Deal is near to shift traffic out of Manassas battlefield park

The National Park Service and Virginia authorities are close to signing a major Civil War battlefield preservation deal that eventually would close two congested roads that slice through the twice-hallowed ground at Manassas.

The agreement, which could be signed by the summer, would provide for routes 234 and 29 to be shut down inside Manassas National Battlefield Park. That would happen once new highways are built along the western and northern edges of the battlefield and serve as bypasses.

“We’re down to the wire here. It looks good,” said Ed Clark, the park superintendent, a key architect of the pact. “It puts the goal of removing all the traffic from the battlefield within sight.”

There are downsides, of course. It could be more than 20 years before both highways, sometimes called the Bi-County Parkway and the Battlefield Bypass, are completed.Local residents and environmental groups said they would destroy the rural character that drew them to western Prince William County. Some accuse the Park Service, which previously has resisted new roads and development, of selling them out.

On the bright side, however, shutting the roads inside the park would be one of the biggest achievements ever to restore the authenticity and improve the visitors’ experience at the premier Civil War battlefield closest to Washington.

The 1861 Battle of Manassas, known in the North as Bull Run, was the war’s first full-scale engagement. It’s the one where Washington’s elite naively took carriages 30 miles to the scene for a picnic, thinking war was a spectator sport.

They were shocked when the Rebels routed the Union troops and sent them scampering back to the capital.

The same ground was the site of a second battle a year later, even bloodier than the first. It marked one of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s greatest victories and helped encourage him to invade Maryland, where he was turned back at the historic battle at Antietam.

The Park Service and preservationists have long been unhappy principally with the steadily rising traffic inside the battlefield. On a typical workday, more than 50,000 vehicles pass through the intersection of 234 and 29 in the center of the park.

Congestion is so bad that it’s often impossible to complete the driving tour that traces the highlights of Second Manassas.

“What we’ve been saying for more than a decade is the biggest threat to this park is the commuter and industrial traffic that goes through it every day,” said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Trust.

Campi’s group hasn’t yet formally endorsed the deal, known as a Section 106 programmatic agreement under federal historic preservation law. His group wants to be sure the final form guarantees that both roads, and not just one, will eventually be closed. That’s important because plans provide for the closures to be in two phases.

In the first phase, when the north-south, Bi-County Parkway is completed west of the park, 234 would be closed inside it. State and local authorities are keen to push that ahead quickly. Local residents who stand to lose property, and other groups, are agitating to block it.

The park would have to give up four acres of land for the Bi-County Parkway and allow a noisy, four-lane highway to be built nearby. Clark, the park superintendent, doesn’t like that but says it would be worth it to eliminate a road that’s also pretty noisy and cuts right through his battlefield.

“We’re giving some on the periphery to get an awful lot in the core, in the center of the park,” Clark said.

In the second phase, possibly as late as 2035, the Battlefield Bypass would be built north of the park. Only then would 29 be closed within it.

Clark said that as part of the deal, he insisted that the Virginia Department of Transportation pledge firmly to close both roads once the new highways are built. His nightmare would be that he agrees to new highways just outside his park, only to see the state renege on its promise to shut the roads within.

“They would have to double-cross us to do that,” Clark said. “We have to operate in good faith here that they’re going to stick to their word.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Washington Post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo courtesy of Doug Kerr on flickr

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McDonnell pushes through landmark transpo bill – Sequester rhetoric ratchets up – W.H. warns states of cuts – Will you change your travel plans?

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: beverett@politico.com and asnider@politico.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


– 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

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Follow the money in Virginia’s transportation bill

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 projectsRoute 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 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

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Historic Transportation Bill on its way to Virginia Governor

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.

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Senate Vote Passes $880 Million Highway Reform

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

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Residents Seek Answers About ‘Outer Beltway’ During Forum

More than 150 people gathered in the auditorium of John Champe High School Monday night to learn more about the state’s plans to build a new highway across Loudoun and Prince William counties.

For most in the room, there were more questions than answers, even for program organizers—longtime critics who have been fighting the project they call the Outer Beltway in its many forms since the late 1980s.

The latest version is the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s designated Corridor of Statewide Significance, called the North-South Corridor, which would link I-95 to near Dumfries to Rt. 7 east of Leesburg. Options to develop a four- to six-lane road that would provide a new western access to Dulles Airport has been under study for the past year.

In Prince William County, detailed planning already is under way to extend the Prince William County Parkway from its I-66 terminus to Rt. 50 in Loudoun, including a Manassas Battlefield bypass that would have north-south traffic skirt the western edge of the national park along Pageland Lane and Sanders Lane. That road would link to Northstar Boulevard and then to Belmont Ridge Road in Loudoun. From there, an eastern spur, either along Rt. 50 or to the north, would move traffic to Rt. 606 and Dulles Airport.

In Loudoun, communities have already gotten communication from VDOT about studies that will be conducted between through April, including ones for wetland delineation, noise monitoring, culture resource surveys such as shovel tests, soil samples and/or hazardous waste investigations, according to a letter received by the Brambleton Group.

The Brambleton Community Association has already taken action to oppose the alternative that would bring the limited-access highway through the southern part of the community.

“The Board took this action because they feel that the construction of this highway will have long lasting and negative impacts on our community,” Brambleton General Manager Rick Stone said in a letter to residents. The letter goes on to note a limited-access road could reduce property values, increase noise related to truck traffic, negatively impact the environment and change future planned uses for the property included in the study area.

“The BCA Board believes that VDOT should focus their study to the existing right-of-ways along Route 50 (already planned as a limited access road) and on the airport property for which the road will serve,” the letter reads.

Piedmont Environmental Council President Chris Miller and Coalition for Smarter Growth Executive Director Stewart Schwartz told the audience Monday night the project, with a price tag that could exceed $1 billion, would do little to reduce commute times or spur job growth. They also questioned a key underpinning of the state’s push build the road, dismissing as “overstated” the claims that the highway was needed to accommodate growing cargo shipments at Dulles Airport.

Residents wanted to know more about the specific alignments the road would take and how their properties and their neighborhoods would be impacted.

“I don’t think they know and I don’t think VDOT will tell you,” Miller said. “But you should start asking.”

Also making presentations during the session were John Hutchison of Aldie Heritage Association and Charlie Grymes, chairman of the Prince William Conservation Alliance.

Hutchison raised concerns that the highway would undermine efforts to create a rural experience that would attract tourist seeking to escape urban environments. The project was cited as the association’s top concern by members during a recent meeting, he said.

Grymes said the North-South Corridor project would do little to create new jobs in Prince William County and would conflict with the county’s strategic plans. “We should invest where we can grow jobs,” he said, adding that focus should be in the I-95 and Rt. 1 corridors at the eastern end of the county. “If you spend your money on a dumb road you don’t need, you don’t have any left,” he said.

VDOT planners held two community open house meetings on the project in Loudoun and Prince William just before Christmas and the public comment period ended Jan. 18. Representatives from VDOT, the Department of Aviation, Department of Rail and Transportation and Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority are formulating recommendations for the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

Photo courtesy of Leesburg Today

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