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Put your (transportation) money where your mouth is, Governor McDonnell

On Earth Day last Friday, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell issued a "transportation challenge" to the people of his state: to "try a form of transportation other than driving alone once every two weeks."

Gov. Bob McDonnell signed his transportation plan into law last week. Photo: AP/Patrick Kane.

The language he used would please any reformer:

Virginians must begin a fundamental shift in the way we travel to take greater advantage of the transportation options available to us today.

Using the vast array of transportation options available in Virginia can deliver significant benefits. Public transportation options reduce harmful gas emissions in our environment and gallons of gasoline used each year, remove cars from our congestion highways [sic], and can help families save thousands over the cost of owning and operating a car. Options such as telework can remove the need to commute completely, saving millions of vehicle miles traveled.

Two days before Earth Day, however, McDonnell had announced more than 900 projects that would be funded by his transportation plan, which he calls "the most significant investment in the Commonwealth's transportation system in a generation." The plan would spend $3 billion to "not only address the needs of the aging highway system upon which we all depend" but also "provide a needed injection of funding into our economy to spur recovery from the difficult recession of the past several years," according to McDonnell.

Experts are still analyzing the numbers that came out last week, which are exceptionally confusing. For instance, the first slide of a VDOT powerpoint presentation Streetsblog obtained shows that $8.1 billion will go to highway construction with $2.3 billion for rail and public transportation—a similar split to what transit gets from the federal government. But those numbers only include construction, not operations and maintenance, and clearly they add up to much more than the $3 billion investment that's the centerpiece of McDonnell's transportation plan. Reformers caution that a closer look at the numbers proves that transit isn't getting a good deal.

Indeed, in its announcement of the 900 recipient projects, the state DOT highlighted 14 flagship projects that would be funded—all road projects, most of them involving roadway widening. There are also several replacements of aging bridges. In a separate list, the press release lists several rail and transit projects, though it doesn't give a dollar amount dedicated to transit.

"State law requires that at least 14.7 percent of the [Transportation Trust Fund] go to transit," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "I would be quite surprised if the total six-year plan surpasses this share."

Throughout the development of the transportation plan, McDonnell's rhetoric has been almost exclusively about roads, and when the final numbers are crunched, many expect that the dollar allocation will show the same bias.

If the governor wants people to stop driving alone, this is probably not the plan he should be putting forth, said Schwartz. "Given the energy crisis that our nation faces and our oil dependency," he said, "we could be doing much more to invest in transit, local streets, and pedestrian and bicycle and carpooling needs than his plan calls for." Schwartz went on to say:

What are we buying with this money? The governor has never talked about the maintenance backlog in the state. This is all capital expenditures—it's not maintenance. So how are we going to meet the backlog of $3.7 billion in structurally deficient bridges; what's the plan? What about the billion in structurally deficient pavement—or more? That's never been discussed.

So, if we're using scarce transportation revenues we'd like to see us first address the maintenance needs of roads, bridges and transit. Certainly we could make up for the operating shortfalls transit is facing so desperately right now. After that, we'd like to see that we're supporting a more energy efficient future for Virginia and investing in energy efficient transportation and land use solutions.

That would argue not just for spending on transit, but really for a transportation system that would support smart growth outcomes such as revitalization of the cities, development near transit stations, revitalization in all of our suburban communities and commercial corridors, more compact and walkable, bikable land uses with good transit.

That does not appear to be the vision Gov. McDonnell has laid out.

Kala Quintana of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, also still combing through the numbers, said the governor's expressed support for transit has been heartening. "There seems to be an acknowledgement that, hey, there are alternatives out there, and we want to encourage people to use them," Quintana said. "This is not news to us, but we think it's great that it's coming from the governor's office, that he's trying to encourage people to seek out alternative forms of transportation."

But she wants to see a greater commitment from the governor to actually funding transit. Already, public transportation systems in Northern Virginia are at capacity, she said, and the only thing stopping them from adding more is that there hasn't been enough money allocated to buy more buses and pay more drivers.

While details of the plan are still coming out, what we do know is how it's funded. The debt the governor is planning to incur for the commonwealth of Virginia is by far the most controversial part of the plan. Of the $3 billion, $1.8 billion comes from 10-year loans approved by Governor Tim Kaine in 2007, which Gov. McDonnell is extending for 25 years—"even though it costs over 40 percent more to carry debt for 25 years than it does for 10 years," as Democratic Virginia House Delegate Vivian Watts wrote in the Washington Post. Another $1.2 billion is borrowed from expected future income from the federal government. McDonnell also wanted to create a state infrastructure bank but the legislature dramatically scaled back those plans.

