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Express lane future paved with gold?

During a meeting last month in Falmouth, a Virginia Department of Transportation official was asked a probing question about the Interstate 95 express-lanes project.

Rupert Farley of Spotsylvania County wanted to know what would happen if the high-occupancy toll lanes attract so many vehicles that are allowed to use them free that the company building them doesn’t recoup the money it expects.

“Maybe you can refresh my memory on a point that you did not bring up tonight,” started Rupert Farley, a Spotsylvania resident well known in transportation circles. “If this project is so widely successful that it gets used …by HOV free [traffic], that means Fluor[–Transurban] doesn’t get any income and they start losing money.“At that point, do the taxpayers of Virginia have to start kicking in out of their pockets to subsidize the project?” asked Farley, who is a member of the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Area Planning Organization’s Transportation Advisory Group.

“No,” said Toymeika Braithwaite, VDOT Megaproject’s express lanes public affairs manager.

“That’s not what I’ve been told,” said Farley, who is also a member of the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Area Planning Organization’s Transportation Advisory Group.

“If Transurban doesn’t make the money they want to make, it is not up to Virginia taxpayers to subsidize that,” said Toymeika Braithwaite, VDOT Megaproject’s express-lanes public affairs manager.

However, the public–private project contract signed with Transurban Group and Fluor Corp. includes stipulations that could force Virginians to pay the companies if non-toll-paying HOV traffic reach certain thresholds.

The threshold is based on a complicated formula comparing the percentage of free HOV traffic to toll-paying drivers. If the HOV traffic reaches the threshold, the state has to pay the companies 70 percent of the toll rate.

That agreement is no secret; it’s in the contract, which has been online since the summer of 2012.

But those details have flown under the radar since the state struck the deal with Transurban and Fluor on the massive I–95 express-lanes project. And those who attended that October meeting in Stafford County likely had no idea about that part of the contract, which is what Farley was alluding to.

Under the agreement, the companies are paying for most of the nearly $1 billion project, which will extend the current HOV lanes in the median of I–95 to Garrisonville.

State officials have said that without the agreement the express lanes wouldn’t have been built because the state funds weren’t available.

The same has been said of the Interstate 495 express lanes, which have been open for more than a year. The state has the same deal with Transurban and Fluor on those new lanes.

The I–95 express lanes are on target to open by early 2015.

Like the I–495 express lanes, the new I–95 lanes will be electronically tolled. Buses, motorcycles and vehicles carrying at least three people will be able to use them for free.

The companies hope to take in the toll revenues from other motorists and use them first to pay off loans used to build the projects.

After that, the companies hope to ring up profits. The state eventually would also get a percentage of any profits.

Usage of the lanes is no guarantee, though.

The I–495 express lanes, for instance, haven’t drawn much traffic so far. While it was expected to take up to three years for traffic to consistently use the I–495 lanes, thus far they haven’t produced the traffic, or revenue, Transurban expected.

With constant congestion problems on I–95, it’s a good bet drivers who don’t qualify to use free HOV lanes will be open to paying a toll in order to move.

Still, there could be a significant amount of HOV commuter traffic using the lanes. And the more free traffic there is on the express lanes, the lower the profit.

VDOT doesn’t think there will be a problem.

Tamara Rollison, VDOT’s division administrator of communications, said in an email that the companies bear the “risk of traffic volume and revenue. VDOT is not responsible for making up any shortfall that may occur if traffic volume and revenue are below 95 Express’ forecasts.”

She acknowledged the agreement on the HOV threshold, but said it is unlikely to be met.

“Should that happen—VDOT is prepared to compensate 95 Express Lanes LLC,” she said. “While we expect HOV use to grow over time, we don’t think it will climb to the point that the threshold will be exceeded, triggering compensation.”

If HOV traffic does exceed the threshold, Rollison said that would mean the lanes would be “moving tremendously more people than ever expected, which would greatly help ease congestion on the general purpose lanes.”

Another part of the I–95 express-lanes project includes the expansion of bus service and the addition of 3,000 new commuter parking spaces along the corridor.

Despite the benefits of the project, there are still critics of the public–private deals for the express lanes.

Farley is a fan of toll roads, especially those that manage congestion like the express lanes are designed to do.

But he thinks the state got a raw deal.

“It’s unconscionable that they’d sign a contract so one-sided,” he said.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director for Coalition for Smarter Growth, also doesn’t like the express lane deals.

