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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
McDONNELL’S LEGISLATIVE LEGACY: To Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Saturday was a big deal. After nearly three decades of population growth, increasing gridlock and waning transportation revenues, the potential 2016 contender got done a comprehensive transportation revenue that evokes many of politics’ great compromises: No one loves it, but a majority didn’t vote against it, either. “It’s a broad, bipartisan compromise to [address] an intractable problem, that will serve Virginians well for a generation,” McDonnell said in an interview Sunday, just a few hours after his landmark bill passed. It wasn’t easy, even for him, to come around to the package that passed. But it had to be done, he explained, describing Virginia as having a “math problem” rather than a political one. “I really struggled with this early on, about the fact that as part of the final agreement, there were going to have to be some new revenues,” McDonnell said. “Reagan said, ‘Look, we have not raised the gas tax in 20 years and our infrastructure is crumbling.’ … He said the same thing I said: ‘I don’t like it, this is not my first choice, but we don’t have another solution.’ So he signed the bill.” Alex Burns and Burgess take it away: http://politi.co/VH4M47
What D.C. can learn: If McDonnell’s successful push to rejigger his state’s tax system to deliver more transportation money is any guide, the federal government needs to get out of the per-gallon gas tax game to get conservatives onboard. His state will spread new transportation revenue across the board: a reduced at-the-pump tax, new wholesale fuel fees, a larger share of sales tax revenue for transportation and a $100 annual fee on hybrids and alternative fuel vehicles. And though it doesn’t kill the state gas tax like he originally envisioned, he got a lot of what he wanted — and avoided receiving a bill he would feel compelled to veto. “I said at the beginning, we’ve got to reduce our reliance on the gas tax. Gas tax is on a long-term death spiral,” he told MT. So does this bill send a message that Virginia doesn’t expect any more revenue help from the feds? “At least in the short term, yes. They’ve got the same problem,” he said. “As long as the state or federal gas tax … is a flat cents [fee], you are going to have the same problem.” Burgess has more: http://politico.pro/15Jfknz
Want more? It’s a fairly complicated scheme, and WTOP has the conference report in legislative form: http://bit.ly/136lVc4. And Coalition for Smarter Growth has a good, simple summary: http://bit.ly/15b1nxs
LaHOOD: SEQUESTER SPOKESMAN: Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been the administration’s loudest voice against the sequester, going on a media blitz in recent days to warn of long lines and fewer flights if the automatic spending cuts go through. On Sunday, LaHood went on CNN’s “State of the Union” (http://politi.co/UXXYjC), where he talked about furloughs and his job as an ambassador to his former House GOP colleagues. Right after that, the secretary hopped over to NBC’s “Meet the Press” (http://politi.co/YoNbwP), where he said that, even with less than a week to go, “there is still time to reach a compromise.”
For shame, good sir: A few big-name Republicans weren’t too happy with LaHood’s remarks on the Sunday talk shows. “Shame on Ray LaHood,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said on CNN after the secretary spoke (http://politi.co/WcvcgB). And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, after LaHood spoke on “Meet the Press”, told the president to “stop sending out your Cabinet secretaries to scare the American people.”
Fact-check one two, one two: The White House released a series of White House fact sheets Sunday evening on the sequester’s impact on all 50 states, each offering the latest version of its warnings that cuts to the FAA and TSA would have a national effect on aviation. They caution that the FAA “would be forced to undergo a funding cut of more than $600 million,” prompting the agency “to undergo an immediate retrenchment of core functions by reducing operating costs and eliminating or reducing services to various segments of the flying community.” Team Transportation takes it away: http://politico.pro/137QrCx
Prognosis negative: The Senate Democrats will try to pass a package of cuts and tax increases to avert the automatic cuts, but the outlook isn’t too positive right now. Rogers report: http://politi.co/X5gruK
Friday surprise: Before hitting the talk show circuit, LaHood swung by Friday’s White House press briefing. The secretary said the cuts could mean “calamity” for travelers and will have “a very serious impact on the transportation services that are critical to the traveling public.” At the same time, FAA put out comprehensive lists of air traffic control towers where overnight shifts could be ended (http://1.usa.gov/12Ymq80) and a separate list of control facilities that could be closed (http://1.usa.gov/X07npr). But top aviation Republicans weren’t sold. “Before jumping to the conclusion that furloughs must be implemented, the administration and the agency need to sharpen their pencils and consider all the options,” Commerce ranking member John Thune, House T&I Chairman Bill Shuster and T&I’s Aviation Chairman Frank LoBiondo said in a joint statement. Burgess and Kathryn break it down: http://politi.co/X2ygKR
Want more? Those wanting the full exchange between LaHood and White House reporters can check out everything in the transcript: http://bit.ly/ZxKLjY
MONDAY FUNDAY. Thanks for reading POLITICO’s Morning Transportation, your daily tipsheet on trains, planes, automobiles and early-morning TV hits. If it moves, it’s news. Do stay in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Twitter: @AdamKSnider and @BurgessEv. More news: @POLITICOPro and @Morning_Transpo.
