Tag: Governor McDonnell

Update on The Bi-County Parkway: A Chance to “Take a Second Look”

During his campaign, Governor McAuliffe said he would take a hard-look at the controversial $440 million Bi-County Parkway, reevaluating this project and others proposed by VDOT. In his campaign platform, under the section titled “Pick the right projects; build the best ones,” he stated:

Joint Environmental Groups’ Letter to Terry McAuliffe against Bi-County Parkway

Dear Governor-Elect McAuliffe: Congratulations on your victory and thank you for your support for so many of our conservation and smart growth priorities. With regard to transportation, we are particularly pleased with your support for building sustainable communities, seeking the least intrusive solutions, adapting infrastructure to serve community needs, and commitment to “pulling the plug” on transportation projects that fail to meet these standards. In keeping with those priorities…

Will Terry McCauliffe Sign Off on a Notorious Sprawl Project in NoVa?

With Terry McAuliffe about to move in to the Virginia governor’s mansion, it’s unclear what will become of one of the state’s most contested transportation proposals — the Bi-County Parkway, a $440 million highway in the outer D.C. suburbs.

Though it seems likely the current administration of Republican Governor Bob McDonnell will make a forceful push to get approvals sealed before the end of the year, the timeline is tight. Then there’s the big question of how McAuliffe, a Democrat, will manage the controversial proposal.

As planned, the four-lane divided highway would run 10.4 miles north-south between Route 50 and Route 66, two notoriously clogged commuter roads into D.C.

Critics of the Bi-County Parkway — who have been varied and outspoken — warn that the new highway would do little to ease congestion, and would in fact create even more traffic in this mixed region of farmland, cul-de-sacs, and Civil War landmarks. Smart growth advocates see the developers salivating over the project and predict that the road will simply perpetuate the trend of isolating housing from jobs.

“From what we see, all it’s going to encourage is more residential development in an area that lacks sufficient infrastructure,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s putting more cars on top of the funnel.”

The proposal is at a critical juncture now, with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) aiming to submit a final environmental impact statement to the feds by the end of the year — before McDonnell leaves.

McDonnell has aggressively pushed the Bi-County Parkway, even going so far as to hire a public relations firm to pitch the project.

“He has fast-tracked the planning and approvals and all that,” said James Bacon of Bacon’s Rebellion, a Virginia public policy blog. “He clearly made it a priority.”

And though several aspects of the project are still tied up in negotiation — particularly due to the government shutdown — many believe McDonnell will make an all-out effort to get Federal Highway Administration sign-off before 2014.

“The McDonnell Administration is flooring the gas pedal… hoping to get final approval before their time runs out,” wrote Morgan Butler, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center, in an email. “The administration has downplayed (or ignored outright) major community and environmental impacts and given short shrift to alternatives, as they try to get their pet projects to a point of no return before they leave office.”

A study published by SELC and other smart growth and environmental groups this summer, “Rethinking the Bi-County Parkway,” argues that the project won’t help the region’s biggest transportation problem — east-west travel — and will undermine preservation goals for Manassas National Battlefield Park. Instead of the highway, the report recommends transit improvements like extensions for Metro and VRE and an express bus on Route 50. VDOT has not formally analyzed any of those other options.

Critics of the Bi-County Parkway have also worried the project will help resurrect old plans for other roads, like a 45-mile “north-south corridor of significance,” and even a larger “Outer Beltway,” which VDOT has denied.

VDOT’s pitch is that the new highway will ease congestion by increasing connectivity between Loudon and Prince William counties and replacing a route through the battlefield park. Supporters have also said the highway will spur more air cargo activity at Dulles Airport, though a researcher at George Mason University disputed that claim.

So far there’s no definitive indication of how the next administration will deal with the Bi-County Parkway. When the topic came up during election debates, McAuliffe avoided taking a firm stand, saying he needed more facts. McAuliffe’s Republican opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, was more forthright in opposing the proposal, though he expressed support for some type of north-south connector.

For some voters, the issue was enough to bring them over to the “Democrats for Cuccinelli” camp, said Charlie Grymes, chair of the Prince William Conservation Alliance. Even more interesting, he said, was the way it forced some Virginia delegates to mark their positions. Bacon’s Rebellion also noted the unusual camaraderie the issue forged between populist conservatives and liberal smart-growth advocates.

While Cuccinelli’s stance stemmed from his fiscal conservatism, McAuliffe has made it clear that he intends to pour big bucks into transportation. As Politico notes, his campaign played up his support for Virginia’s new law to raise $1.4 billion for infrastructure through increased sales taxes and other fees.

To Bacon, that may make McAuliffe more inclined to support wasteful projects like the Bi-County Parkway.

But The Washington Post also notes that McAuliffe’s platform highlighted “elements that appeal to advocates of livable, walkable communities.”

Schwartz sees the new administration as a fresh opportunity to examine alternatives. With McAuliffe “walking into a transportation agency which enjoys significantly higher levels of funding,” he said, it’s going to be “incumbent to look at how we can spend funds more wisely.”

Also critical will be McAuliffe’s decisions about transportation leadership. Many view the Bi-County Parkway as a pet project of Sean Connaughton, the current transportation secretary.