“We have long argued that the closed-door deals by VDOT under the Public–Private Transportation Act for the HOT lanes have compromised good planning, prevented effective analysis of alternatives, and failed to evaluate all of the impacts,” he said in an email. “In addition, the requirement that the taxpayer reimburse the private toll road operator for too many HOV users is counter to the goal we should have of moving more people in the peak hour. In fact, instead of encouraging HOV use, at a certain point VDOT will now have an incentive to discourage HOV use.”

Peter Samuel, who writes for the website TollRoadsNews.com, doesn’t see the express lanes as such a bad deal.

“I don’t think it’s too risky,” he said. “I doubt there’s going to be a huge increase in carpooling.”

He believes the companies are taking the bulk of the risk. If the express lanes aren’t profitable, they lose, not the state.

Transurban has already experienced failure with another Virginia toll road.

The Australia-based company lost more than $100 million on the Pocahontas Parkway, Interstate 895, according to TollRoadsNews and other reports.

The toll road failed to generate enough money to cover Transurban’s debt, and earlier this year a consortium of European banks holding that debt became the state’s new partner with the toll road.

Officials said the change wouldn’t affect the toll-road operations.

Regardless of the Pocahontas Parkway problems, Samuel says the I–95 express lanes will be a “good thing for motorists.”

“It gives them another option,” he said. “How well it’ll work out for the investors is another question.”

The same could be said for Virginia taxpayers.

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Public Gets First Input On Transportation Bill Projects

nvtaMembers of the public from Loudoun, Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties got their first chance to speak to the full board of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority Thursday night in a public hearing discussing the projects that could receive funding from the General Assembly’s transportation bill that passed earlier this year.

Twenty-two people, including legislators, representatives of local advocacy groups and individuals giving their opinions, went before the board, and dozens more reviewed the almost 50 projects the NVTA is considering. The NVTA’s priority is finalizing a list of projects that will receive funding for FY14, when there is expected to be $190 million available.

NVTA Chairman Martin Nohe, the Coles District Supervisor in Prince William County, gave a 30-minute presentation before anyone spoke, explaining what the NVTA is and how board members plan to implement the funding. $1.6 billion is expect to come to Northern Virginia over the next six years from HB2313, 70 percent of which will be dispersed by the NVTA and 30 percent going directly to each locality: the four counties and the cities of Manassas, Manassas Park, Falls Church and Alexandria.

The money is intended, essentially, to relieve the high levels of congestion that have plagued the area for years, and only figure to get worse. The main bone of contention among those who spoke was the best way to go about doing that.

“There’s a lack of quantitative information right now to evaluate projects with different modes and different types,” Del. Jim LeMunyon (R-67) who was the first to speak, said. “For every million dollars we spend, how many hours are we putting back into the lives of Northern Virginians? We need to know that.”

Residents in Prince William and Loudoun counties almost unanimously applauded the NVTA’s to fund the widening of several segments of Rt. 28 in Loudoun, Fairfax and Prince William counties.

The projects proposed for FY14 funding are “hot spot” improvements between Sterling Boulevard and the Dulles Toll Road in Loudoun, expanding from two lanes to a four-lane divided roadway from Linton Hall to Fitzwater Drive in Prince William, and widening from three to four lanes southbound between the Dulles Toll Road and Rt. 50 and northbound from McLearen Road to the Dulles Toll Road in Fairfax County.

“I’m here to commend your decision to include the Rt. 28 hot spot improvements,” Jeff Fairfield, speaking on behalf of the Rt. 28 Tax District Landowners Advisory Board, said. “These improvements will alleviate congestion. There’s been a tremendous improvement on removing traffic lights, yet we now experience congestion due to a lack of lane capacity.”

“Rt. 28 relief is needed now,” Gary O’Brien of Manassas said. “There are currently several disconnected projects. What it needs is more transportation capacity, right through the system. Try to consolidate the little plans into a larger system.”

Arlington County Supervisor Chris Zimmerman, the chairman of the Project Implementation working group, said the list of projects proposed for funding was built from existing transportation plans, such as the NVTA’s TransAction 2040, and are closest to “shovel-ready.”

“Our aim has been to, No. 1, follow the law” Zimmerman said. “We began by reviewing what the statutes require of us. In developing criteria, that was first and foremost. It has been our intention to use objective criteria and quantifiable criteria to the greatest degree possible. That is what we have been trying to accomplish.