“So don’t jump in front of my train …” http://bit.ly/UAN4yM
SEQUESTER, STATE-BY-STATE: Three states — Rhode Island, South Dakota and Vermont — avoid any of the sequester’s aviation closures or cutbacks. California, on the other hand, has 23 facilities slated for outright closure. And Texas would be hardest hit during midnight shifts, with six facilities in cities from Austin to El Paso and Fort Worth identified for overnight shutdowns. Burgess take a state-based look for Pros: http://politico.pro/XPxG1q
Get the facts from a Republican: According to some background info distributed by a GOP source, FAA could weather the storm better than the administration is suggesting. The info notes that flights are down 27 percent since 2000 and that FAA’s operations account is up nearly $3 billion from 2002 and stands at $9.7 billion right now. “Before implementing furloughs, the FAA should review their $2.7 billion in non-personnel costs, such as $500 million for consultants, and $200 million for supplies and travel,” the two-pager concludes.
Metro morsel: The subway system expects to see fewer riders and would lose some of its federal funding as part of the cuts, according to Post Metro maven Dana Hedgpeth. http://wapo.st/WfDpv8
Scrumquester: We’d like to direct you to the POLITICO podcast “The Scrum,” on everything sequester with Maggie Haberman, Alex Burns, Jonathan Allen and Kate Nocera, hosted by Alexander Trowbridge. http://politi.co/13feRcW
WANT MORE SEQUESTER WATCH? — The specter of sequestration looms, and Jonathan Allen’s Sequester Watch delivers Pro readers a daily roundup of all of the twists and turns. To continue getting emails on all things sequester, sign up here: http://politico.pro/lvfnLQ, go to “Customize Your Topics” and select “Sequester Watch.”
WHAT THE FAA IS SAYING: LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, in a letter to the major aviation groups, rounded up some of what we already knew about sequester but added a few more details that the secretary talked about at the White House. “We are aware that these service reductions will adversely affect commercial, corporate and general aviation operations,” they wrote. Read the letter: http://1.usa.gov/YMiCQb
LOTS OF REACTIONS: Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller called the sequester cuts “reckless” and said that “everyone who travels for business or pleasure will be adversely affected.” NATCA President Paul Rinaldi cautioned that the cuts “may not be reversed,” adding that “closing air traffic control towers means the system will be even more compromised than anticipated.” Regional Airline Association President Roger Cohen said the “government is playing an irresponsible game of chicken — with no winners — and the traveling and shipping public will be the losers.” ACI-NA President Greg Principato thinks “decisions on cutting air traffic control services should be made based on most efficiently serving the needs and safety of the traveling public and in consultation with airports, airlines as well as affected communities.” A4A’s Jean Medina said that “no one wants to see the sequester happen,” and AOPA President and CEO Craig Fuller said he’s “deeply concerned” that the cuts “will compromise aviation safety and severely damage the efficiency of general aviation flight operations nationally.”
Busy week for controllers: NATCA also has a busy week talking about our other favorite “s” word (the first one isn’t fit to print). On Wednesday morning, the group puts out a report detailing the sequester’s effects on the aviation network, including a “detailed analysis” of more than a dozen airports. Later that day, Rinaldi speaks at the AeroClub luncheon and will chat with reporters afterwards. NATCA is also making some of its representatives available for media talks at major airport towers.