“Once he’s gone, the project’s going to lose a big backer,” said Bacon. “On the other hand, the political constellation around it won’t disappear.”

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Six-Year Improvement Program: a Blueprint for Failure

bacon

 

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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VDOT to increase spending on deficient bridges

richmond

VDOT will spend nearly $2.3 billion to upgrade the state’s bridges over the next six years.

“We’re going to spend $564 million in additional state money on bridge reconstruction and rehabilitation,” said state Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton. “This isn’t just about infrastructure. This is about ensuring the public safety.”

The goal is to make sure the percentage of structurally deficient bridges remains less than 8 percent of the state’s nearly 21,000 bridges and culverts.

“There’s a large backlog of bridge maintenance projects that we’re now going to be able to get to,” Connaughton said at the Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting Wednesday in Richmond.

This year, 7.5 percent of Virginia bridges were rated structurally deficient, the Virginia Department of Transportation said.

Nationally, 11 percent of 607,000 road bridges were considered in poor repair, according to figures from the Federal Highway Administration. The average U.S. bridge is 42 years old.

VDOT says that bridges slated to be replaced as structurally deficient in the Richmond region include those carrying Interstate 64 over Airport Drive in Henrico County, Interstate 195 over the Powhite Parkway in Richmond, U.S. 1 over railroad tracks at Bellwood in Chesterfield County, and state Route 13 over Sallee Creek in Powhatan County.

The funds for accelerated bridge work are part of the state’s $17.6 billion allocation for transportation programs for the fiscal year that begins July 1 and continues through the fiscal year that ends June 2019.

The six-year transportation program, including new funding sources for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, is $6.2 billion larger than last year’s approved plan, a 54 percent increase. The state Transportation Board approved the new six-year program Wednesday.

The funding increase largely springs from revenue the General Assembly provided this year, the first significant infusion of money into the state’s cash-strapped transportation system since 1986.

Not everyone was pleased with the spending plan.

“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,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

The plan includes a number of “wasteful mega-projects that have been strongly criticized as unnecessary,” Schwartz said, citing $1.4 billion for the new U.S. 460; $244 million for the Charlottesville Bypass project; the $1 billion-plus North-South Corridor highway in Northern Virginia; and the $2.8 billion Coalfields Expressway in Southwest Virginia.

“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,” Schwartz said.

The May 23 collapse of an Interstate 5 bridge in Mount Vernon, Wash., has drawn national attention on the issue of bridge safety. In the I-5 incident, a 160-foot span of the four-lane bridge collapsed into the Skagit River after a tractor-trailer with an oversized semitrailer struck the span’s overhead truss structure.

To eliminate the nation’s deficient bridge backlog by 2028, the U.S. needs to invest $20.5 billion annually, though only $12.8 billion is being spent currently, the American Society of Civil Engineers said in its 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure.

According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, being classified as structurally deficient does not mean a bridge is unsafe.

If a Virginia bridge’s structural rating sinks too low, state highway officials post a lower weight limit on it and increase its frequency of inspections. In the worst case, VDOT closes bridges in poor condition.

Photo courtesy of P. Kevin Morley.

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Va. transportation board approves study that includes Bi-County Parkway

RICHMOND — A state transportation board Wednesday advanced plans for a controversial project to build a parkway connecting Prince William and Loudoun counties.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, in a 15 to 1 vote, endorsed a master-plan study that looked at potential improvements along the state’s North-South Corridor, a 45-mile route connecting the two Northern Virginia counties.

The vote was denounced by opponents of the Bi-County Parkway, who said board’s decision is a sign that the state is moving forward with the 10-mile road, which would skirt Civil War sites to connect I-66 in Prince William with Route 50 in Loudoun.

Board member W. Sheppard Miller III, of Virginia Beach, voted against moving forward, saying the board’s resolution did not adequately rule out toll roads, which he opposes.

A total of 15 people appeared before the board to comment, and several of them urged Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) officials to delay the adoption of the corridor study, saying that the state has not been transparent about its plans.

“This impacts tens of thousands who are unaware,” said Tom Thompson, who lives near the site of the proposed parkway.

Gary Garczynski, who lives in Woodbridge and represents the board’s Northern Virginia district, said the vote was a small step in a years-long process for the parkway.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion, and I regret to say that a lot of people think it is,” Garczynski said. “From my perspective, that’s just not true. We have a long way to go.”

The North-South corridor is one of 12 designated regions in which state transportation funding priorities are established. The improvements, including the Bi-County Parkway, are designed to improve traffic flow, spur economic development and provide better access to Dulles International Airport, supporters say.

Del. Timothy D. Hugo, a Republican Party leader who represents parts of Fairfax and Prince William counties, was among those who attended the meeting to object to the proposed road.

The board has “created a firestorm. . . . The rationale provided by VDOT [for the parkway] changes every time,” Hugo said. “These people deserve a straight answer.”

Residents say they worry about increased traffic and the fact that the parkway would run through a protected rural area with a rich Civil War history.

The board’s vote Wednesday came after a month’s delay. Concerns were raised by Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.), who wrote a letter to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), to say that the state’s process lacked transparency and that more public input was needed. Six Republican state legislators, led by Hugo, have announced that they oppose the road and the state’s handling of the process.

