Beyond Campaign Rhetoric: Find Real Solutions to Virginia’s Transportation Tangle

September 26, 2005

Virginians paying attention to the governor’s race and the debates are hearing very different ideas about how to address the Commonwealth’s transportation problems.

Some are bold promises to roll back to the days of huge infrastructure investments that the conventional wisdom praises as swift-acting, job-creating, and economy-building. One candidate believes throwing enough money at the problem can actually “eliminate gridlock.” Another pledges that Virginia won’t actually have to pay for the new roads, counting instead on private builders, loans, and localities to pick up the tab.

But those listening hard enough will also hear other recommendations that eschew the cement-head policies of the past. These ideas—better linking transportation and land use, promoting efficient use of existing infrastructure, and continuing reforms at the Department of Transportation—are not necessarily new, but they are absolutely critical.

Virginia’s transportation problems are rooted in a system that encourages wasteful spending and undermines cities and inner suburbs. Research shows that over one-quarter of Virginia’s urban roads are in poor and mediocre condition. A quarter of bridges are functionally or structurally deficient. At the same time, four of the 27 worst-rated road projects proposed nationally are in Virginia, representing a potential taxpayer investment of more than $4.5 billion.

BUT RATHER than dealing directly with these issues, Virginia’s voters are handed empty promises. Even a cursory glance at the details reveals serious flaws:

  • Increasing Virginia’s gas tax is offered as a source for generating additional funding. But throughout the nation, that tax is widely questioned as an unsustainable source. A recent Brookings Institution report found that states are already seeing declines in their gas tax revenues.

Pursuing partnerships can certainly leverage important private capital for infrastructure. Unfortunately, a review of Virginia’s Public-Private Transportation Act by the Southern Environmental Law Center shows that the law has not only failed to live up to its promise of attracting private money, but it funds projects that are sprawl-inducers that exacerbate (not relieve) congestion and rely almost exclusively on tolls and/or taxpayer dollars.

Establishing new regional authorities is attractive on one hand as it helps empower local officials. But it’s redundant. There are a dozen federally mandated regional planning organizations throughout Virginia today that could be strengthened by suballocating state transportation funds to them in exchange for greater accountability.

“Fast tracking” projects through environmental review also holds little promise. A host of federal reports find that most delays are not due to environmental regulations, and the best approach for reducing delays is improving coordination, not fast-tracking projects.

The problems inherent in these proposals are actually not difficult to understand in the campaign context. Promising to eliminate congestion and improve quality of life without making hard choices make for great press releases. But as for coming up with real solutions to real problems that extent beyond November, it’s just plain wrong.

INSTEAD, THREE ideas stand out:

Continue the transformation of VDOT. The first order of business for the new governor should be to retain the existing reforms rather than returning to a bloated, outmoded state program of extravagant building and wasteful spending. The non-partisan Government Performance Project recently gave Virginia the highest grade and specifically cited the changes at VDOT, which was “[h]istorically, one of Virginia’s few management trouble spots.”

Fix the Public-Private Transportation Act. A partnership is only successful when both sides benefit. To date, the law has resulted in windfalls for the private side and increased burdens for the public and taxpayer side. At minimum, the Act should be amended to provide for additional public input and require that proposals be part of normal planning processes.

Integrate transportation and land-use decisions. Virginia must move beyond transportation-only solutions to address transportation problems. Congestion is a product of many factors—low-density development, employment decentralization, single-use zoning—and can be addressed only by linking transportation decisions with local and regional decisions on land use, housing, workforce, and economic development.

Make no mistake: Virginia is facing a daunting set of challenges that demand serious attention. The answers to the Commonwealth’s transportation problems may not be terrific campaign fodder, yet Virginians deserve a real discussion about transportation this fall—not empty promises.