COLLISION COURSE: Truckers and safety advocates have run headlong into each other in a public spat over who to blame in crashes between cars and trucks. Both trucking groups and safety advocates are trying to bring science to bear in their arguments, with each side citing studies full of obscure terms and charts that would easily be at home in a scientific journal. Beyond the science, the problem has real-life implications: Thousands of people die every year from crashes involving big rigs, and truck-car crashes are twice as likely to cause fatalities as two cars colliding. The heated debate bubbled up again with a recent ATA study finding that car drivers are usually at fault for crashes with trucks. The Truck Safety Coalition was “appalled” at that report and shot out a strongly-worded letter. ATA replied by pointing to a FMCSA-commissioned study to back up their claims. Like every good drama, there’s a twist — the deputy FMCSA administrator who stood by the study in 2010 used to be a Truck Safety Coalition spokesman. Adam runs it down for Pros: http://politico.pro/X4Ofbh
DREAM DREAM DREAMLINER: The tête-à-tête between Boeing and the FAA on Friday afternoon on a potential fix for the company’s 787 Dreamliner fleet was “productive,” according to a statement from Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel, who said the airplane manufacturer is “encouraged by progress made toward resolving the issue.” But even in the best-case scenario, the 787 fleet may still be in chocks for weeks or longer while the FAA analyzes Boeing’s proposals. If the FAA signs off on the plan, it will still have to conduct some sort of recertification process, which is usually a monthslong process, if not longer. Birtel gave no details on the meeting except that Ray Conner, the president and CEO of Boeing’s commercial wing, and Huerta attended.
MT POLL RESULTS — Most-missed senator: It was a close one, but with 51 percent of the vote, MT readers dubbed Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller the most-missed transportation senator of the five who have so far announced their retirements. Frank Lautenberg was a close second, with 46 percent. With those two transportation titans, Sens. Tom Harkin, Saxby Chambliss and Mike Johanns didn’t stand a chance. Of note: Two readers think another big transportation name will call it quits before the year is up.
NEW MT POLL — Sequestration vacation: You’ve read all the stories about sequestration, air traffic controllers and long TSA lines. But if the cuts kick in, will you rethink your travel plans? Will you just get to the airport much earlier or look for alternate methods? Maybe you’ll just keep doing the same thing and hope you don’t regret it. Let us know what you’re doing to deal with air travel, just do it before Sunday at noon: http://bit.ly/1247xS5
REPORT-BAG — Insert tolling pun here: HNTB has a new white paper on “maximizing toll collection on multistate facilities.” The summary has a good description of the issue: “Aging bridges and four-lane interstates can’t keep up with the ballooning populations of multistate regions. Neither can departments of transportation, when budgets rely on funding sources as antiquated as the infrastructure.” The paper explores the background, the climate shaping policy and much more. Read a summary and download the report here: http://bit.ly/ZxAioX
THE AUTOBAHN (SPEED READ)
– Is it taking too long for NHTSA to do its work? NYT: http://nyti.ms/VGiTXz
– France clams it will be offering the cheapest HSR tickets in the world. Transport Politic: http://bit.ly/136XpI2
– California High-Speed Rail Authority settles a second CEQA lawsuit. http://bit.ly/YuLdZG
– California Senate puts forward CEQA reform effort. CAHSR Blog: http://bit.ly/ZCbEU1
– Majority of Californians support licenses for undocumented immigrants. The Field Poll: http://bit.ly/WcyAZ1
– A fascinating look at contrails and climate change, featuring some great satellite images. Atlantic Cities: http://bit.ly/XQllaG
– The Century Foundation has added Michael Likosky as senior fellow; he will focus on infrastructure issues. http://bit.ly/YIjIxN
TRIVIA NIGHT: POLITICO Pro Trivia is back tomorrow at 6 p.m., featuring POLITICO Pro’s Tony Romm and Juana Summers teeing up questions on all things policy, politics and D.C. RSVP with teams of four to eholman@POLITICO.com.