“Many of the projects, by their nature, will take multiple years to do and have multiple parts. It’s a very complex network; there isn’t a silver bullet. It will take a lot of fixing in different places.”

Many Prince William County residents spoke against potential funding of the Bi-County Parkway, a controversial transportation project stretching from I-95 to Rt. 50 in Loudoun, but the project is not among those included for FY14 funding or on the Six-Year Plan.

Perhaps the most scrutinized debate will be how many funds are devoted to transit projects, pedestrian or bicycle projects, and how much will simply be devoted to increasing capacity on the roads network.

“In a great metropolitan area, you cannot ‘get the red out,’” Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said about relieving intense traffic jams. “We have to account for induced traffic. For the peak-hour commute, there’s nothing better than high-capacity transit. I urge you to resist a return to the old approach, which didn’t work, and focused on a transit-oriented, walkable bikeable future that we need to have.”

The NVTA will hold another public hearing July 24 before deciding upon the final FY14 list at 6 p.m. Wednesday, July 24, at Fairfax City Hall. The public comment period before the Project Implementation’s next working group will close next week. The form, and submittal information, can be found here.

Photo courtesy of Leesburg Today.

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Six-Year Improvement Program: a Blueprint for Failure



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of James Bacon.

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VDOT to increase spending on deficient bridges


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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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.



Virginia Pushes For ‘Outer Beltway’ That Critics Say Isn’t Needed

Opponents of the so-called "Outer Beltway" say that Virginia traffic numbers show that the new roadway isn't needed.

Virginia transportation officials are pressing ahead with plans for a major north-south highway connecting I-95 in Prince William to Rt. 7 in Loudoun County, even as VDOT figures show the far greater demand for lane capacity lies on east-west routes, with the exception of Rt. 28 where it intersects I-66.

The Virginia Department of Transportation has released its traffic study for the proposed ‘north-south corridor of statewide significance,’ a 45-mile, multilane highway running west of both Dulles Airport and Manassas Battlefield and also connecting I-66 and Rt. 50. The study, based on population and job growth projections, found that if the new highway—the bi-county parkway—is not built traffic would increase significantly on some north-south routes. (The study’s executive summary is below.)

“By 2040 we anticipate the bi-county parkway is going to have 45,000 to 61,000 cars per day using the facility between Route 66 and Route 50,” said Maria Sinner, VDOT’s transportation and land use director in Prince William County.

Without the new highway “Gum Spring Road, Virginia Rt. 659, anticipates to increase in traffic anywhere from 70 percent to 203 percent,” Sinner said. “Rt. 15 is going to increase an additional 11 to 20 percent higher, depending on the segment.”

The debate over where Virginia should focus its congestion relief efforts centers on mountains of VDOT statistics showing which roads have the most traffic. Opponents of the proposal to spend an estimated $1 billion to construct another north-south highway—referred to by critics as an “outer beltway”—point to these figures to support their argument.

In Prince William, Rt. 15 (from Rt. 234 to the Loudoun County line) carries about 15,000 vehicles per day, according2011 VDOT traffic tables. Two other north-south routes, Rt. 234 (from Rt. 29 to Rt. 659) and Rt. 659 (from Rt. 234 to the Loudoun line), carry even fewer cars daily.

The major east-west route in Prince William in the general study area of the north-south corridor, however, is significantly more crowded.  I-66 (from Gainesville to Rt. 234) carries about 60,000 vehicles per day. The exception is the north-south Rt. 28 and its 54,000 daily vehicles. Rt. 28 carries traffic into Fairfax County to I-66 where travelers either turn onto the interstate for east-west movement or continue on Route 28.

“If they are saying that they need this road because of the pressures on Rt. 28 then this investment would be a complete failure, because their own [study] shows there is minimal effect on Rt. 28 north of I-66 if this road were to be built,” said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a vocal opponent of the proposed bi-county parkway. VDOT’s traffic study found that Rt. 28 would see a one to two percent increase in traffic if the new highway is not constructed.

In Loudoun County, the north-south Rt. 659 carries between 8,000 and 16,000 vehicles per day, depending on the segment, while the east-west roadway Rt. 50 carries between 15,000 and 40,000, depending on the segment. Again, Rt. 28 in Loudoun is a north-south highway that carries as much traffic as the east-west routes, but Schwartz says those cars are traveling to job centers near and east of Dulles Airport. The proposed “outer beltway” would lie west of Dulles.