Stewart Schwartz, president of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, has questioned whether a plan for north-south improvements is necessary.

“You started with a conclusion and went backwards,” he said of the adopted study. ““We will look back and realize that we have gained no ground and squandered billions.”

STATEMENT: Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board Approval of $17.6 Billion Six-Year Capital Spending Program: A Road to Ruin?

Statement on Virginia Commonwealth Transportation Board Approval of $17.6 Billion Six-Year Capital Spending Program

A Road to Ruin?

Today with no debate, the appointed Commonwealth Transportation Board approved the largest transportation spending program in Virginia history, $17.6 billion in capital spending.

“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.”

Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director

 

About the Coalition for Smarter Growth

The Coalition for Smarter Growth is the leading organization in the Washington D.C. region dedicated to making the case for smart growth. Our mission is to promote walkable, inclusive, and transit-oriented communities, and the land use and transportation policies needed to make those communities flourish. To learn more, visit the Coalition’s website at www.smartergrowth.net.

 

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The North-South Divide

Battle lines are forming over the north-south transportation corridor in Northern Virginia. Backers say it would serve a growing population and stimulate economic development. Foes say the state has more urgent priorities for spending $1 billion or more.

Tri-County Parkway
Red line shows approximate route of the North-South Corridor where it runs through the Manassas Battlefield and extensive farmland.

Northern Virginia, we hear over and over, is one of the most congested regions in the nation – perhaps the most congested. Even with new mega-projects coming on line like interstate express lanes and the rail-to-Dulles Metro service, the list of transportation needs seems endless. Most improvements under consideration are designed to ameliorate the traffic gridlock that grips the region now. But one particular cluster of projects zooming through the bureaucratic approval process is designed to address traffic congestion that is forecast to be a problem… in 2040.

In 2011, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) added the so-called North-South Corridor west of Dulles International Airport to its list of strategically important Corridors of Statewide Significance (CoSS), a designation that gives priority funding to projects within the corridor. It was the first time the CTB had added a new corridor not based upon an existing Interstate or rail line. Fast-tracking the project, the McDonnell administration has held public hearings and plans to present findings regarding a specific route and the cost to build a limited access highway this month.

Backers say Northern Virginia needs a north-south corridor – in particular, a limited access highway known in different configurations as the Tri-County Parkway or Bi-County Parkway — to accommodate the region’s fast-growing population and employment, and also to promote freight cargo-related economic development around Dulles International Airport.

“If you look at the population projections of the [Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments] and the Commonwealth of Virginia, you see a major percentage of future growth in Northern Virginia does occur in this corridor and points west,” says Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. “Loudoun and Prince William counties will add a couple hundred thousand people over the next 20 to 30 years.”

But skeptics describe the project as a wildly speculative endeavor that might enrich big landowners whose properties could be developed but otherwise do little to address Northern Virginia’s most pressing concerns. In particular, they say, Northern Virginia growth patterns in the 1990s and 2000s have zero predictive value for the future.

“The world has changed. Our population is older and is downsizing their homes. Empty nesters and younger workers want to live closer to jobs and transit, and in more urban places,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG). “Moreover, the region has far more pressing needs serving existing population centers and addressing existing congestion. We need every dollar to fix existing commuter routes like I-66.”

Funding the north-south corridor, says Schwartz, would be “a misallocation of scarce resources.”

Only a year ago, the point seemed moot. Virginia was running out of state funds for new highway construction projects. But the north-south corridor controversy is sure to flare now that the General Assembly and Governor Bob McDonnell are close to approving a restructuring of transportation taxes that is expected to raise $800 million a year statewide for new transportation spending. Projects that had been pushed to the back shelves suddenly look fundable.

$2 Billion dollar project?

Northern Virginia’s major transportation arteries – Interstate 95, Interstate 66 and the Dulles Toll Road – all converge on the I-495 Capital Beltway or Washington, D.C., itself. Over the decades, population growth, job growth and development have followed those pathways out from the urban core. North-south arterials have been built to connect that growth, including the Fairfax County Parkway in the center of Fairfax County, and Rt. 28, farther west. The North-South corridor would represent a fourth such arterial but it would serve hypothetical future transportation demand, not a demand that exists at present.

Although the final plan has not yet been published, the North-South corridor likely will follow a path something like this:

  • Apexct its southern terminus the highway will start at Interstate 95 in Prince William County. It will follow the existing Rt. 234, which becomes a partially limited access highway west of Manassas.
  • The highway will proceed north across I-66 along the western boundary of the Manassas Battlefield and run parallel to Pageland Lane through miles of farmland, in areas zoned for low density — the so-called Tri-County Parkway.
  • The highway will incorporate Loudoun’s expansion of Northstar Boulevard, crossing another stretch of undeveloped land, where it will connect to Belmont Ridge Road until it reaches the northern terminus at Rt.  7.

Because corridors of statewide significance are designated multimodal corridors, not just highways, the north-south corridor plan could include other components such as tolled express lanes and, in theory, Bus Rapid Transit, although there is unlikely to be much demand for mass transit in a rural area far from major job centers. Also, the McDonnell administration is studying the idea of linking the proposed highway to the western approaches of Dulles airport and upgrading Rt. 606, which runs along the western edge of the airport. These improvements would open property on the west side of the airport for commercial development.