THE COUNTDOWN: The new sequestration deadline is in four days. It’s been 27 days since Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced his departure, and DOT funding runs out in 31 days. Passenger rail policy runs out in 218 days, surface transportation policy in 586 days and FAA policy in 948 days. The mid-term elections are in 617 days.
CABOOSE — Awesome bus stop: Qualcomm got creative with its advertising at a bus stop, putting up posters asking, “In a hurry?” or “Seen it all?” with a web page. Brave bus-waiters who visited the site were then surprised with rides from an attractive woman driving a Lamborghini, an on-the-road dog sled — and even a bus full of circus performers. The two-minute video, via Gawker, is definitely worth a watch: http://gaw.kr/XQlQBD
Virginia’s complex transportation funding bill, HB2313, is headed to Governor McDonnell for his signature and potential amendments. The bill is a prime example of political sausage, seeking to satisfy Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, transit and road constituencies.
Photo by jimmywayne on Flickr.It also represents poor public policy by undermining the “user pays” principle, failing to reform VDOT spending, allocating far too little to transit in an urbanizing state, and off-loading responsibility for local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
Some political observers argue that the only way Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads could win rural legislators’ support for new revenues would be to place the burden on themselves. And they have, by increasing local sales taxes, recordation fees and transient occupancy (hotel) tax, and with a higher state sales tax, which derives heavily from the two regions.
Virginia’s smart growth and conservation community expressed concerns with the bill on Saturday.
While Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will able to raise (tax themselves), keep, and allocate new transportation revenue, VDOT escapes responsibility for meeting the needs of the two most economically important parts of the Commonwealth. The bill frees VDOT to take more of the statewide sales tax revenues for highway construction outside the two regions.
Now that the bill has passed, and presuming the Governor signs it, it will be incumbent upon legislators, local elected officials and the public to watch-dog how the money is spent, starting with the next update of the state’s 6-year transportation plan, due in June. Setting the right priorities with the local money from and for Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads will be equally important.
Who voted for and against?
The 25 to 15 vote in the Senate included 17 Democrats and 8 Republicans voting yes, and 3 Democrats and 12 Republicans voting no. Northern Virginia yes votes were Senators George Barker, Charles Colgan Sr., Barbara Favola, Mark Herring, Janett Howell, Dave Marsden, Toddy Puller and Richard Saslaw, all Democrats. No votes were Democratic Senators Adam Ebbin and Chap Peterson, and Republican Senators Richard Black and Jill Holtzman Vogel.
The 60 to 40 vote in the House included 25 Democrats and 35 Republicans voting yes, and 4 Democrats and 36 Republicans voting no. Northern Virginia yes votes were Democratic Delegates Robert Brink, David Bulova, Eileen Filler-Corn, Charniele Herring, Patrick Hope, Mark Keam, Kaye Kory, Robert Krupicka, Alfonso Lopez, Kenneth Plum, James Scott, Mark Sickles, Luke Torian and Vivian Watts; and Republican Delegates David Albo, Mark Dudenhefer, Thomas Greason, James LeMunyon, Joseph May, Randall Minchew, and Thomas Rust.
Northern Virginia no votes came from Democratic Delegate Scott Surovell and Republicans Richard Anderson, Barbara Comstock, Timothy Hugo, Scott Lingamfelter, Robert Marshall, Jackson Miller, and David Ramadan.
The complete bill history can be found here.
Follow the money
The best source for tracking the new taxes and the funding allocations is the HB2313 Transportation Conference Report, but even this requires interpretation.
While the bill no longer eliminates all taxes on gasoline, it still reduces what road users will pay in daily operating costs. It eliminates the 17.5¢ retail gas tax and shifts to a wholesale sales tax on gas. This reduces user fees in 2014 by nearly one-third, and by 20% in 2018 assuming the receipts increase because of a rise in gas prices.
The bill makes up for reducing gas taxes primarily by increasing the sales tax on new car purchases, charging a $100 fee on alternative fuel vehicles like hybrids, and tapping statewide sales taxes on goods and services (but not food).
Day-to-day vehicle user costs will decline, and all taxpayers will pay more even if they drive little or not at all. Meanwhile, transit fares are likely to continue to climb in the absence of adequate state support for transit maintenance and operating costs.