“If you look at current traffic numbers immediately around where this highway would be built around Manassas Battlefield, the traffic volumes north-south are very low, and the dominant traffic problem that we all recognize is on roads like I-66 and Rt. 50,” he said.

State transportation officials say they are attempting to tackle both east-west and north-south issues, pointing to plans to expand I-66 along with its interchanges at Rts. 15 and 28. It’s not an either-or proposition.

“We need to do both,” Sinner said.

Supporters of building the 45-mile highway in the “corridor of statewide significance” also argue a new north-south highway can improve east-west traveling. A driver in Loudoun or western Fairfax trying to get to I-95 today might take Rt. 267 east to I-495 to I-95. A better connection south to I-95 would alleviate that east-west movement, this argument goes.

Moreover, planners say the case for a new north-south highway in Northern Virginia is obvious when you consider the impact of job and population growth in the region in 20 to 30 years.

Schwartz counters those projections fail to make a convincing case. “A lot of the projections are based on horse trading in between the counties and optimistic thinking.”



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Read the original article at WAMU >>

Letter to Stephen Walter, Parsons Transportation Group Re: I-66 Tier 1 Draft EIS, Comments by the Coalition for Smarter Growth

Dear Mr. Walter:

The Coalition for Smarter Growth, with members and partner groups in Northern Virginia, hereby submits these comments on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Tier 1 Draft Environmental Impact Statement for I-66 (“outside the Beltway”).

We agree that addressing transportation in the I-66 corridor should be a top priority. We are pleased that the study considers a range of transit modes and focuses on person-trips.  However, we are concerned that this 2040-oriented study fails to offer a long-term, sustainable and effective solution both for 2040 and the decades following. Presuming one of the build alternatives meets the capacity needs for 2040, what happens after 2040? More lanes?

The study appears to favor the managed lane (congestion-priced, high occupancy toll lane scenario), but does that scenario really offer the long term demand reduction and capacity that a high-capacity transit with transit-oriented land use would offer?

Documentation is far too limited for why this study favors managed lanes and there is no analysis of the comparative effects on land use of each of the modes.

The most significant shortcoming is the failure to evaluate an integrated land use and transit scenario that would offer a way to more effectively reduce the growth in driving demand and provide the capacity to handle the demand that does come. We have made this comment repeatedly with VDOT studies, yet never do VDOT studies include such a scenario.

The land use discussion is particularly thin and at too high a level (see As was found in the Tysons study, mixing uses, providing a local grid of streets, and measuring the results using more compact traffic analysis zones can show remarkable SOV trip reductions and transit mode share increases — networking these centers with Tysons could provide synergistic vehicle demand reduction benefits, while improving reliable access to jobs.

The study should evaluate an alternative land use scenario linking transit-oriented development (compact, walkable, mixed-use communities linked to transit), with land conservation of rural areas, and high capacity transit, in order to maximize transit trips, minimize vehicle trips, and to provide the means to handle future growth. The study explicitly states that it has excluded a systems oriented transit scenario, but a systems oriented transit and TOD scenario is exactly what’s needed and should be combined with TDM measures and targeted bottleneck and safety improvements in a composite scenario.

Table ES-1 shows that a transit approach matched with TDM and addressing chokepoints would rank highest in meeting the needs identified in the Purpose in Need, yet the study did not provide an integrated scenario linking transit, TDM and addressing chokepoints.

Since the Council of Governments adopted Region Forward Plan and Compact is framed as a transit-oriented future for the region, this study should have studied such a regional scenario. Once again a too narrow corridor focus improperly exclude the networked transit and TOD solution.

The Purpose and Need Statement fails to include what should be key goals for the corridor.  While the stated purpose ” is to improve multimodal mobility along the I-66 corridor by providing diverse travel choices in a cost-effective manner, and to enhance transportation safety and travel reliability for the public along the I-66 corridor,” it should also include goals to reduce demand for single occupant vehicle trips (including vehicle miles traveled and vehicle trips), by increasing mode share for non-auto trips through transit and changes in land use — changes in both the location of future development and improved community design which would result in higher transit ridership.  Again, looking to the long term, the stated goals cannot be met unless demand reduction goals are also a core goal and focus of this study.

In addition Purpose and Needs states, “the identified needs to be addressed include: transportation capacity deficiencies, major points of congestion, limited travel mode choices, safety deficiencies, and lack of transportation predictability,” orients the study too much toward capacity expansion and fails to include as key needs, such as reducing driving demand and improving land use to reduce driving demand and increase non-auto mode share.