Smart growth groups like the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council view the north-south corridor as the same as an Outer Beltway proposal that belly-flopped more than a decade ago, with the main difference being that the McDonnell administration seems willing to build it piece by piece rather than all at once. The original plan for the Outer Beltway was to continue north, bridging the Potomac River and hooking up with a major Maryland arterial, opening vast tracts of relatively inaccessible land for new subdivisions and shopping centers. Maryland officials have made it clear that they have no interest in such a collaboration but the Virginia Department of Transportation is footing the bill in a separate study to examine the feasibility of building another Potomac crossing at an unspecified location.

The Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment (OIPI) is scheduled to present its recommendations to the CTB regarding the routing and corridor improvements, says Dironna Belton, OIPI policy and program manager. The OIPI will not make its cost estimates available until then.

Schwartz with the CSG guesstimates that the north-south corridor would cost a minimum of nearly $1 billion — figure $19 million per mile for 50 miles — only a small portion of which could be paid for by tolls. Some of the highway would follow the existing Rt. 234, he says, but construction work on an operating road is very expensive. Throw in some interchanges and the cost of connecting the highway to Dulles airport, he says, and the project could approach $2 billion.

Growth Projections

The argument for a north-south corridor is based upon the proposition that jobs and population growth will continue booming on the western edge of the Washington metropolitan region. That case is buttressed by forecasts made by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service’s Demographics & Workforce Group, which serve as the basis for state and local government planning purposes.

Here are the Weldon Cooper projections for the year 2040, listing jurisdictions in rough order of their proximity to the Washington urban core.

gorwth projections

According to the Weldon Cooper projections, jurisdictions in the urban core like Arlington and Alexandria will see no growth – or actually shrink. Following the radius out from the core, Fairfax County will continue to see substantial growth in absolute numbers but only moderate growth as a percentage of its already-large population. The bulk of the population growth will occur in outer-ring counties, especially Loudoun and Prince William but also, traveling down Interstate 95, Stafford and Spotsylvania.

In just Loudoun and Prince William counties and Manassas, the jurisdictions directly served by the north-south corridor, the population is expected to grow by nearly 500,000 by 2040.

In its study of the north-south corridor, the McDonnell administration has embraced the forecast of booming exurban growth. “Nearly 700,000 jobs, 800,000 people, and 300,000 new households are expected to join [Northern Virginia] over this 30-year timeframe,” states an OIPI newsletter. “Much of this future growth is expected to occur within Loudoun and Prince William Counties. Larger portions of the new employment and population growth are expected within the North-South corridor area.”

According to maps published in the OIPI newsletter, population in the corridor study area itself will increase by 190,000 and jobs by 127,000. Population in areas immediately to the west will grow by 230,000 more.

Projected corridor population growth

Chase with the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance argues that the growth projections actually might be conservative. In a recent email, he distributed a chart, based upon National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board data, comparing a 1990-to-2010 job-growth forecast made for the Washington region with actual performance. Urban-core jurisdictions like Washington, Alexandria and Arlington under-performed the forecast by a wide margin while outer jurisdictions tended to out-perform the forecast. “These trends are expected to continue for decades to come,” he wrote.

Forecast versus actual

In the battle over a proposed outer beltway a decade ago, which would have run more or less the same route, the Piedmont Environmental Council had warned that building the beltway would generate a population explosion, says Chase. “We didn’t build the corridor but the people came anyway.”

The idea that building roads causes population growth to occur that would not otherwise is wrong, Chase says, particularly in places like Northern Virginia with a strong economy and people moving  in from all around the country.

Creating a north-south corridor makes sense, he says. As he wrote in the email cited above: “Most of the region’s workforce lives outside the Beltway and employers are moving closer to their workers. Moving jobs closer to where people live is more efficient than moving people (longer distances) to jobs. It reduces commutes and creates a better balanced, stronger regional economy.”

Inflection Point

A big problem with the Weldon Cooper population projections and all the forecasts based upon them is that they extrapolate past trends into the future. There is reason to question whether Northern Virginia can replicate the population and employment growth of the go-go 2000s during the austere 2010s.

The terrorist attack on 9/11/2001 precipitated a decade-long growth in spending on defense, intelligence and homeland security, with much of the money going to federal agencies and contractors in Northern Virginia. With Washington adither over unsustainable budget deficits, however, the main question today is by how much defense spending will shrink. Likewise, spending on discretionary (non-entitlement) domestic spending is expected to level off, according to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) data show below. While federal spending is not likely to collapse any time soon, it won’t provide the jet fuel for Northern Virginia’s growth that it has in the past.

Federal spending

Not only is population and employment growth likely to slow, smart growth advocates contend that the pattern of that diminished growth is shifting dramatically away from the peripheral counties of the Washington MSA back toward the urban core.

Many urban economists believe that the forces impelling metropolitan growth to green-fields on the periphery have petered out or even reversed themselves. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any job or population growth in places like Loudoun and Prince William, but it does suggest that growth could fall far short of projections based on past trends.

