Virginia Roads: Nothing to Brag About

The quality of the roads in Virginia’s major metropolitan areas does not stack up very well to that of other cities, according to data compiled by The Road Information Project and published today in USA Today. According to a chart in USA Today, the “Virginia Beach” metro area and Washington. D.C. metro areas are in the middle of the pack–roughly in line with national averages, which are nothing to write home about. Richmond’s roads are measurably worse.

The numbers break out like this:

Virginia Beach: 28 percent good; 23 percent fair; 27 percent mediocre; 22 percent bad.

Washington, D.C.: 30 percent good; 17 percent fair; 28 percent mediocre; 24 percent bad.

Richmond: 18 percent good; 26 percent fair; 32 percent mediocre; 23 percent bad.

Now, go read Steve Haner’s column in Bacon’s Rebellion, “The Transportation SOLs,” which argues that spending on road maintenance is crowding out dollars for new construction. According to Steve’s numbers, maintenance will consume all state road dollars by 2018. (See chart.) I don’t know where he gets his numbers, and I don’t know how good they are because I haven’t had a chance to examine the assumptions embedded in them. But given that those are the only numbers we’ve got, and given the already mediocre condition of Virginia’s roads, it’s understandable why Virginia lawmakers believe we have a time bomb on our hands.

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  1. There are tons of studies by VDOT that confirm his numbers.

    The problem, I think, is timing of our construction boom (in the 50s and 60s). I think the half-life of roads and bridges is around 40-50 years. And the roads/bridges that were supposed to last 100 years just aren’t. For example, the Woodrow Wilson bridge would have been condemned by the army core of engineers if we hadn’t fixed it. It was meant to last 100 and lasted 30.

    According to Virginians for Better Transportation, VDOT already outsources 78% of maintenance costs.

  2. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Wouldn’t a budget devoted to exisitng maintenance force us into non-road building solutions for transportation?

    Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

  3. Thanks for the plug Jim. I appreciate the honesty of Will Vehr’s comment and the admission of his ultimate goal — no more roads. The pressure to look for alternatives is already there and none of us think we can just build our way to clear sailing, but a total collapse of construction would do little to prepare Virginia for the next 20 years of growth.

    The Senate Finance Committee had a good presentation on the maintenance issue which I will try to forward to Jim. It was hearing that problem described about two years ago that got my attention and persuaded me the Chamber needed to be even more out front on this. In a very real sense the first step is not finding more funds for system expansion, but finding more funds for maintenance, ending the drain it is placing on the current Transporation Trust Fund, and allowing the TTF to move forward as intended in 1986. If voters won’t accept a gas tax for system expansion (as all the politicians tell me), are they more likely to understand that it is necessary for maintenance and replacement costs? One of the better ideas from the 1986 Baliles proposal that got left on the table was to put all the gas tax revenue into the maintenance fund and none of it into the construction fund.

  4. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs


    I don’t have any “goals” other than sensible transportation policies with wise spending. I was playing devil’s advocate. Obviously, some new road construction will always be needed as far ahead as we can knowledgeably project. It would be interesting to see what a think tank would come up with as alternatives when given the assumption of no new road construction. Talk about concentrating the mind!

  5. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    You’ve got to have been livng on another planet to be surprised by these numbers. And, Will, don’t worrying about additional roads being built. That won’t happen anytime soon. On second thought, maybe this is a “stacked deck,” too. Maybe they’re lying. Hey, I bet they are! I bet our roads aren’ that bad. Gee, I bet they’re even good! You see, there, don’t you feel better now?
    Those meanies just made all this up to make us feel bad.

  6. Check out my Transportation 101 session over at my blog. It’s a roundup of where the funding comes from, where it goes, and what various tax increases would accomplish.

  7. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Don’t get carried away, Barnie! The maintenance numbers do look bad, but any time you’re projecting out 20 years, you’re making a lot of assumptions. Is one of those assumptions the notion that inflation in the construction sector will continue to outpace general inflation by the same margin it has for the past several years? I’d be wary of that. Is VDOT aggressively increasing its maintenance spending to work down the “backlog” of maintenance needs? Is VDOT adopting new maintenance practices that invest more up-front to improve long-term performance of our roads, with a financial payoff down the road?

    I linked to Steve’s article because he raises a credibly scary scenario. It’s a big issue and we have to deal with it. Opponents of tax increases (like me) can’t sweep it under the rug. But I do have questions: How come the huge surge in future maintenance spending has come to our attention in only the past year or two? Could the numbers reflect policy changes made during the Warner administration? Or, to be more cynical, is the administration ramping up maintenance spending in order to make the construction shortfall look all the more dramatic and stampede people into increasing taxes?

    I’m not saying that anyone is “making up” the numbers. But I do suggest that it is necessary to dig beneath the numbers to see what they really mean.

  8. Jim: Yes, the Warner administration made a concious decision to put more money into maintenance than the previous administration, and this heightened the problem. Turning the coin over, they would say Gilmore level funding maintenance and swept the problem under the rug for four years and allowed things to deteriorate. No politician gets his picture in the paper at the ribbon cutting of a repaving project, or the replacement of rusting bridge struts. VDOT is now moving toward a true “needs based” maintenance plan which could create even more demands. I emailed you Shucet’s recent Powerpoint, which is worth a read.

  9. Wow. I’ll go ahead and admit that my blood briefly boiled when someone almost mentioned fudged transportation numbers without mentioning Gilmore.

    Gilmore’s lying on this subject approached the level where I honestly wonder if he has some sort of mental illness that causes him to make things up.

    Allen was no better.

    Witness the mixing bowl project. First of all, they factored exactly ZERO cost inflation into their projections. Hmmm. Then they failed to include the cost of obvious things like sound walls and construction workers falling to their death every 6 months (it happens).

    The original cost was penned at 250 million. Now it’s approaching 1 billion. A federal audit (one of the funniest audit’s I’ve ever read) pretty much laughed at the state of VA. They might have well of titled it, “What the hell are you thinking?”

    Why would they do this? hmmm. Maybe because lower costs made it easier to sell prison construction/higher education cuts/the car tax? Hmmm.

    Ok…the smoke has stopped coming out of my ears.

    I’ll take conservative budget estimates over happy go lucky budget estimates ANY DAY. Conservative estimates mean that a tax increase might happen and people might have a few less dollar every month. Happy go lucky estimates mean (potentially) that critical services are cut. Or perhaps services that I’m currently using (see: higher education). In that case, it almost caused me to graduate 6 months late because I couldn’t find any classes…

  10. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Tut, tut, Paul! Because Gilmore fudged his transportation numbers, it’s OK for someone else to fudge theirs? I’m not interested in assigning partisan blame. I’m not accusing the Warner administration of fudging its numbers. I am saying that we all know that budget numbers can be politicized, and a concerned citizenry needs to take a very close look at the numbers before swallowing them, especially when those numbers are going to be used to justify a tax increase.

    Surely, now that the smoke has come out of your ears, you don’t object to the idea of closely scrutinizing the VDOT maintenance projections, do you? Surely you don’t have a problem with understanding all the assumptions that are embedded in that projection, do you?

  11. Certainly not, and I didn’t mean to imply it.

    I was just thinking out loud…a staple of blogging, really.

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