The study is also artificially separated from the analysis of I-66 inside the Beltway even though a substantial proportion of inbound trips travels inside the Beltway and will have impacts all the way into D.C..

The study also inappropriately and without explanation excludes a dedicated transit and HOV scenario, leaving expanded HOV scenarios completely out of the study.

While the practice is to include all projects in the CLRP in the No Build scenario, inclusion of the controversial Route 234 extension (TriCounty Parkway western alignment) which would open up rural areas to more development and increase traffic would likely make the No Build perform worse than it would otherwise.

By separating a full tolling analysis from this story, it’s not possible to get a full picture of the effects of HOT lanes on transit usage, carpooling, general purpose lanes and parallel roadways. A full toll effects analysis should not be deferred to a separate study.  Moreover the relative benefits of privately tolled should be compared to public tolling, including the ability to use public tolling to fund more transit service in the corridor.

We were very concerned by the way Tiering of the I-81 study, which also failed to study a composite solution recommended by our group, was used to later foreclose the offering of a composite alternative at Tier 2. In addition, by tying the Tiering with the concept of “projects of independent utility,” a too general and flawed Tier 1 study can then open the door to allowing VDOT to move forward with whichever project it wishes and to foreclose more effective system wide alternatives.  Here, the issue may involve specific segments, but equally likely it would allow VDOT to move forward with just one component of the Integrated Concept Scenarios — such as tolled, managed lanes. In fact, the discussion of the ICS, very clearly proposes to allow VDOT to move forward with just one component. Read with other chapters of this study, it appears that the study is framed to favor the tolled, managed lanes.

The study cites the 1999 MIS in a history of previous studies but fails to note the stated preference of elected officials at that time (at least Fairfax County and probably others) for a transit-first solution.

We are also concerned that the Memorandum of Understanding, which we do not believe was subject to public comment, is also structured to focus on and favor a tolled, managed lane scenario, rather than another potentially non-tolled scenario.  The study states that per the MOA, decisions on the following will be made upon completion of the Tier 1 study:

  • The concepts to be advanced for the I-66 corridor, including transit improvements, transportation demand management strategies, and/or roadway improvements. Within these concepts, consideration will be given to managed lanes and tolling;
  • The general location for studying future highway and transit improvements in Tier 2 NEPA document(s);
  • Identification of projects with independent utility to be evaluated in Tier 2 NEPA document(s) and evaluated pursuant to other environmental laws; and
  • Advancing tolling for subsequent study in Tier 2 NEPA document(s).

With points one and four focused on tolling, and the potential intention to use the “projects of independent utility” to advance only the tolled portion of an ICS, the study appears to improperly lean toward one approach over others — the tolled, managed lanes.

The entry and exit tables are confusing because it’s not clear from the use of eastern, middle and western tables where the greatest demand may lie nor what the primary origin and destination data might be.

The COG growth projections which are used by this study fail to account for the dramatic changes in demographics, market demand and energy prices, nor a future of higher energy prices.  In turn, having had one of the largest expansions of the federal government in recent history shifting to a very likely downsizing, especially in defense, means that the growth projections should be reevaluated.  This can mean substantially less growth in outer areas. In turn, it’s important to note that the allocation of growth within the region is a subjective exercise and that high growth assigned to outer areas is not inevitable, nor is the form of that growth.

In addition, use of percentages for growth can be misleading and tables should be provided to show the magnitude of growth.  In addition, the report may overstate Gainesville/Haymarket growth while understating Tysons Corner growth.

While VDOT might argue that it is not responsible for land use, when billions of dollars are at stake, a thorough analysis of cost-effective alternatives must look at alternative growth scenarios.  And simply because an agency is not responsible for a subject area like land use, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be studied in an EIS as a potential piece of an alternative. VDOT itself has published a report on the benefits of “Transportation Efficient Land Use” yet inappropriately eliminates such demand management solutions from this corridor.

Again in chapter 3 (figure 3-1), the process for evaluating solutions is flawed by ruling out TDM and system/out of corridor solutions early in the proces.

The four step evaluation approach (3-2) is also flawed for failing to look at alternative growth scenarios and changes in land use combined with other TDM approaches, meaning that the total travel demand entered in the first step may be higher than it would otherwise be.

