Virginia Transportation Priorities as Out of Date as the Rotary Phone

The smart phone: the essential transportation tool of the 21st century.

by James A. Bacon

Memo to the McDonnell administration, the General Assembly and Virginia Free (see previous post): Virginia’s transportation policies are based on totally outdated assumptions. I’ve been banging that drum for several years now, but don’t believe me. Even the Washington Post has caught on.

Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) in the United States peaked in 2004. Part of the decline in automobile travel can be attributed to the economic downturn, but the decline set in before the recession. Major economic and demographic forces are at work here. The cost of owning and operating automobiles is increasing faster than incomes. And the digital revolution as epitomized by the Smart Phone is transforming young peoples’ ideas of mobility.

While the average American reduced VMT by 6% between  2004 and 2011, young people (16 to 34 years old) drove 23% less, according to an April study by the Frontier Group. They are biking more, walking more and doing more ride sharing. This change in attitude is driven in part by technology. Says the Frontier Group:

Communications technology, which provides young people with new social networking and recreational possibilities, has become a substitute for some car trips. Improvements in technology make transportation alternatives more convenient. Websites and smart phone apps that provide real-time transit data make public transportation easier to use, particularly for infrequent users. Meanwhile, technology has opened the door for new transportation alternatives, such as the car-sharing and bike-sharing services that have taken root in numerous American cities.

Public transportation is more compatible with a lifestyle based on mobility and peer-to-peer connectivity than driving. Bus and train riders can often talk on the phone, text or work safely while riding, while many state governments are outlawing using mobile devices while driving.

Interestingly, driving laws that crack down on distracted driving (driving while texting) are hastening the trend. Given the choice between their phones and their cars, many would choose their phones!

We’ve only just begun to see the impact of technology on driving. I’ve written about Uber, a service that allows people to summon luxury-automobile rides on their smart phones that’s active in Washington, D.C. Uber soon will be followed by Avego real-time car sharing that claims, “Anyone can turn their car into a bus, saving time and money by picking up passengers along their route.” Just download the Avego app and discover available rides around you, says the website. Avego also has services that enable van pool operators to improve the efficiency of their busineses, as well as fleet-management tools for coach fleet operators and public transit companies.

Special interest groups are decrying a “transportation crisis” that is fast fading. We are experiencing a transportation revolution, but Virginia is still building the transportation system of the 20th century. The only crisis is that we’re building the wrong projects in the wrong places! We need to re-visit every single road project in the state’s Six Year Improvement Program to see if they all are still needed and if the money can be better spent elsewhere. Why are we building the Charlottesville Bypass? Why are we studying the Tri-County Parkway in Northern Virginia? These projects are totally divorced from what’s happening in the real world — and so are the people crying for more taxes to build more roads that the next generation won’t be using.

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  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Interesting points but they don’t do much for pressing and immediate needs.

    1. Those “pressing and immediate needs” won’t seem so pressing and immediate if VMT falls another 6% over the next seven years.

  2. larryg Avatar

    I’m not convinced yet that we _really_ know what the drop in VMT is about.

    Basic car transportation has never been cheaper….if all you need is 4-wheel point A to point B transportation.

    and if technology was truly at the root of the drop – then wouldn’t it ALSO affect transit – and even air modes?

    re: the Cville Bypass – the ultimate test of the “need” …the true “need” of that road could be fairly quickly ascertained with an investor-grade toll study.

    just a hypothetical… would people be willing to pay…say 5 bucks to zoom quickly through Cville?

    My gut is telling me no. $4, $3, $2 ?

    Maybe $2 for some people at the height of rush hour….

    we’re getting ready to find out about the 495 beltway as it is supposed to go “live”with the HOT Lane concept later this year.

  3. Remarks of Del. Jim LeMunyon to the CTB.
    Statement by Delegate James M. LeMunyon Before the Commonwealth Transportation Board

    Good evening, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Commonwealth Transportation Board about the proposed Six-Year Improvement Plan (SYIP) for Northern Virginia. I represent the 67th district in the Virginia House of Delegates, which includes portions of Western Fairfax and Eastern Loudoun Counties, including Oakton, Oak Hill, Chantilly, Centreville, South Riding and Fairfax.

    As members of the CTB are no doubt aware, the Washington metropolitan area has been rated the worst in the nation for traffic congestion. Correcting this problem is the dominant state public policy issue for residents of the 67th district and a priority of mine in the General Assembly.

    Before addressing specific points in the SYIP, I want to acknowledge the fine work of Garrett Moore and thank him and the VDOT team in Northern Virginia for the efforts they are making to improve our transportation system. We have a number of on-going transportation projects in Western Fairfax and Eastern Loudoun Counties, and I appreciate their attention to these projects to keep them on schedule and on budget. In addition, they have been responsive to smaller matters as well, from fixing stops signs to filling potholes, among many other issues, raised by my constituents.