Last spring, the McDonnell administration did an audit of transportation funds and found that Gov. Tim Kaine had significant unspent balances. Rather than praising Kaine's fiscal discipline or keeping some of that money for what it was meant for—hedging against the possibility that the federal government would continue to fail to pass a transportation reauthorization, or that it would be lower than expected—or holding onto the money for future maintenance needs, McDonnell treated the discovery as a treasure trove for plundering. The media happily went along with that version of the story.

But many transportation advocates criticize the governor for going so deep into debt for transportation investments that may prove to amount to little more than road widening. David Alpert wrote, "Borrowing in this way, of course, essentially means spending future decades' transportation money. From McDonnell's point of view, why not? He won't be governor. The easiest way to get credit for starting a lot of projects when he has no money is to spend future governors' money."

Tanya Snyder is the former editor of Streetsblog USA, which covers issues of national transportation policy. She previously covered Congress for Pacifica and public radio. She lives car-free in a transit-oriented and bike-friendly neighborhood of Washington, DC. 


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What stupidity. Car traffic will remain the major source of transportation in Virginia for many, many years. The billions spent on transit for Dulles Rail will yield a mode split that is less than Bethesda and much smaller than the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor and no where near downtown D.C., according to Fairfax County's 527 Transportation Impact Analysis from December 2009. I know Stewart and he's slinging it very deep here. I just put my hip-boots on to finish reading his. His smart growth in Tysons Corner will require a three-to-five lane expansion of the Dulles Toll Road. That, in turn, will require taking land from Wolf Trap National Park and the invasion of a number of Resource Protection Areas. It will also require a number of strip takings from individuals' yards and probably a few homes as well.

There will need to be around $1.7 billion in total road improvements for so-called smart growth to occur. The arrival of the HOT Lanes on the Beltway will permit reliable bus service, but only from the south. It does nothing for transit from the west or from Montgomery County.

As far as maintenance is concerned, Virginia taxpayers subsidize overweight trucks by more than $200 million annually. Why should anyone pay higher taxes until we stop this giveaway to the trucking, mining, timber and farming industries?

Ask Stewart to answer these questions. He runs from them and gives you words and not numbers.

by tmtfairfax on Apr 26, 2011 7:31 pm • linkreport

Exceptionally weak article.

So, Gov. McDonnell is a jackass because he is just going to spend the mandated 15% on transit? Or he has a lack of vision.

Would be nice if you linked to some of streetsblog analysis, but in lieu of that, the links to VDOT include this tidbit:

Improvements to Norfolk Southern infrastructure along the I-81 Crescent Corridor
Construction of the Kilby Support Yard
Replacing Virginia Railway Express railcars and extending the third track to Spotsylvania
Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority state of good repair purchases
Facility construction and improvements in Arlington, Blacksburg, Farmville, Loudoun, Lynchburg and Purcellville
Bus replacements for transit operators all throughout the Commonwealth

I do suspect the majority of transit money will be blown on the Silver Line and WMATA, which is just a waste. Shame Mr. Schwartz can't admit the Silver Line -- at close to $7 billion -- is going to destroy virginia transit funding for a generation.

by charlie on Apr 26, 2011 10:45 pm • linkreport

I forgot to mention that the smart growth at Tysons will also require the reconstruction of many new Silver Line support facilities when the Dulles Toll Road is expanded.

by tmtfairfax on Apr 27, 2011 8:40 am • linkreport

This article is trying to make some good points but it needs a little clarifying. It’s easiest to just take on the commonly held myths about NOVA transportation:

Myth #1: Virginia has the right transportation strategy, they just need to provide funding for the plan.

For years, Virginia’s strategy has been to prioritize roads over other transportation modes and to minimize regulations on land use. Clearly, there is something wrong with this strategy because traffic has been getting far worse and sprawl is eating away at us from the inside. By comparison, traffic in Maryland (where they coined the phrase “smart growth”) isn’t quite as bad. Clearly, it’s time to revisit our strategy rather than continue to do the same things over and over.

Myth #2: The 85/15 roads/transit split of funding is the right split.

See Myth #1. What we’ve been doing hasn’t been working and as Einstein said: insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome.

Myth #3: Car driving is going to be the dominant form of transportation in NOVA for the foreseeable future so there’s no point in increasing funding for other transportation modes.

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you spend all your money on roads, then car driving will be how people get around because they won’t have other options. Whenever we’ve provided people other transportation options in Virginia, they’ve used them to the point of going over-capacity.

Myth #4: Virginia state IS spending lots on transit because they’re building the Silver Line.