We don’t understand and are concerned by the statement on 3-6 that “Demand is also based on
unconstrained capacity on I-66 itself (although connecting roads were constrained) in order to
ascertain total demand.”  That would seem to inflate the travel demand and overly favor capacity expansion solutions.

It doesn’t appear that the study factors in the congestion feedback signal from congestion in the general purpose lanes which would lead to higher transit use or new residents and jobs moving to transit-accessible locations as has been happening in recent years.

It’s not clear from Table 3-1 if the transit ridership numbers are based on transit-efficient land use or a continued pattern of auto dependent development in Prince William and western Fairfax, where transit efficient development might result in higher transit ridership.  It’s also not clear whether the managed lane scenario counts transit trips in the lanes — trips that could also be achieved by HOV/transit lanes without tolls.

Again, Table 3-3 shows that combining transit with a chokepoints solution could meet more components of the Purpose and Need than the managed lanes.

Table 3-4 lacks adequate supporting documentation and is a virtual “black-box” to the public.  The ICS alternatives fail to include non-tolled HOV with transit in any of the alternatives, which biases the study to managed toll lanes. It does not appear that the transit ridership factors in congestion feedback from the general purpose lanes.

It is unclear how Table 3-4 and Table ES-2 footprint widths are calculated.

The “Key Findings” (3-9) don’t appear to be fully substantiated.  For example, it states:

  • “Other than the two-lane Managed Lanes concept (ML2) which accommodates autos and buses alike, single mode improvement concepts result in large corridor width, high cost, poor efficiency, and/or inability to serve total demand.”  Would that indeed be true of Metrorail or an HOV/BRT approach, with each tied to transit-efficient land use?
  • Another stated finding is that:  “The share of trips made either by transit or in multi-occupant vehicles for those ICSs that perform best against the Table 3-4 metrics reach over 80 percent. While accommodating such high percentages of trips by transit and multi-occupant vehicles would be very difficult, the fact that these percentages are so high is indicative of the benefit of including transit and managed lanes that can carry large numbers of person-trips as part of the solution.”  If that is the case, why not use an HOV and transit solution rather than only use tolled, managed lanes with the various transit modes?
  • Another stated finding is that “The projected peak period travel demands in the corridor highlight the need for a transportation solution that provides space efficiency – the ability to carry large numbers of persons within limited spaces. Managed Lanes and fixed-guideway transit (in descending order of carrying capacity: Metrorail Extension, Bus Rapid Transit, and Light Rail Transit) provide space efficiency.  But do managed lanes really provide space efficiency when the interchange needs of having dual sets of ramps are factored in?  The interchanges on the 495 HOT lanes have taken a substantial number of acres with a profound impact on surrounding communities.

Conclusion:  It is critical to get this Tier I study right because completion of this study will likely foreclose consideration of alternatives at the Tier 2 stage. The study appears biased toward the managed lane approach by failing to analyze non-toll HOV with transit alternatives and by failing to analyze a composite transit, transit-efficient land use, TDM and chokepoint alternative (a systems oriented approach and one that would meet the regional goals in Region Forward).  The study does not substantiate the footprint, ridership, table 3-4 ratios, and costs; and the “findings” are also unsubstantiated. Effects on land use are not addressed.

  • We request the opportunity for additional time for peer review of this study by independent transportation planners.
  • We also request that VDOT’s report on Transportation Efficient Development be considered in this study along with the goals of Region Forward.
  • Finally we request that this study be delayed until the composite alternative that we highlight is analyzed using alternative growth and land use.

Thank you.

Stewart Schwartz
Executive Director

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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Manassas battlefield must be protected from traffic

Regarding Robert McCartney’s March 7 Metro column “Deal is near to shift traffic out of Manassas battlefield park”:

Everyone involved agrees on the need to direct commuter traffic away from the national battlefield park to protect the park’s history, meaning and visitors. However, not everyone agrees that the proposed new highways can solve traffic problems.

Omitted from Mr. McCartney’s column was the Virginia Department of Transportation’s agreement to analyze a package of practical, lower-impact transportation projects that could provide relief for east-west commuters and the park. That analysis must be completed and considered before this process moves forward. The draft agreement does not yet provide specific, enforceable provisions to close Route 29 and Route 234 inside the park if the new highways are built.

The ghosts of Manassas’s fallen soldiers deserve better. To move forward without an ironclad guarantee that the roads will be closed would put the history and culture of Virginia’s most recognized battlefield in jeopardy.

Joy M. Oakes, Washington

The writer is senior regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

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