    As you may know, I introduced legislation that passed the General Assembly this year, (H.B. 599/S.B. 531) requiring the Department of Transportation, in ongoing coordination with the Commonwealth Transportation Board and others to evaluate and rate all significant transportation projects (including highway, mass transit, and technology projects) in and near the Northern Virginia Transportation District, according to the degree to which the project is expected to reduce congestion and, to the extent feasible, the degree to which the project is expected to improve regional mobility in the event of a homeland security emergency. The legislation also encourages the CTB, when determining the allocation of highway construction funding in the Northern Virginia Transportation District, to give priority to projects that most effectively reduce congestion in the most congested corridors and intersections.

    By rating these proposed projects, the CTB will be better informed when selecting projects for funding and will be more confident that our limited transportation dollars will be used to the greatest benefit for the people in Northern Virginia. In fact, without using this type of analysis, we can be virtually certain that reducing congestion will take longer than necessary.

    In October of 2011, I appeared at a similar public hearing to request funding for several transportation projects important to people of the 67th district and Northern Virginia. While I am delighted that significant, congestion reduction projects are included in the SYIP, the SYIP continues to include funding for projects that would make little or no difference in reducing congestion and improving the regional mobility of Northern Virginians. They are too numerous to note here.

    I offer the following specific comments on the current draft SYIP. The following projects listed in the draft have considerable congestion reduction merit, and should be continued:

    • Development of Active Traffic Management along I-66;

    • I-66 multi-modal study, continuing the I-66 environmental impact study as a prerequisite to planning additional I-66 improvements, Bus Rapid Transit, and eventual extension of the Orange Line;

    • Widening Rt. 50 from Rt.28 to Poland Road;

    • Widening Stringfellow Road between Fair Lakes Parkway and Chantilly High School;

    • Widening Route 7.

    Also, several of my October 2011 recommendations are not included in the SYIP, much to my disappointment. Those projects are not solely located within the bounds of the 67th district, mindful that most of the people I represent travel regularly throughout the Northern Virginia region.

    Projects that should be considered for inclusion in the six-year plan include:

    • Redesign of the I-66 and Rt. 28 intersection. Conditions continue to worsen at this intersection, with backups of traffic in the westbound shoulder lane exceeding more than a mile most weekday mornings as cars attempt to exit from I-66 westbound to Rt. 28. This is a serious safety problem as well as a congestion problem;

    • Redesign of the intersection at Braddock Road and Pleasant Valley Road;

    • Installing counters at the parking garages at the Vienna Metro station to encourage more use of Metro, with displays on I-66 (study already completed by Metro – $4 million, estimated at $500/parking spot plus signs);

    • Construction of an additional garage at the Vienna Metro station (a study should be conducted);

    • Construction of a ramp from I-66 to the West Falls Church Metro station to allow direct access from I-66 to encourage more use of Metro (a study should be conducted);

    • Construction of another Potomac River Bridge north of Dulles Airport to connect to I-270 in Maryland (a study should be conducted to explore the best options);

    • Widen I-66 eastbound inside the Beltway (a study should be conducted).

    Projects in the draft SYIP that have not begun and do not have a compelling congestion reduction benefit should be deleted from the plan, and the money allocated to unfunded projects that have such a benefit.

    Thank you and I welcome the opportunity to answer any questions.

    1. Darn, I really wish I’d been able to make it down to the May CTB meeting in Bristol. I would have loved to have heard that!

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      Only a fool would say that there needs to be a study conducted in order to determine if another parking garage is needed at the Vienna Metro.

      Similarly, I-66 inside the Beltway is a constant and horrendous snarl of traffic.

      In any regard, nothing should be done by the CTB until the CTB is revamped to properly reflect the population of Virginia today – not in 1935 as it presently stands.

      LeMunyon sounds like a smart guy who immediately becomes a political scardy cat after he realizes that a good idea might anger his puppet masters in Richmond.

  4. larryg Avatar

    What I got out of this is that there is all the more reason for Virginia to do what 46 other states have done and that is to give the ball to Fairfax and let them stop begging VDOT to take money from other localities.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      Yes. Virginia should then do the exact same for education (a local issue), local law enforcement (a local issue) and local jails (a local issue).

      At that point, we would have a state that works.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    Also – Jim, please help me with your statistics.

    You analyze traffic in Virginia by using statistics regarding traffic in the United States.

    1. Why do you think “Virginia” is a sensible unit of measure when it comes to measuring traffic. The vast overbuilding of infrastructure around Richmond has certainly made traffic in Richmond less of a problem than in NoVa or Tidewater (or, Charlottesville for that matter).