Virginia state is only funding 5.2% of the Silver Line. The majority is coming from Dulles Toll Road revenue. Here’s how the funding breaks out:

Sources of Capital Funds:
Federal-FFGA $900,000 17.1%
Commonwealth of Virginia $275,000 5.2%
Airports Authority $215,484 4.1%
Loudoun County $252,273 4.8%
Fairfax County $846,167 16.1%
Dulles Toll Road Funding $2,766,771 52.6%
Total Sources of Funds $5,255,695 100.0%

Myth #5: No high returning multi-modal transportation projects have been identified.

There are many transit/pedestrian/bike projects out there that would be worth the money and should be prioritized but let me focus on just the highest priority, the Tysons Metrorail Access project. This project will provide pedestrian, bike, and bus access to the four Silver Line stations, which is critically important since there will be NO PARKING at any of those stations. So, if anyone is going to use those stations, they will need to bike, bus, or walk there. VDOT’s Six Year Transportation Improvement Plan provides for $19M of the requested $56M for this project through 2017. In 2012, $14M is needed for preliminary engineering (the stations open in 2013) and VDOT is providing $4M. That’s right, we’re spending billions on new stations but not funding a relatively small project to provide people with access to the stations (Tysons' sidewalks and trails are notoriously hyphenated, so the current infrastructure won’t work). This is like building a multi-billion dollar highway but not putting in any access/exit ramps.

by Falls Church on Apr 27, 2011 12:14 pm • linkreport

@falls church, good points.

But remember, this is about statewide money, not just nova.

15 of 3 billion is 450M. You've got 275 of Va money on Silver Line Part 1, and another 50-100 going to WMATA. That is 350-400M right there. And we're not talking about Silver Line Part II.....

by charlie on Apr 27, 2011 12:49 pm • linkreport

Falls Church - you have the Silver Line funding wrong. VDOT gave the Silver Line $50 in cash. The Commonwealth Transportation Board under Warner (perhaps, Kaine) decided to pay the rest of the state's share with funds from increased tolls on the Dulles Toll Road. While it is an unfair funding mechanism, all of those toll fees are credited to the Commonwealth. So you must add DTR revenues to the state's share. Any other representation is simply wrong. According to the CTB, the Commonwealth is the biggest funding source for the Silver Line.

With respect to sprawl, many people in Fairfax County support continued sprawl as it keeps out many expenses, such as schools, parks, libraries, etc., from the Fairfax County budget. Every Fairfax County worker who doesn't live in the County means fewer services paid by county residents and less-crowded public facilities. Of course, we still experience the costs of traffic congestion and building more facilities. As to the latter, I know a number of people who would like to see Fairfax County economic development money spent to attract more businesses and jobs in places like Loudoun and Prince William. Of course, this is not unanimous. But I think it's very wrong to suggest most people in Fairfax County dislike sprawl or see it as harmful.

As far as parking at the Tysons stations is concerned, Supervisor Foust and some others are leading a push to get commuter parking at some stations to meet constituent needs. I suspect this effort, which was supported by the entire BoS as an add-on resolution to Tysons approval, will be successful. There will be commuter parking at Tysons.

Bus service to Tysons is scheduled to improve, but many communities, even those near Tysons, will not have good bus service. Walking or biking from McLean and parts of Vienna will be problematic, if not impossible. All this information comes from Fairfax County and/or the Commonwealth.

by tmtfairfax on Apr 27, 2011 1:04 pm • linkreport


A couple clarifications. The $275M Virginia state is putting toward the Silver Line is for Phase I and II.

Also, I'm not denying that McDonnell is complying with the state law that 14.7% of funds go toward transit. I'm saying that the 14.7% target is part of the old way of doing things and that way has failed. It's time to consider changing our strategy.

Also, the money for the Silver Line and WMATA was allocated prior to the new, extra $3B. Very little of that $3B is going toward transit and more importantly, only a tiny fraction is going to NOVA in any form. This is a result of the way the Commonwealth Transportation Board is setup. Virginia is carved up into 9 districts and each district has an equal voice on the board. NOVA is only ONE of those 9 districts even though our tax revenue and population is much much more than 1/9 of VA's total.

If you care about this issue, I urge you to attend the public hearing on the Six Year Improvement Program in Fairfax on May 4th. Details:

by Falls Church on Apr 27, 2011 1:11 pm • linkreport


The DTR revenue may technically be considered Commonwealth funds but that is clearly money coming directly from the pockets of locals. It's not fair to say that we'll tax everyone to pay for roads but setup a special fee for transit that is only paid by people who live/work close to the transit. So, you can't consider DTR funds the same as other Commonwealth transportation funds.

