Six-Year Improvement Program: a Blueprint for Failure



With the adoption of the new Six-Year Improvement Program, the details of Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation priorities plan are coming into clearer focus. There are some worthy elements to the plan but glaring deficiencies guarantee that Virginia will see minimal benefit from the billions of dollars dedicated to new construction.

On the positive side of the ledger, it is heartening to see that Virginia will get serious about meeting its statutory maintenance obligations. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) will spend an estimated $2.3 billion over the next six years to rehabilitate aging bridges. Roughly one in eleven bridges in the state is rated “structurally deficient.” (See “Bad Bridges” for details). VDOT also will dedicate 25% of its formula revenues to repairing deteriorating pavement on state interstates and primary roads. (It’s not clear from published reports, however, whether this work will address the aging sub-structure of these roads, which account for much of the deterioration.)

Second, VDOT will apply 5% of formula revenue to “smart roadway” projects, which will utilize sensors, video, wireless communication, artificial intelligence and other advanced technologies to do a better job of synchronizing traffic signals, clearing accidents and communicating information to drivers. If executed properly, these investments can increase the capacity of existing traffic arteries at significantly lower cost than constructing more lanes.

On the other hand…. Stewart Schwartz, executive director for the Coalition for Smarter Growth, sums up the negatives in a press release issued yesterday after the Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting:

“We are shocked by the lack of discussion of the spending priorities in the Six-Year Plan, by the failure to tie the program to specific policy goals, and the assumption that simply adding road capacity will solve our transportation problems.  The plan includes a number of wasteful mega-projects that have been strongly criticized as unnecessary including Route 460 ($1.4 billion), the Coalfields Expressway ($2.8 billion), Charlottesville Bypass ($244 million), N-S Corridor ($1 billion plus), and a long range $11.4 billion plan for I-81.

The CTB doesn’t understand the benefits of more efficient land use – of cities, towns, and compact transit-oriented development –  along with transportation demand management programs (carpooling, telecommuting etc), that reduce driving demand.  They don’t understand changing demographics and market demand that have led to big declines in vehicle miles traveled.  The plan includes just 9% of the total for transit even though 69% of the state population lives in the Urban Crescent.

In short, we believe this program will be remembered for squandering billions of tax dollars while making Virginia’s patterns of development less efficient, more oil dependent and less competitive.”

I couldn’t have said it better. My only point of difference with Stewart is that I have no faith that the extra $500 million allocated to rail and public transportation (bringing the total to $2.9 billion) will be spent any more effectively than the money dedicated to roads. When funding decisions are based upon politics rather than objective Return on Investment analysis, the potential exists for rail and public transit projects to be every bit as wasteful as road projects.

Virginia’s decision-making process for allocating transportation dollars is a mess. It is bureaucratic, cumbersome and lengthy. Once projects make it into the pipeline, they rarely get re-evaluated in the light of changing travel trends or market conditions. The CTB exercises no independent review over the priorities handed down by the McDonnell administration. Functioning as regional advocates and conduits of information to the administration, CTB representatives do their most important  work behind the scenes. By the time projects are formally reviewed during CTB meetings, the decisions have already been made. Additionally, there are major transparency issues associated with Public Private Partnership mega-projects. The need for confidentiality when the state negotiates with private-sector partners conflicts with the need for public disclosure before the final deal has been struck.

The McDonnell administration has made no effort whatsoever to address these process issues. It has made no effort to re-evaluate projects in the funding pipeline in the light of new demographic, travel and development trends. And it has made no effort to better align transportation planning and land-use planning. The entire approach has been marked by spending as much money as possible to build as many projects as possible. Bottom line: The McDonnell administration has borrowed billions of dollars and raised our taxes in order to pour more money into a broken system.

Photo courtesy of James Bacon.

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