VDOT is free to continue wasting money on unnecessary highway projects
The statewide portion of the bill is truly a highway bill: it directs $538 million (annually by 2018) to the highway maintenance accounts, but this will effectively free up an equal amount in highway construction funds, allowing the current administration to continue a pattern of funding rural highways with little traffic demand.
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
Many expect that Secretary Connnaughton 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.
Just 21% of the statewide funds go to transit and passenger rail in 2018, although passenger rail advocates are rightly pleased that $44 million in 2014 and $56 million per year by 2018 will go to current Amtrak services for which Virginia is now responsible, and for capital investment in the passenger rail network. An existing funding source supports upgrades for freight rail.
The $84 million for public transit isn’t a lot of money when it must be shared among transit agencies across the state. The bill allocates a separate $300 million to Dulles Rail, but like some of the road money it’s coming from the existing state sales tax at the expense of General Fund needs like education and health care.
The bill fails to address the empty secondary and urban road capital accounts, unless the administration commits to use some of the freed-up road money in the Transportation Trust Fund for this purpose. Instead, the bill implicitly off-loads the cost of local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads through the local sales tax increases in those two regions. Shifting this responsibility allows VDOT to spend more money on rural highways.
Part of the future depends on a bill in Congress
Part of the bill also depends on the federal Marketplace Equity Act, a bill in Congress which would let states charge sales tax on Internet purchases. If that does not pass by January 2015, the sales tax on gas will rise another 1.7 percentage points to make up for the expected revenue from the MEA. This would bring gas taxes back to a level comparable to where they are today, if not a little higher at current per-gallon prices.
The Washington Post also reports that Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) secured another provision that would kick in if the MEA does not pass. In that case, the amount of general fund revenue directed to transportation would drop from $200 million a year to $60 million a year.
More taxes rise in NoVa and Hampton Roads
The bill would raise between $300 and $350 million per year in and for Northern Virginia by 2018. It does so by increasing the sales tax in northern Virginia by 0.7 percentage points on top of the statewide 0.3 point increase, for a new total of 6%.
There’s also a 0.25% recordation tax on recorded deeds and a 3% transient occupancy (hotel) tax. The bill retains the existing local 2.1% tax on fuel. 70% of the funds will go to “regional” projects and 30% to local projects in the locality where the money is raised. The funds can go to roads or transit, and the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority will decide how to allocate the money.
For Hampton Roads, the bill would raise $219 million in 2018, using a local sales tax increase of 0.7 percentage points and a 2.1% local tax on fuel. However, the legislation directs these funds only for roads, despite the great need for transit and widespread support for light rail in the region.
Following the success of “The Tide” light rail in Norfolk, 62% of voters in Virginia Beach’s referendum last November supported extending light rail to the beach. The Navy has also expressed its strong support for extending light rail to Norfolk Naval Station.
In a final example of VDOT off-loading costs onto the two metro regions, the bill failed to allocate state funds to Hampton Roads’ Midtown/Downtown Tunnel project which local officials want. Instead, the authors of the bill say that localities should use the new regional funding sources if they want to buy down the costs of the tolls, even as VDOT diverts $1.12 billion of state and federal funds to the unnecessary Route 460 over the objections of many in the region.
Photo courtesy of jimmywayne on Flickr
The final hours of the Virginia State Senate session have handed Governor Bob McDonnell the legacy-building legislation he’s been fighting for.
Lawmakers voted for a landmark transportation funding package that will raise $880 million dollars for road construction, maintenance, and transit.
The legislation replaces the per gallon gas tax with a 3.5% tax on gas at the wholesale level and a 6 % wholesale tax on diesel fuel.
The state’s sales tax will increase from 5% to 5.3%.
And the motor vehicle sales tax will rise from 3% to 4.3%.
In a statement, McDonnell called this an historic day.
“We have worked together across party lines to find common ground and pass the first sustainable long-term transportation funding in 27 years,” McDonnell says.
When it’s fully phased in, the reform bill will raise more than $500 million dollars to erase the maintenance budget deficit, and fund new roads, mass transit, and provide more money for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
There’s a whole wide range of projects, the key is though they have to reduce congestion and be on a regional plan,” Delegate Vivian Watts (D- Springfield/Anandale) says.