Major economic and demographic shifts are transforming growth patterns across America. Most notably, the cost of automobile ownership is outstripping the rate of inflation and household incomes. Over the past decade (2003 to 2013), the Internal Revenue Service deduction for business travel, a good proxy for the cost of owning and operating a car, surged 57% to 56.5 cents per mile, far faster than the 26% increase in the consumer price index over the same period.

There is good reason to believe that the cost of ownership will continue to rise. Global supply and demand forces will continue to push the cost of gasoline higher. Interest rates, a critical factor for automobile financing, can hardly get any lower and likely will climb. Federal fuel economy standards will save on gasoline costs but increase the cost of purchasing cars — a 2012 study by the American Automobile Association indicated that 122,000 licensed drivers in Virginia, or 1.9%, would be priced out of the market. Meanwhile, automobiles are evolving into mobile communication and connectivity hubs that add tremendous functionality but also push up the price. While the cost of driving is increasing, incomes are stagnating for the bottom 80% of income earners. Assuming the laws of economics still hold, Americans will adapt to the higher cost of automobile ownership by driving less.

That economic trend dovetails with major demographic trends. Two-thirds of all households today consist of singles, childless couples, or empty-nesters, and that proportion will rise over the next 20 years, Christopher Leinberger , a real estate developer, Brookings Institution fellow and author of “The Option of Urbanism,” has argued. Those households don’t need a big suburban yard where Little Johnny can run and play. They prefer smaller accommodations that require less maintenance and offer a variety of transportation options. Indeed, Leinberger says, there is a huge housing surplus in what he terms the “drivable suburbs” and a pent-up demand for what he calls “walkable urbanism” where inhabitants can meet many of their daily needs by walking, biking or riding mass transit.

The evolving priorities are most evident among Millennials, the rising generation of 20- to 30-year-olds, who appear to be less enamored with automobiles than their parents were. In 2008, according to the Federal Highway Administration, only 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared to 64.4 percent in 1998. Similarly, drivers in their twenties drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than twenty-somethings did in 1995. In big cities, many Millennials are abandoning the idea of car ownership and flocking to rental services like ZipCar and ride-sharing services like SideCar and Lyft.

Consistent with these trends, the 12-month moving average of Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) plateaued in 2006 around 3 trillion miles, according to Federal Highway Administration data, and has dipped since then. Adjust for population growth, as seen in the chart below, and the decline is striking.

Decline in VMT
Graphic credit: Business Insider.

In the Washington region, developers are pouring billions of dollars into re-developing the District, close-in suburbs like Arlington, and even middle-band suburbs like Fairfax County. D.C.’s population increased by 30,000 over the previous 27 months, the Census Bureau reported in December 2012. Arlington planners, who count some 1,380 housing units under construction at present, project that 36,000 residents will move to their county by 2040 — diametrically opposite to Weldon Cooper’s prediction forecast that the jurisdiction will shed 23,500 people.

Here is the breakdown for population growth in 2012. At this point Loudoun and Prince William, which are working off a large inventory of houses and lots from the recession, are on pace with the Weldon Cooper projections. But Arlington and D.C. are coming on strong.

NoVa population increase

Meanwhile, Fairfax County is the sleeping giant. Nowhere is the shift in human settlement patterns more visible than at the 10 Metro stops planned for the Silver Line. Literally tens of millions of square feet of walkable, mixed-use development are planned for Metro stations along the Dulles Corridor. Fairfax County is undertaking a massive, multibillion-dollar transformation of Tysons from the prototypical auto-centric suburban office district into a pedestrian-friendly community. The addition of a strong residential component to Tysons alone could absorb between 20,000 and 40,000 new inhabitants by 2040.

Alternate investments

Given the pent-up demand for transit-oriented development and the massive resources committed to building it in Northern Virginia, diverting resources to the North-South corridor makes no sense, contends Morgan Butler, senior attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC). Investing in the Silver Line so Tysons can be the center of growth while building a highway that facilitates sprawl are mutually contradictory aims, he says. Transit-oriented development represents the future, he says, and state and local authorities should focus limited resources on making it work.

Northern Virginia has many transportation needs that are urgent right now, much less three decades from now. Just one example: A recently issued Environmental Impact Statement found, for example, that nearly half of a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 66 outside the Capital Beltway operates at a Level of Service E or F (worse than free-flow conditions) during morning rush hour. Nearly two-thirds are deficient during the afternoon rush hour.

What kind of traffic relief could Northern Virginia buy with the $1 billion or more proposed for the Tri-County Parkway?

A coalition of smart-growth and conservation groups has published an alternative to the Tri-County Parkway that would not only protect Loudoun and Prince William farmland and steer traffic away from the Manassas Battlefield Park but ameliorate congestion that afflicts commuters here and now. States their “Updated Composite Alternative”:

Our alternative is designed to address the much greater need for east-west commuter movement and to provide for dispersed, local north-south movement for current and future traffic. Access to Dulles is provided by the completion of upgrades to Route 28 from I-66 north, improvements to the I-66 corridor, and upgrades to the Route 234/Route 28 connection and Route 28 on the east side of the Cities of Manassas and Manassas Park. The composite set of connections is designed to improve traffic movement throughout the area, benefitting more travelers and trip types than would the single large north-south highway proposal.

