Greater Greater Washington

"My way or the highway" bill awaits VA governor's decision

Who should decide how an area grows? Local officials and voters, or the government in Richmond? The focus on decisions would shift under Virginia's latest transportation bill, which gives the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) new powers to supersede local planning.


Photo by debcll on Flickr.

The bill, passed on March 10, requires local governments to revise their plans to include projects favored by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a governor-appointed, 17-member body that oversees VDOT.

Localities that don't adjust their plans to confirm state priorities would have their transportation funds taken away and given to other jurisdictions. If they want to significantly alter a project to better suit local needs, like lengthening a proposed bridge to help protect a stream, or re-routing a planned road to protect a neighborhood, they would pay the extra cost.

If a locality rejected a project outright, local taxpayers would have to reimburse VDOT for any money it has spent, even if they've rejected it based on hard data, or if the locality never wanted the project in the first place.

Governor Bob McDonnell has until mid-April to either sign the bill into law or use his line-item veto authority. Local officials and groups such as the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties are asking McDonnell to remove the provisions giving VDOT its new powers, as are smart growth advocates, and many local governments.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) has an action alert for Virginia residents to ask local governments to challenge the bill, and to contact the governor directly.

Stewart Schwartz of CSG says, "VDOT is notorious for failing to consider a range of alternatives and community impacts, but can now punish local governments and local taxpayers for daring to offer alternative solutions or for recommending cancellation of ill-advised projects based on information about environmental or community impacts. In the end, the state will waste billions of dollars."

Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to pass the bill, described the legislation as "a modest effort to ... improve the coordination of land use planning and transportation planning."

Critics might substitute "coercion" for "coordination," and "overreaching" for "modest." In editorials, the Roanoke Times observed that the bill "promotes ill will rather than harmony," and the Lynchburg News & Advance raised the specter of VDOT as a "mega-agency with vast powers over local governments." Both alluded to the bill's incompatibility with Governor McDonnell's professed attitude toward mandates.

The McDonnell administration's approach stands in contrast to a bipartisan 2007 law that required localities over a certain size to designate "urban development areas" (UDAs). These are specific areas where zoning would allow future growth and reduce pressure for more sprawl. The law called for siting UDAs near existing infrastructure that could handle the growth.

At the time, Republican Delegate Clay Athey promoted the concept as a cost-saving measure, since the state pays for roads to serve far-flung developments that come from poor local planning. The state would save money on roads, local governments would save on infrastructure and services, and residents would save on transportation.

The UDA rule enjoyed broad support from smart-growth proponents, fiscal conservatives, and the Kaine administration. But this March, Governor McDonnell signed legislation that makes UDAs optional and allows local voters to abolish them. He portrayed UDAs as "burdensome mandates on localities," despite the fact that the state paid to help 32 localities meet the law's requirements, and despite evidence that compact development saves money in many ways.

Why would the state weaken one bill that coordinated land use and transportation planning to the benefit of both state and local governments, only to replace it with another bill that forces coordination at the expense of local voices and priorities?

The reason may be less about coordination or cost, than a simple preference for highways. VDOT and the governor have been pushing contentious highway projects. Here are some examples:

  • Charlottesville Bypass, widely opposed at the local level. VDOT has largely disregarded the better "Places29" alternative.
  • Widening most of I-81 to 8 lanes at a long-term cost of $11.4 billion.
  • The Coalfields Expressway in the far southwest, which could cost $2.1 to $4.2 billion.
  • A new Potomac River crossing and Outer Beltway, which past Loudoun County Boards have opposed.
  • Route 460. McDonnell replaced most of the Virginia Port Authority's Board of Commissioners to move the project forward, ignoring regional officials' requests to spend the money on bridge and tunnel bottlenecks.
Schwartz believes that Virginia's Secretary of Transportation and VDOT Chair, Sean Connaughton, "isn't interested in better land use at all, but in the ability to force controversial highway projects through communities. In the process, he is destroying the necessary coordination and discussion between local, regional, and state officials."

The governor should restore 2007's conservative, cost-saving approach to transportation

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Ryan Arnold earned a master's degree in Architecture from the University of Michigan. He currently lives in Arlington's Bluemont neighborhood. 

Comments

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Wow, doubling the size of 81? That's insane, the problem most people have on 81 is the trucks. Creating more lanes won't actually do anything about that except making the left most lane truck free. But that's not very comforting to me on 495 which is 8 lanes and still full of trucks.

And lets talk about a potomac river crossing when it comes with train tracks.

by Canaan on Apr 4, 2012 11:01 am • linkreport

Tough break, Arlington. You can always try retro-retro-cession...

by EdTheRed on Apr 4, 2012 11:16 am • linkreport

I'm sure Tysons Engineer will expound on this momentarily but don't forget about the bill's impact on Tysons/Reston development. Meddling from Richmond will tie up development plans in a bureaucratic mess and potentially rip apart the comprehensive plan that's been carefully negotiated over the past few years. This would be bad for everyone as Tysons/Reston is the engine of jobs growth for the entire state.

by Falls Church on Apr 4, 2012 11:21 am • linkreport

Sad to live in Virginia. It does show a failure though of the NoVa representation to act as a team and favor the region.

by Jasper on Apr 4, 2012 11:45 am • linkreport

[Deleted for violating the comment policy.] I-81 is incredibly congested with truck traffic. I don't know that four lanes are necessary, but three lanes would not induce significantly greater demand on a rural route than currently exists. And the combination of a wider 460 with expanded Downtown and Midtown tunnel capacity and improved rail access on that corridor would considerably improve port capacity in much less time than shunting it to the over-designed and vastly overpriced ostensible "Third Crossing".