Stewart Schwartz from the Coalition For Smarter Growth is cautiously optimistic.
“We need to ensure that we’re fixing congestion at Tyson’s, I-66, and the Route 1 corridor and investing in transit that Northern Virginia needs.”
Getting this bill through was in jeopardy up until the last few hours on the final day of the session.
Senate Democrats had threatened to block passage of the tax and fee increases, unless the Governor agreed not to block expansion of Medicaid to 400,000 uninsured in Virginia.
The state Senate has passed the first long-term reform to Virginia’s floundering 27-year-old system for funding repairs and upkeep of its 58,000-mile network of highways.
The 25-15 vote sends to Gov. Bob McDonnell what would be the defining policy legacy in the fourth and final year of the single, non-renewable term Virginia allows its governors.
It would replace Virginia’s 17 1/2 cents-per-gallon retail gasoline tax with a 3.5 percent wholesale tax on gasoline and a 6 percent levy on diesel fuel. It boosts statewide sales taxes from 5 percent to 5.3 percent. It increases the titling tax on car sales and adds a $100 registration fee for fuel-sipping hybrid vehicles. It also rules out proposed tolls on Interstate 95 south of Petersburg.
“Giving localities the responsibility to raise taxes to pay for a limited range of projects, while most existing revenue is diverted to wasteful new highway projects, is not a good deal. Over the long term, it will result in local tax base, not state transportation revenues, covering the cost of the transportation systems that serve the majority of Virginians,” Chris Miller, President of The Piedmont Environmental Council said in a statement.
The Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth said it is now up legislators and local elected officials to watch-dog how the money is spent.
“Where we spend our tax dollars and whether we are supporting more efficient, smarter growth with our transportation investments should be a central topic of this year’s Governors race,” he said.
Photo courtesy of WUSA9
My smart growth buddies have issued a critique of the compromise transportation-funding deal. Among the highlights in the press release issued jointly today by the Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council:
Cutting gas taxes by up to one-third reduces the tie between transportation use and funding. “Transportation, unlike our schools, is like an electric utility, yet the primary fee—the gas tax—hasn’t been increased in 27 years. Transit users have been paying increased fares, year after year, yet road users would see a reduction in daily travel costs under the bill, leading to a potential shift from transit to driving, more driving and more congestion.”
The proposal feeds wasteful spending. “The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is squandering most of the $3 billion in borrowed funds authorized by the General Assembly in 2011 and we can expect more of the same.” Hard-to-justify projects include the Charlottesville Bypass, the Coalfields Expressway and the Route 460 Connector. Another $1.25 billion in funds raised by the tax restructuring will be lavished upon a Northern Virginia Outer Beltway.
The proposal offers no statewide funding for local road needs. “VDOT has zeroed out funding for local roads over the past few years. Instead, the bill will make Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads increase sales taxes and wholesale gas taxes to pay for local roads. This is a major step toward devolution and passing on the cost of local roads to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”
The compromise pushes all new transit funding — the 0.3 cent addition to the sales tax — into the General Fund, forcing it to compete with schools, health care and other public services. “Dulles Rail should long ago have been funded through the Transportation Trust Fund. It should not be a bargaining chip to get Northern Virginians to agree to taking General Fund revenues.”
Bacon’s bottom line: I agree with most of this critique — the General Assembly compromise enables a dysfunctional Business As Usual. I do take exception with one point, however. I believe that all modes of transportation should stand on their own two feet, so to speak. I don’t believe in subsidizing rail or mass transit any more than I believe in subsidizing roads. We need to create a level playing field — put each mode on a user-fee basis — and let the most economical mode win.
Would it then be impossible to finance new rail projects? Not necessarily. We could make rail more viable if we could figure out how to tap a portion of the real estate value created by rail projects to help finance the construction. That’s where we need to concentrate our energy, not how to stick non-users with the bill.
Photo courtesy of Bacon’s Rebellion
While not everyone’s in Gov. Bob McDonnell’s corner when it comes to his vast transportation proposal, the list of Northern Virginia groups praising the plan is continuing to grow.