The document does not contain a cost estimate for the alternative projects, which includes mass transit and lots of local road fixes, so it’s not clear if the proposals constitute an apples-to-apples comparison with the proposed north-south corridor improvements. What is clear is that there is no lack of pressing projects competing for that $1-$2 billion.

The Air Cargo Push

Backers of a north-south corridor cite a second justification for the Bi-County Parkway: By improving access to Dulles International Airport, a highway would promote warehouse and logistics investment around Dulles Airport and even in Prince William County.

The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) plans to develop 400 acres of airport property on Route 606, while Loudoun County is promoting 500 acres on the north-south corridor for cargo expansion, according to a December 2012 presentation made by Garrett Moore, then-district administrator for Northern Virginia. VDOT is conducting an environmental assessment for widening Rt. 606 on the western edge of Dulles’ property and a variety of other projects to improve western access to the airport.

“My gut tells me that Dulles in terms of cargo is about where we were with passengers in 1982. In those days, … there was very little passenger activity,” says Leo Schefer, president of the Washington Airports Task Force. But passenger service did take off. Dulles now is one of the busiest airports in the country and an economic engine of Northern Virginia. Schefer sees a parallel process underway with air freight. The established air cargo gateways are becoming more congested and more expensive to operate. The big logistics companies can cover their bets, he suggests, by establishing a presence at Dulles, which has enormous expansion potential and superior operating economics.

Schefer concedes that cargo-related development is not a sure thing. Unlike passenger service, in which airlines respond to rising traffic volume, “air cargo is more of an economic development exercise.” Northern Virginia economic developers need to persuade the big logistics companies to use Dulles as a strategic gateway where they can consolidate operations. That won’t be the easiest sell because the Washington region is not itself a huge market for air cargo. “We don’t produce much here besides paper,” he quips.

Northern Virginia is too expensive for the manufacturing sector, a major customer of air freight. However, Schefer sees that changing as new super high-tech manufacturing technologies are deployed and increasingly automated manufacturing processes rely upon fewer, more highly skilled employees. That kind of manufacturing could thrive in the region, he suggests, especially if manufacturers could avail themselves of superior air-freight access.

Be that as it may, Dulles has the real estate to accommodate large warehouses. “Logistics companies will want to see better truck connections,” Schefer says. “That’s where the north-south corridor comes in: A highway would provide superior access to markets to the west and south.”

Local economic developers view the situation similarly. “We view [the corridor] as an asset,” says Brent Heavner, marketing and research manager for the Prince William County Department of Economic Development. “One of the advantages of having better north-south transportation capacity is the market it opens up for industrial, warehouse and distribution users” in Prince William County, particularly the western county. “Right now those operations are at a disadvantage due to the circuitous route they have to move their freight to reach Dulles.”

A beefed-up air freight operation at Dulles might find itself competing with Richmond International Airport (RIC), which also has positioned itself as an air cargo handler. At this point, however, Dulles’ air-cargo ambitions have not made much of an impression on RIC. It’s not something airport management has studied, says Troy Bell, director of marketing and air service development. “We’re not anti-Dulles. But we have capacity and a very capable field.”

Schwartz remains skeptical of the economic-development argument. “Dulles is pushing its dreams on the rest of us. … They’ve justified the corridor by cargo growth at Dulles Airport. We think that’s a red herring. Air freight is a tiny percentage of total freight traffic.” While Dulles boosters have been promoting the north-south corridor, he adds, the air freight companies themselves have been conspicuously quiet.

There may be sufficient locally generated traffic demand to justify four-laning Rt. 606 on the west side of Dulles, a project that would cost $50 million, Schwartz says. But the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) wants eight lanes and four interchanges, which could bump the project up to $300 million. “They’re asking for the taxpayer to pay for the expansion of Rt. 606. Why shouldn’t they pay for it?”

The way forward

In sum there are several imponderables the state needs to consider before putting money into the north-south corridor:

  • Federal budget. Will the federal government deal with chronic deficits and a mounting national debt by cutting defense and discretionary spending, the lifeblood of the Washington metropolitan economy, and what impact would a spending slowdown have on population and job growth in Northern Virginia, particularly in the area served by the north-south corridor?
  • End of sprawl. Do economic and demographic trends portend an historic shift in the pattern of growth and development in the Washington region, away from the growth frontier served by the north-south corridor and back toward walkable urbanism served by mass transit?
  • Dulles air freight. Does Dulles air-freight traffic have a realistic shot at growth, and how significant is the economic impact of that growth?
  • Alternative investments. How much will North-South corridor improvements cost, and how else could funds be deployed to mitigate congestion and create economic value?

Anyone can say anything. Anyone can make unsubstantiated claims. As Nassim Taleb, author of “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile” observed, however, players with “skin in the game” — with something to lose if they’re wrong — deserve to be taken more seriously than outside pundits and prognosticators.