As for sprawl, to some extent it's a matter of preference and there's no single right answer. However, I will point out that we can still build additional housing in Fairfax (so workers stay local) without adding to sprawl by increasing density. Fundamentally, Fairfax is at a crossroads where it needs to decide to become more like Arlington or more like Prince William/Loudon. I would argue that the Arlington model has been much more successful based on its track record for job growth, stable to rising real estate prices, and relatively good traffic.

The Tysons parking issue comes back to this same question of being like Arlington vs. exurbs. If you build commuter parking at the Tysons stations, that will increase car traffic, necessitate more roads, and make it even less walkable/bikable, further inhibiting housing development in Tysons (which it sorely lacks). If you transform Tysons to make it more like the R-B corridor, you build lots of condos walking distance to the stations rather than parking lots and put in a relatively small investment to improve sidewalks/trails within a 3 mile radius. Then Tysons has the chance to become more of a destination rather than just the taking off point for some place else.

by Falls Church on Apr 27, 2011 1:35 pm • linkreport

I'll make one other point about the Silver Line. It's not going to work as solely a commuter line to DC because of capacity constraints at the Rosslyn tunnel. Only 26 trains per hour can go through the Rosslyn tunnel in ideal circumstances, and those 26 trains will be split among the orange, blue, and silver lines. That means, rush hour service on the silver line will probably be around 8 trains/hour. Even if all 8 trains had 8 cars each and you packed each to capacity, you still wouldn't get enough throughput to justify the silver line on cost per rider mile. The only way to make the Silver Line cost effective is if there's significant reverse commute traffic coming to Tysons. This would have the added benefit of relieving the extreme congestion on 66 in the reverse commute direction.

If the Silver Line is dependent on inducing reverse commuters, then it is necessary to surround the stations with office buildings, retail, and wide sidewalks. Those reverse commuters won't want to walk 5-10 minutes through parking lots and garages to get to/from their offices.

by Falls Church on Apr 27, 2011 2:22 pm • linkreport

Falls Church, I wholeheartedly agree with you that the CTB's decision to fund the state's share of constructing Dulles Rail by raising tolls on DTR drivers is very unfair. But NoVA residents were sold out by their own representatives. I doubt the plan would have passed if there had been strong, united opposition by the NoVA members of the CTB. But, as with most things in Fairfax County, our CTB members were representing the interests of the Tysons landowners, who wanted rail at any price because they believed that Clark Tyler and Bill Lecos would get them virtually unlimited density throughout all of Tysons' 1700 acres. So the average person in Fairfax County was sold down the river.

Glad to see you see land use decisions as a matter of choice. Fairfax is not Arlington and most people in Fairfax do not want to be like Arlington. Many people strongly want to continue their present life style, which often means bigger lots than in Arlington. Many would still support choices for urban density at Tysons and in some other locations if the addition of that density does not overburden public facilities or cause taxes to rise. But as we are seeing in Fairfax County, development at Tysons will further strain public failities, with the quality of living going down and taxes going up.

While there were challenges to developing the RB corridor, Arlington's challenges were smaller than those faced by Tysons. Arlington had its grid of streets and most other infrastructure. Tysons does not. The price tag for adding those public facilities in Tysons is huge. The road improvements (beyond HOT lanes and rail) alone will be between $1.5 and $1.7 billion. And the County wants taxpayers to pick up about 58% of those costs. Would the RB corridor have developed if taxpayers got that type of bill?

Moreover, the necessary expansion of the Dulles Toll Road is very disturbing. Given a choice between widening the DTR, cutting down all those trees, etc. and permitting the building of condos and apartments in Tysons, most Fairfax residents would simply pick the status quo. Imagine if urbanizing the RB corridor had required the widening of I-66 by as many as 3 to 5 lanes?

Parking at Tysons is necessary because the nearby suburban residents are demanding it. They were promised access to rail and have found out that they don't have it and will not have it. Fairfax County engineers have stated that they don't see many ways to make safe biking or walking from many surrounding areas to Tysons. In most areas, bus service is not cost-feasible, so that leaves building parking facilities. Again, imagine what would occurred in Arlington with an elevated line and no good ways to walk or bike and not much bus service from nearby.

You have nailed the capacity problem on the head. The need for three lines to use the single river tunnel means no one, except the RB corridor, will get good service. But again, Tysons re-planning was only about getting massive increases in density for the landowners. People like Clark Tyler and Bill Lecos stood up and said it was not the job of the Task Force to plan transportation. The lack of planning means better rail service for the competition in the RB corridor without any additional cost. The Silver Line will go down in history as one of the biggest messes ever caused by human greed. It will probably end Virginia's participation in heavy commuter rail.

by tmtfairfax on Apr 27, 2011 5:16 pm • linkreport

@ tmtfairfax: The need for three lines to use the single river tunnel means no one, except the RB corridor, will get good service.

