem like questions with obvious answers but what I’m trying to get at is WHY (I think) most folks (including “dirt” landowners) might be alarmed by such a prospect.

    And picture the locales at not only rural…but smack in the middle of Fairfax also…

    why don’t we let density occur wherever…a landowner can accomplish it?

  11. First of all, if you look at places that have little or no zoning, you will find that home prices there are MUCH lower than in places with restrictive policies. And they are not the disaster areas you might expect.

    But, lower home prices are what scare existing owners the most. As the Boston Globe reports:

    “Homeowners form the largest interest group. For them, unaffordable housing is not a problem; it increases the value of their portfolio. Moreover, since any new development brings some inconvenience, most homeowners prefer new construction in any community but their own. Antigrowth homeowners get ideological cover from environmentalists who do not care if housing is cheap or expensive as long as new homes don’t eliminate green space. They don’t much like cars, either.”

    Massachusetts has initiated strong measures against localities with overly restrictive zoning codes. Stangely enough, removing most zoning also makes for better accessibility: as soon as an entrepreneur identifies a market, he is more or less free to plunk down in the middle of it, thereby reducing travel while increasing store traffic.

    At least one lawyer told me that some of Fauquier’s ordinances are probably illegal, and he pointed to backdating as one example. But the difference between Fairfax and Fauquier is mostly ideology. Fairfax promotes wealth ahead of taxes and Fauquier promotes low taxes over wealth. Even though Fauquier is home to some of the states wealthiest individuals, the total wealth and per capita wealth in Fairfax and Loudoun far exceeds that in Fauquier. So the question eventually becomes, what good are low taxes if you can’t afford to live or work here? And, as if pointed out before, the concept of low taxes down’t apply if you own a farm, because the county proudly points out that farms pay in taxes 300% of what they cost.

    The engineering studies problem is part of what I refer to as the low cost of saying no. There is a famous California case in which the locality turned down a developer, with existing building rights, 14 times, each time asking for more concessions until there were no more to give and the site was unbuildable. The developer sued and won. I don’t have the words the judge used, but it was a classic slap in the face to the planning board. In this case the pendulum swung hard and the county would have been far ahead had they refused the developer only 5 or 6 times.

    It is one thing when studies and plans are used for valuable purposes, but frequently they are a weapon to be used against builders. It is common for communities to send developers back to the drawing board time and again until they give up or go broke. The Fauquier paper recently reported just such a case where a man bought several small and rundown homes with an eye to fixing them up for low cost rentals. The inspection crews eventually ran him into bankruptcy and the property was auctioned off.

    At the public hearings anyone can raise an objection that is likely to result in a plan revision, at great cost to the builder and none to the complainer, at least not that is immediately evident.

    This is one reason why only the large builders can succeed, and another factor in rising home costs: the little guy with low overhead can’t succeed. He can’t afford the studies and plans that are required when a “subdivision” is defined as one house.

    I sympathize with TMT and the Globe is right: any new development brings some inconvenience. But, when the savings to taxpers in general is more than offset by the loss to one taxpayer, then where is the balance in what we call the “public good”? When the county is making a tax savings by forcing one group to pay 300% of what they cost, or by effectively renting land from them for their own purposes with no payment to the owner, you have to ask WTH is going on?

    Has the pendulum swung too far, or does it swing differently in different locations due to the local politics of gravity?

  12. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    “[D]oes it [the pendulum] swing differently in different locations due to the local politics of gravity? It appears to do so.

    Let’s swap Boards of Supervisors between Fauquier and Fairfax for 2007! Make a few campaign contributions and recite some hollow rhetoric and you’d be adding a 3000 home subdivision without making any proffers other than building a trail and donating some unbuildable land for a school site.

  13. Good God!, I don’t want a 3000 home subdivision any more than you do. What I want is one additional home on 170 acres, and I can’t even have that.

    Maybe two homes if I live long enough.

    If nothing else this conversation shows how far out of perspective things have become.