One option for the commonwealth would be to solicit bids to build the Tri-City Parkway and other corridor improvements by means of a public-private partnership, in which private-sector partners would invest their own money. Private investors, unlike parties with a political or ideological axe or something material to gain or lose, would have every incentive to develop realistic projections for the key drivers of traffic volume and toll revenue: population, employment and air-freight growth. If corridor improvements create sufficient economic value, it should be possible to pay for the project with toll road revenue. If the demand is lacking or takes too long to materialize, as happened to private investors in the Dulles Greenway, private players will pay the cost of their miscalculation with their own money — not the taxpayers’.

The McDonnell administration’s experience with the U.S. 460 project between Petersburg and Suffolk, designed to serve a projected increase in port-related traffic, is instructive. Soliciting bids from three construction consortia, the Office of Public Private Transportation Partnerships discovered that the private sector was willing to fund only a tiny portion of the project. Demand for the facility would be more uncertain and take longer to materialize than originally anticipated. In a controversial decision, the administration chose to commit more than $1 billion in public funds anyway in the hope that the highway would attract major industrial investment.

Soliciting public-private partnership proposals for the North-South Corridor could yield similarly useful information. How much of their own money would investors bet on the prospect of massive population and employment growth in eastern Loudoun and western Prince William? Investor willingness to fund the project would eliminate grounds for complaining that the project is diverting state funds from Northern Virginia’s other transportation needs. Similarly, the unwillingness of investors to put their own money into the project without a massive state subsidy would be a clear sign that the anticipated benefits are either too meager, too chancey or too slow to materialize to warrant investment at this time.

Images courtesy of Bacon’s Rebellion

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Pageland Lane residents see renewal of old fight against Bi-County Parkway in Pr. William


Page Snyder, a longtime resident of Pageland Lane across from the Manassas Battlefield, points to where a proposed four-lane highway would cut through swaths of historic rural farmland. (Jeremy Borden – The Washington Post)

Legendary activist Annie Snyder, before she died in 2002, told her daughter that a road she battled against for decades would never come to fruition.

Snyder spent her life advocating for the preservation of rural lands, particularly those around the Civil War battlefields in Manassas near her home. She doubted that those who wanted to build a 10-mile Bi-County Parkway — which would skirt the battlefield and sit near the front of the Snyders’ family farm — would ever get the funds for such a controversial project, which would run from I-66 in Prince William County to Route 50 in Loudoun County.

The north-south route, supporters say, would create jobs and drive area economic development, ease congestion and provide a key connection between two rapidly growing counties. Detractors, including conservationists and smart growth advocates, say the road would be a boon to rural area land speculators, open up a rural area to development, and bring even more congestion that would result from a large Northern Virginia highway.

It would skirt hallowed Civil War ground, and resistant neighbors bristle at the thought of a four-lane highway competing with what is now bucolic spareness in their front yards.

Page Snyder, Annie Snyder’s daughter, now finds herself ensnared yet again in the fight, and she says she feels that the scales are tipped well in favor of the road. The road’s supporters — namely the administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) — have little in their way of seeing the road through, she said.

Still, she’s not resigned. “We’ve won many lost causes that nobody thought we could win,” Snyder said. Since the 1960s, a shopping mall, large cemetery and dirt bike track, among others, have been proposed for nearby lands and were defeated.

While the road project has been with planning boards since the 1980s, several recent events have caused Snyder and others to see Bi-County Parkway (which is often called the Tri-County Parkway because past alignments brought it through Fairfax County) as increasingly a done deal.

In May of 2011, the Commonwealth Transportation Board declared the area as part of a north-south “Corridor of Significance” that could eventually connect Dulles Airport with Interstate 95 and provide a more easily accessible cargo hub, a concept that has wide support among many conservatives and business groups across the state. The National Park Service has largely agreed to the project, and a federal review that assesses the impacts of the roads, called a “section 106” review, is well under way. Officials say they hope to have it completed and signed off on by federal agencies this summer.

Also, last week, the CTB formally adopted a minor tweak in the road’s alignment to avoid a historic property. All told, residents are preparing for the reality of the road even as they continue to fight it.

If the road is built, Pageland Lane residents want to ensure that it does not cut off their access to surrounding roads. They said language in state documents gives the impression that the neighborhood would be cut off, without access to U.S. 29 and the surrounding community. Some alignment proposals could have them getting on the parkway simply to get off to go in the opposite direction.

Those access problems would have other effects. “We have our life’s savings in [our property],” said Mary Ann Ghadban, who lives on Pageland Lane. “If we don’t have access, our property is totally devalued.”

Maria Sinner, a VDOT official who helps oversee projects in Prince William, said that VDOT has not designed or engineered the road’s specifics yet. She said that the state is doing what it can to assure that Pageland Lane residents maintain access to U.S. 29 and the surrounding community.

“We’re going to do anything possible to continue to provide them access,” Sinner said.

There are still key hurdles to the parkway’s construction, even as the McDonnell administration sees the road as a “high priority,” said Sinner. The biggest is the road’s price tag: $300 million. A new funding plan for Virginia transportation means that some long-delayed projects should move forward, but there are competing needs, Sinner said.

“The administration has a high priority on this, but we know they don’t have $300 million right off the bat,” she said. So far, $5 million has been allocated for design work, and officials hope to get about another $15 million for studies this June, subject to a decision by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the governing body that controls VDOT.

That board is lead by its chairman, Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton, a former Prince William supervisor, who has long advocated for the road.