Or the strategy to force a second tunnel is to overcrowd the system.

There are two ways to get things done. One is to plan properly, plan ahead and be reasonable. The other is to mess things up so bad that the only way out is what you want. The latter is the modus operandi of the American political system.

I believe that the extension of the yellow and blue lines follows the same path. Trains will get even more overcrowded and force the building of more capacity.

In VA, we need a Pink Line from the Pentagon along 395 via Shirlington and Landmark to Franconia-Springfield, and an extended Purple Line from the WW Bridge via King St up Rt-7 via Bailey's Crossroads and 7 Corners all the way to Falls Church at least. The line could feed there into the Silver Line path to Dulles and beyond. We also need a Brown Line from the Mall along Rt-50 to Chantilly or Winchester.

Furthermore, we need an extension of the Blue Line along the Franconia-Springfield and Fairfax County Parkway to 123, GMU, Fairfax City, Oakton and Reston. And finally the Yellow Line needs to be extended along US-1 to Ft Belvoir, Lorton, where the Pink Line could merge up, Woodbridge, Potomac Mills, and onto Manassas, Centreville and (again) Dulles and Leesburg. Finally, the Orange Line needs to be extended to at least Haymarket.

I am sure Marylanders can come up with a similar wish-list. Build this, and the downtown core will collapse under the stress, forcing new tunnels under M St and elsewhere.

by Jasper on Apr 28, 2011 2:30 pm • linkreport

Jasper, interesting comments. But I strongly suspect that the ongoing mess with Dulles Rail, the unresponsiveness of MWAA'as board of directors and the continued incompetence/corruption at high levels within WMATA will mean no major expansions of heavy rail in Virginia for many, many years. Only the ability of the CTB to steal from Dulles Toll Road drivers has enabled the Silver Line to go as far as it has. There are no more easy marks to get OPM (other people's money) to build heavy rail. It's one thing to raise tolls, but something else to impose them on what had been toll free roads. Any attempt to toll more roads to fund rail would face incredible opposition from the public.

Moreover, the Obama administration has had second thoughts about funding heavy rail. It's just too expensive for the benefits it brings. (Note that I am not arguing against maintaining what we have.)

If there is a market for heavy rail, lines could be built under the Virginia Public Private Partnership law, but I don't see anyone stepping up to invest private capital. If private industry won't invest in what is supposed to solve traffic problems, why should taxpayers?

Also, the high water mark for government contracting has past. Putting the federal fisc back in sync will require huge cuts in that area. That's been NoVA's lifeblood, sucking at the federal trough.

Bottom Line -- Dulles Rail is the last heavy rail project for a lifetime.

by tmtfairfax on Apr 28, 2011 3:58 pm • linkreport

TMTfairfax, I love how you go around spouting Vehicular first propaganda whenever possible. At first I thought you worked for VDOT but evidently you sell cars?

To say cars will always be the leading mode of transportation is just ignorant. Most modal studies show that a 30% reduction in suburban vehicular use would occur with something as possible as 5 dollar gas. Are you saying that over the next 30-50 years that gas prices will never exceed 5 dollars? If so you are going to be left in the dust my friend. Winter is almost over, and without any disruption to oil supply or refining capacity the US saw a stabilization of fuel prices above $3.50. Note that this fuel price is occurring in one of the hardest hit recessions, especially in manufacturing and construction, the biggest uses of fuel in the country, which again shows that when they uses return to typical growth rates that gas will never again see the days of sub $3.00 and there is more of a chance that gas will see $5.00 over the next 5 years.

So you are saying when faced with the idea of spending 10 dollars a day on tolls and 10 dollars per driver per day that people's transportation habits won't change? You are talking about people simply turning their noses up on a metro system that could save them 10-15 dollars a work day. IE 300 dollars a month, ie 3600 dollars a year just because "cars are king?"

And you don't even consider the fact that Eastern Fairfax could just as easily turn into a region similar to Arlington where proper land use actually causes REVERSION in traffic even while density increased?

Seriously dude, I wanna know what your deal is because you troll so many different places just saying this same basic concept "rail is a pipe dream" when everywhere in the country and the world it is proving to be the opposite. If you are so against it go to Houston (which by the way just finished completing their downtown rail system).

Get with the times people, the age of dinosaurs is over.

by Tysons Engineer on Feb 20, 2012 7:14 pm • linkreport

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