We've been tracking VDOT's spending, including a record $3 billion in borrowed money, and we believe much of it is being squandered. Before seeking higher taxes for transportation or proposing to divert money from the state's General Fund intended to support education, health care, and other needs, the northern Virginia business community should question why the current administration is diverting money to rural highways of questionable value.
Meanwhile, the administration is not investing enough of their record transportation funds in the most congested parts of northern Virginia and has made an all too small and very tenuous commitment to Dulles Rail. Instead of using money from the currently flush state transportation fund to support the high priority Dulles Rail serving the economic engines of the state, the administration says it will seek a $150 million legislative earmark from the General Assembly. I wouldn't bet my house on that.
Of course all of the candidates promise to fix transportation in Northern Virginia, but few have offered a comprehensive assessment of the problem or a complete set of solutions. In our view, VDOT isn't investing enough in Northern Virginia, and, when they do, they aren't setting the right investment priorities. This big picture problem hasn't been adequately debated during the election, so the Coalition for Smarter Growth drafted and released a transportation platform, some of which is outlined below. We hope that the winning candidates will adopt and pursue this platform in the coming months, lest we continue to waste tax dollars and sit in more traffic.
Northern Virginia Needs a Better Deal from the State
The state is borrowing $3 billion in state and federal funds on top of their normal annual spending for transportation. We'll be paying this back for years. So we should be setting smart priorities. Instead:
- VDOT proposes to pour $750 million of our tax dollars into subsidizing a private toll road (Route 460) through empty farmland south of the James River.
- VDOT has shifted $200 million to a bypass in Charlottesville that most people don't want and could cost over $400 million.
- VDOT will probably grant another toll road company hundreds of millions of dollars for converting our I-95 carpool lanes into High-Occupancy Toll lanes for 75 years.
- VDOT wants to build an Outer Beltway for speculative development -- the first ten miles of which could cost $250 million to $475 million depending on the route -- instead of focusing scarce resources on fixing existing commuter routes in Northern Virginia.
- VDOT is years behind on a comprehensive solution for I-66, which will have to involve a mix of carpool, bus, road, rail, and smarter land use to really make the corridor work.
- The state is paying nothing toward Phase 2 of the Dulles Rail project and only five percent of the total project costs, while Northern Virginians are paying about 75 percent of the total costs -- through our local taxes and tolls. Compare this to the state and federal government paying 100 percent for highway projects.
- The state only pays about 28 percent of our Metrorail operating costs, but it pays 100 percent of road maintenance and operating costs. Northern Virginians pay about 72 percent of our share of Metrorail operating costs through our transit fares, an add-on gas tax, and our local property taxes.
- VDOT won't agree to fund Tysons Corner transportation needs, Reston Metro station access needs, or a single project in the Route 1 corridor.
We have solutions to these problems, which you can read on page two of our platform, currently on our website.
We hope the winning candidates address transportation comprehensively, supporting the smart growth land use and transit-focused solutions that we need. Don't forget to vote on November 8, and after the dust clears, join us to help advocate for smart transportation solutions!
--Laura DeSantis, Coalition for Smarter Growth
Today VDOT is asking the Commonwealth Transportation Board to reduce the street connectivity and sidewalk requirements approved after the 2007 General Assembly session. In layman's terms, this means there could be only be one road connection per 200 houses in a suburban development.
The Connectivity Index was supposed to result in more external connections and options for drivers, which would reduce traffic on arterial roads. The piece of legislation is a no-brainer: It's been shown that more interconnected street networks reduce traffic and offer more options for shorter car trips, walking, and bicycling.
Because new developments will have less overall connectivity, the builders will be forcing most of the traffic onto just a few roads, which in turn will push the cost of expanding those roads onto the public.
These changes are pushed by lobbyists for the homebuilding industry through a VDOT committee with the support of VDOT staff even though, as a result of the recession, the existing connectivity regulations haven't been tested. In addition to the weakened connectivity standards, the proposed changes would reduce the number of cases where sidewalks need to be provided on both sides of the street, and would reduce Traffic Impact studies.
Let's hope Commonwealth Transportation Board doesn't get bullied into this. We have enough traffic without adding more, so let's keep the plan for connectivity and not pass on the costs of increased congestion to taxpayers.
If you live in the vicinity of Northern Virginia (and even if you don’t, this still concerns you), you may have heard Senator Mark Warner on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU, reacting to developer John "Til" Hazel's push for Potomac river bridges beyond the Beltway. It wasn’t good news: Senator Warner, who often pushes for common sense and practical solutions, appears to have endorsed the idea of building new Potomac River bridges without studying the facts.
In 2001, Congressman Frank Wolf rejected the bridges after he commissioned a study of potential routes and realized the bridges and connecting roads couldn't be built without massive disruption of communities on both sides of the river. Then, a 2004 VDOT study revealed that few commuters would gain any benefit from these new bridges, and certainly not nearly enough to justify the cost.
Potomac bridges are a key part of building an Outer Beltway, a project revived by Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton. At the Coalition for Smarter Growth we like to call the Outer Beltway the “Zombie Highway” because it just won’t die – thanks in part to Mr. Hazel, who made a load of money buying up land before construction of major highway projects. The idea for an Outer Beltway was conceived in the 1960s, studied and rejected in 1989, then studied but stopped by huge opposition in 1997. In fact, public opposition to the Outer Beltway was also a significant factor in the defeat of then-Governor Warner's 2002 Sales Tax, which included portions of the Outer Beltway in the package.
Despite clear opposition, the Outer Beltway is back, but this time Til Hazel has VDOT Secretary Sean Connaughton on his side fighting for the highway. And here’s the kicker -- besides costing billions of dollars, the Outer Beltway and bridges would do nothing to solve our current traffic problems. Instead, an Outer Beltway would open new land to sprawling development, adding yet more traffic to existing commuter routes. It would take money away from fixing the most congested areas in Virginia, as well as from the most pressing repairs needed for our road, bridge, and mass transit systems.