“It is our desire to fund and build it as soon as practical,” Connaughton said in an e-mail.

Still, residents feel that VDOT has not been straightforward with them. Del. Timothy D. Hugo (R-Fairfax), whose district includes the area, has scheduled a town hall meeting on Monday at 7 p.m. at Bull Run Middle School with VDOT officials to address concerns.

Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said that the north-south connection when most residents travel east-west in notorious traffic conditions is a waste of state resources. He has called the parkway the “Zombie Road” — because, he says, it’s not needed, and it never dies.

The road, officials say, was formally approved in 2005 and should rightfully be on its way toward construction.

Photo courtesy of Washington Post

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Virginia’s Transpo Future: Charge Drivers Less to Build More Roads

Congratulations are owed to Bob McDonnell. He’s scored a victory on his transportation funding plan, cementing his legacy (though infuriating conservatives, including his hand-picked successor). His achievement is being called the first bipartisan initiative to pass in Virginia in decades. And what does this great deed accomplish? Secure revenue to fuel a new era of wasteful road-building in the commonwealth of Virginia.


McDonnell’s new transportation funding plan will pay for the wasteful and unnecessary expansion of Route 460. Photo: Doug Kerr/flickr

Virginia’s state House and Senate both voted this weekend to approve McDonnell’s funding plan for transportation, despite opposition from anti-tax activists. McDonnell’s original proposal to eliminate the gas tax entirely got massaged a little bit, turning into a 3.5 percent tax on the wholesale price of gas.

His proposal to raise the sales tax survived the legislature, as did the $100 tax on alternative fuels – an idea that is somewhat less backwards now that some semblance of gas tax remains. Democrats hate it, though, and McDonnell has already signaled a vague willingness to “review” it.

The sales tax hike, however, is as backwards as ever. McDonnell is raising the sales tax 0.3 percent in most parts of the state but 6 percent in the populous Hampton Roads and northern Virginia areas. Much of the extra funds raised in those areas will go to local projects, but it still means the most urban and transit-rich areas, where most of the state’s non-drivers live, will pay more for a plan that disproportionately funds rural roads.

Drivers will pay five cents per gallon less than they did under the old gas tax, given current prices — shrinking their contribution by about 30 percent. Rather than strengthen the gas tax’s small but important incentive to drive less, McDonnell’s plan turns it the other way.

The other reason the sales tax hike won’t do the trick is that sales taxes aren’t an appropriate tool when what you need is a stable source of funding.

FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff said the same thing last month when outgoing AASHTO Director John Horsley proposed a percentage sales tax on gas instead of a flat tax. “In transit-land, sales taxes rise and fall with sufficient amplitudes here that it makes or breaks projects,” he told an audience at TRB later in the day when Horsley made his proposal. “Just because it’s a sales tax doesn’t mean that it’s stable.”

According to economists Michael Madowitz and Kevin Novan, writing in the Washington Post, California’s transportation sales tax fluctuated 13.5 percent over the past decade while the fixed gas tax fluctuated just 1.2 percent.

“Given that it is far easier to predict gas consumption than prices,” they wrote, “it is prudent to tie transportation revenue to consumption.”

The one thing that’s predictable about gasoline consumption is that it will continue to drop. People are driving less, and the cars they’re driving are using less gas. Any gas tax solution is only a temporary fix. Does this mean McDonnell is right to want to drop the gas tax altogether? Not at all. Does it mean he’s smart to look to other sources of income for transportation? Of course – though he’s still looking in the wrong place.

Worst of all, the transportation expenditures envisioned in McDonnell’s plan are heavy on sprawl-inducing highways. He touts the multimodal aspects like high-speed rail and finishing the silver line to Dulles airport. But Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth characterizes the legislation as “truly a highway bill.” Even the maintenance funds it allocates ($538 million a year) will only serve to free up construction funds for rural highway-building.

Trip Pollard of the Southern Environmental Law Center called the package “too road-heavy” and said, “Virginia has to move toward a more balanced approach that provides greater transportation choices and a cleaner, more efficient system.”

Pollard’s and Schwartz’s organizations, together with other smart-growth groups, lamented the lack of reforms required in the funding bill. “It doesn’t require wiser spending by VDOT even as it effectively allows for about $500 million a year in additional highway construction funding for VDOT,” they wrote in a statement.

In his article for Greater Greater Washington about the bill, Stewart Schwartz wrote about where the money is going:

Just last week, VDOT announced it would allocate another $869 million in federal Garvee bonds to Route 460 and the Coalfields Expressway, two of the most wasteful, unnecessary projects in the history of Virginia. Four questionable projects—Route 460 ($1.4 billion), Coalfields Expressway ($2.8 billion), Charlottesville Bypass ($240 million), and the Outer Beltway in Northern Virginia (estimated $1 billion)—total a potential $5.5 billion in misallocated spending.

Many expect that Secretary Connaughton intends to divert a substantial portion of the new statewide money to the controversial and sprawl-inducing Outer Beltway, rather than to the critical commuter corridor needs of the metro regions.

He notes that just 21 percent of the statewide funds go to transit and passenger rail in 2018.

Photo courtesy of Doug Kerr on flickr

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