    2. Why do you think that an analysis of the country (population 310M) can be used as the basis for reasoning about “Virginia” (forgetting for a moment the inadequacy of using an entire state as the basis for measuring anything). Virginia’s population is about 8M or about 2.6% of the US population.

    3. You use the years between 2004 and 2011 as a base. Those six years include three years of recession or near recession. Putting aside Boomergeddon for a moment, do you really think those three years represent a normal six year period?

    4. You quote a reduced level of driving among young people and chalk it up to permanent changes in behavior. However, many states (including Virginia) have increased the legal age to drive and placed various restrictions (such as a driving curfew) on drivers under 18. How much have those changes (along with the recession) affected your numbers?

    You and TMT talk about the need for analysis of all road construction projects as if this will solve our transportation problems. Then, you put forth very shaky analyses of trends. Frankly, I think both you and TMT have more on the ball that the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond (OK, perhaps that is faint praise indeed). So, what should we realistically expect from a VDOT managed analysis?

  6. Don, It goes without saying that the decline in traffic has not been uniform nationally. Regions experiencing population loss undoubtedly experienced a greater fall-off; regions experiencing population growth undoubtedly saw less of a fall-off. I feel safe in suggesting that NoVa saw less of a fall-off than, say, Roanoke.

    I grant you that. But that misses the point: In its long-term projects contained in the VTrans 2025 project, VDOT projected extraordinary levels of traffic growth over the ensuing 20 years and concluded that the state faced a transportation funding shortfall of more than $100 billion. That same mindset still pervades the thinking about transportation throughout the state. I made a presentation at the governor’s transportation conference at the time suggesting that such projections were overblown. What I didn’t anticipate at the time was by how much. I did not then foresee the rise of GPS-embedded smart phones and how they would transform the economics of shared ridership. Still, my suspicions of five years ago have been amply borne out by reality.

    Meanwhile, we’ve also seen a fall-off on projections of population and economic growth in Northern Virginia. Yes, the region will continue growing, even as federal spending levels off. But it will not grow at the same rate as the previous 20 to 30 years.

    At the very least, we need to revisit the assumptions that are still embedded in the official state VMT forecasts that help guide policy makers decide how much money the system needs and where it needs to go. It would be irresponsible in the extreme to assume that the trends of the past 30 or 40 years can be projected in a straight line. We need to anticipate the impact of technology upon human settlement patterns and transportation behavior. Good grief, man, *you* are the technology dude! Can’t you see it? Otherwise we run the risk of squandering billion of dollars on low-yield infrastructure investments.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “Otherwise we run the risk of squandering billion of dollars on low-yield infrastructure investments.”.

      We are billions of dollars behind thanks to the frozen gas tax. If we were up to date, I’d agree with you – but we’re not.

  7. Hydra Avatar

    The cost of owning and operating automobiles is increasing faster than incomes.

    You have a citation for that? Yes car are more expensive, but they last much longer with fewer repairs, and get better mileage. Even today there are charitable groups that work to get poor people serviceable vehicles – because they improve the recipients economic prospects.

    1. I use the IRS mileage deduction allowance as a proxy for the cost of car ownership and operation. I did a 10-year calculation several months back. I can’t remember the exact numbers but, as I recall, that was the finding. I was expecting to find the opposite. I was very surprised, and it changed my thinking.

      1. DJRippert Avatar


        Your point may have more merit than you think. As we all know, the increases in income have been very lopsided in recent years. A small percentage of people have taken the lion’s share of increased income. However, even the richest one percenter can only ride in one vehicle at a time.

        If you took the cost of owning an automobile vs the growth of income by decile of income you might find that the cost of owning an automobile is quickly outgrowing the growth in income for many deciles. The reverse at the top of the income strata might alter the average.

        Of course, the belief this will continue requires a belief that the income gap will continue – which, I would say, is more of a problem than traffic.

  8. Hydra Avatar

    “Anyone can turn their car into a bus, saving time and money by picking up passengers along their route.”


    OK, so more efficiency. Guess what? Grater efficiency will lead to MORE use, not less.

  9. Hydra Avatar

    A study by Comerica Bank shows that the average purchase price of a new vehicle went up $300 in the second quarter versus the Q1, bringing the average transaction price to $26,300. The upward swing in prices came at a time when the average household income remained stagnant. The average family needs 22.1 weeks of median family income to pay for their new vehicle purchase, up .3 weeks from Q1. According to the study, higher transaction prices were slightly offset by lower financing rates, down to a very low average of 3.45%; the lowest rate in five years.

    Comerica says that the reason the average purchase price rose in Q2 is that customers were buying more expensive cars. That’s a bit odd in such a down economy, although lower overall sales could mean that customers who would normally purchase lower priced vehicles stayed out of dealerships altogether.