    Let’s see, at EMR’s ten homes per acre I could put in 1700 homes, at 300,000 per home that’s $510 million and at 20% profit that’s $102 million. Now if I could just get my neighbors to cough up enough land for 1700 jobs, and 500 stores, all our traffic problems would be local, and no one would have any room to complain, right?

    But realistically, that would be a long shot, maybe a 1% chance. And 1% OF $102 million is less than I can get today by it by selling it to some moron who can afford to drop $1.5 to 5 million for the privilege of being prevented not only from the remote possibilty of making $102 million, band from ever improving the place, forever, but instead being handed the sure prospect of losing another 10 to 20 thousand a year operating the place.

    People who are willing to sign up for that are a pretty thin market.

    Of course, it is actually far worse than that. Assuming I had the right to make that $102 million, so would several thousand of my nearest neighbors. The result would be that those $300,000 townhomes I (Yeah, Right.) dreamed of, would then probably sell for much closer to $70,000, which is what they actually cost, and that ten percent profit would be more like five.

    At that rate, pretty soon it would actually make economic sense to stay as I am, instead of chafing at the bit after those windfall profits, which are presently reserved for those far more sophisticated, politically placed, and capital rich than I am.

    In addition, there would be a lot more economical homes much closer to the CBD, and overall assessments, and probably taxes, would be much lower. Certainly my cost of living would be lower. TMT would hate it.

    Anyone who accuses me of holding the positions I do in hopes of making a windfall profit selling urban uses in the hinterlands, just does not understand what is going on. I’m not interested in passing excess costs off on my neighbors. But, all of my 20 nearest neighbors live on land that was once part of the farm. All I want is for my next new neighbors to have the same rights as my last new neighbors.

    Considering all that I have to contend with, one additonal home here is probably all I can do. Maybe more than I can do. With it, I would be better off than I would be with a 1% chance at 1700 homes, and far better off than I am now.
    Why in God’s name would anyone want to prevent that?

    Selfishness. They want me to provide what they are unwilling to buy and pay for. Failing that, they want someone even wealthier than I am to provide it, so that the cost will be less noticed.

    They can’t stand the idea that someone might cash in money that has been invested for two hundred years. Short term profits, they call it. Farmers who sell out for a quick buck. Avaricious developers. Etc. Etc. Etc.

    But, sooner or later, someone like Larry Gross, or Loudoun Insider is going to start asking the question, why can’t I subdivide my little lot, put up a duplex, an auxiliary home, or whatever. In today’s restricted market, I could make a bundle.

    I know what the answer will be. I’ve lived through it twice before.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Not sure the essence of current policies was explained.

    The curiosity was not in the policies that prevent but the why behind it.

    (I’m assuming that we don’t have laws and regs whose primary purpose is to punish
    folks – even though it may feel like it sometimes to those affected).

    but I’ll give a hint.. as to my thinking. I think that these policies exist because
    many voters want them.

    Talk to a landowner about his “rights” and you’ll get an answer with respect to HIS “rights”. Ask him about allowing
    the guy next door to rent his house to … say 10 people who like to work on junk cars and that same “property rights” guy is going to sound a lot like a stuck pig…. 🙂

  15. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    I sympathize with TMT and the Globe is right: any new development brings some inconvenience.

    I would suggest that there needs to included in your hypothetical scenario’s the actual COST of the inconviences. Everyone discounts traffic congestion (or so it seems) but the loss of millions of hours of productivity is more than an “inconvenience”. Put a dollar value on that and see who is being selfish.

  16. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    Take the Dulles South area as an example. Average Daily Traffic in 2005 at the 50/606 intersection was about 28,500. I think a very conservative estimate would be an increase of 10 minutes commute time in the corridor between 2003-2005.

    28,500 trips x 260 days x 10 minutes = 74,100,000 minutes = 1.2 million hours. Figure $25/hour x 1.2 million hours = $30,000,000 of lost productivity.

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