    This was dated 2009, but it points out soe of the issues. It is hard to claim that cars are less afoordable, while people are buying more expensive cars with more goodies.

  10. Hydra Avatar

    This article exp;lains the diffeences in how costs are estimated, with the IRS allowance being on the high end.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Expenditure Survey estimates national average household spending on transportation to be under $8,000 per year……..Using the newest Consumer Expenditure Survey (CES) data from 2010, the average US household is reported to spend $7,667 per year on all travel of which $7,184 per year is attributed to vehicle travel…..This data produces an estimated per mile vehicle ownership and operating cost of approximately $0.36. If divided by an average occupancy of 1.67 it results in an approximate $0.22 per passenger mile expenditure.

    Figure 1 shows the spending trend on vehicle travel by income quintile from Consumer Expenditure Survey data. Costs aren’t particularly high and are not growing – actually shrinking if adjusted for inflation – in spite of generally rising fuel and vehicle costs.

    Unless one chooses not to believe the Consumer Expenditure Survey data, Middle America has managed to control personal vehicle expenditure costs making personal mobility surprisingly inexpensive.

    Clearly, many American consumers of travel are not basing their travel decisions on vehicle ownership and use costs that are nearly as high as those referenced in various resources and research reports- several of which reflect an advocacy perspective. Take for example somebody seriously thinking about using transit and perhaps giving up a household vehicle. In all probability they would be giving up a lower cost/value vehicle – perhaps one that was fully depreciated or needed to be replaced. There would be some savings in operating cost but a significant share of the household mileage would likely be shifted to the remaining household vehicles with increases in their operating costs and depreciation rate.

    Interestingly, consumer expenditure data also show that even zero-vehicle households have significant spending on vehicle travel. Giving up or not purchasing a household vehicle is more likely to result in the use of rental and/or borrowed vehicles or providing gas money to friends and family for providing trips. Thus, presumptions about total savings from relinquishing a vehicle need to reflect the full reality of how travelers are behaving.

    While pointing out potential auto operating savings might be an appropriate strategy for an advocacy entity, serious policy deliberations are misinformed if they don’t use a far more nuanced and empirically based set of data on household travel expenditures and travel behavior as well as recognizing the full costs of accommodating the changes in behavior, be they increased transit demand and the corresponding costs or changes in population and employment location preferences.

  11. Hydra Avatar

    “Assumptions about travel cost savings associated with various residential location choices also require review relative to other sources of household spending on travel. Again, there can be large variations in context. For example, 27.2% of US households have no workers in them – thus, their household travel costs can be more controlled by their own choice decisions regarding trip destinations for their travel. Another few percent (and growing) have work-at-home members of the labor force. Unfortunately, fixed costs associated with relocating a household particularly for home owning households, make optimization of household location with respect to employment or travel generally an unpromising proposition in an era of job mobility, multi-worker households, upside down home-equity, and significant home purchase/sale transactions costs. “

  12. James,

    I appreciate the Avego reference in your post. You might be interested to know that Avego is working with the Northern Virginia Regional Commission, VDOT, and FHWA on a pilot project of our real-time ridesharing system along the I-395/95 Corridor. The project is focused on helping match riders and drivers in real-time and to share commuting expenses–making carpooling easier and more convenient. The project will focus on BRAC facilities and installations: Henderson Hall, Mark Center, Fort Belvoir, NGA, Quantico, and DHHQ. Beta testing will begin this summer, with a full project launch in September. Participation in the pilot is limited to workers at these locations, but if successful–will expand to all of Northern Virginia. Anyone who is interested in participating in this pilot should sign up here.

  13. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Let me see if I understand you. Next time I am in the DC area and am stuck in 495 bumper to bumper traffic, all I need to do is drive onto the shoulder, put on my hazard lights and wait five or six years. Makes perfect sense to me!

    1. DJRippert Avatar


      Don’t be a fool. You will not do that. You will use you iPhone to summon a limo from Uber to take you around DC. You see, limos are magical and don’t cause traffic. Don’t you read Bacon’s material?

  14. larryg Avatar

    Peter – come Nov/Dec – your decision will be to either sit in traffic or pay up to a buck a mile in the HOT Lanes.

    re: VA transportation priorities

    When Va is also responsible for 99 counties roads – the idea of “priorities” gets to be what the priorities of the 99 counties are – which are separate and distinct from what the priorities of the State are.

    In 46 other states, they do not have this “confusion”. The priorities of the State are crystal clear in those states.

  15. Hydra Avatar

    pay up to a buck a mile in the HOT Lanes.

    A buck a mile in the HOT lanes equals a as tax of $25.00 per gallon.

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