This isn't to say that there shouldn't be more spending on rail in the Valley, or on transit connections in Hampton Roads. But not all of these projects are patently absurd.

by J.D. Hammond on Apr 4, 2012 12:09 pm • linkreport

Speaking about big highways in VA. Is VA in any way making way with I-73 moving I-73 and I-74 through the south-west end of the state?

Hmmm...
http://www.i73.com/
Currently, Virginia is re-evaluating the eventual route of
I-73 and has not added this to the state's priority list.

They also don't seem to be interested in extending I-785 up US-29...

Now those would be useful roads.

by Jasper on Apr 4, 2012 12:19 pm • linkreport

I'm confused. For years I heard the problem with transportation planning in NoVa was that Richmond was listening to the many calls for more roads, wider roads, and generally bringing the road infrastructure up to the growing needs of a growing area. Am I really reading here that now that Richmond is finally acting to give NoVa the infrastructure we all know it needs ... that people are complaining that about Richmond's action (vs. its previous inaction) ... ?

by Lance on Apr 4, 2012 12:25 pm • linkreport

oops ... big typo!

*was that Richmond was NOT listening to the many calls

by Lance on Apr 4, 2012 12:26 pm • linkreport

I'm honestly not reading much here about more roads or wider roads in northern Virginia, much less any kind of road that would satisfy an actual transportation need there.

...Wait, there's something about an outer Potomac crossing. I'd honestly need to know more about that, tho.

by J.D. Hammond on Apr 4, 2012 12:29 pm • linkreport

oddly enough, lance, there are different POVs in NoVa. Some folks want a lot more roads, some want a lot more roads AND transit, some folks want transit and a few carefully chosen road projects.

VERY few people that I know of (except maybe some in Prince William) want VDOT to have the ability to override local plans.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Apr 4, 2012 12:32 pm • linkreport

They want Richmond to listen because they have the plans and ambitions and need statewide approval for these local projects. So its more like inaction vs. unwise action.

by Canaan on Apr 4, 2012 12:42 pm • linkreport

Sometimes our transportation secretary Mr. Connaughton forgets that he is no longer working for the American Petroleum Institute. But perhaps when this gig is over, they'll have plenty of work for him in the years to come.

by Daniel on Apr 4, 2012 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Lance "I'm confused. For years I heard the problem with transportation planning in NoVa was that Richmond was (not) listening to the many calls for more roads, wider roads, and generally bringing the road infrastructure up to the growing needs of a growing area. Am I really reading here that now that Richmond is finally acting to give NoVa the infrastructure we all know it needs ... that people are complaining that about Richmond's action (vs. its previous inaction) ... ?"

NoVa doesn't speak with one voice, which is part of the problem. Prince William is more interested in roads, while Arlington and Alexandria understandably are not. So it's not a question of roads or no roads.

The real rub is not that Richmond had a change of heart and is now listening, but rather that the capital has a cudgel with which it can force acceptance of transportation projects, despite local objection. This would open the way to HOT lanes on I-395, for example, which Arlington and Alexandria have opposed.

Based on anecdotal evidence, VDOT is probably one of the most mismanaged, inept, and corrupt agencies in the Commonwealth. Anyone recall the I-64 debacle in Hampton? Or the failure to keep up with maintenance on the Capital Beltway, leading the state to make a deal with the devil on the HOT lanes?

Robert Moses would be proud.

by Jack Love on Apr 4, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

Dear Arlington County Taxpayers,

Richmond is terribly sorry but until you start to hold your locally elected officials accountable, you will continue to be treated like red-headed step-children.

Terribly sorry that you are caught in the middle,

Uncle Bob

by Arlington Civilzation on Apr 4, 2012 3:01 pm • linkreport

Sounds like a developers dream: just lobby the dominant political party and the CTB, ignore those you wouldn't want to golf with anyway, and all that farmland will become available thanks to public-private toll roads and interchanges.

by cynic in baileys xrds on Apr 4, 2012 3:17 pm • linkreport

@jack love - please elaborate on the I-64 issue. Inquiring minds...

by Arlington Civilzation on Apr 4, 2012 3:21 pm • linkreport

Richmond is terribly sorry but until you start to hold your locally elected officials accountable, you will continue to be treated like red-headed step-children.

Yeah, Arlington is the red-headed stepchild that earns all the money, gives generously to the family and gets not even a "thank you" in return. If you're wondering why so many parts in Rest of VA lack jobs and economic prosperity maybe you should stop punishing Arlington's success and ask "how is it that Arlington is so prosperous and what can we do in other parts of the state to replicate it?"

When will the Rest of VA hold their elected officials accountable for their lack of jobs rather than simply conniving plans to steal from the prosperous parts of the state?

NOVA UNEMPLOYMENT RATES
Arlington 3.7%
Fairfax 4.1

ROVA UNEMPLOYMENT RATES
Brunswick 11.0
Grayson 10.6
Halifax 10.0
Hampton 8.3
Portsmouth 8.7
Henry 10.9
Northumberland 12.2
Page 12.8
Greensville 9.5
Mecklenburg 9.9
Smyth 9.5

http://www.bls.gov/ro3/valaus.htm

by Falls Church on Apr 4, 2012 3:27 pm • linkreport

http://www.bls.gov/ro3/valaus.htm

VA unemployment

Funny, that map. It's the employed and very unemployed who vote democrat, while the rest of the state votes republican.

VA unemployment
(2008 presidential data)

by Jasper on Apr 4, 2012 3:40 pm • linkreport

When local people support one's opposition, the projects are 'contentious', and the authorities are ignoring the will of the people. When local people don't support what you want they need to be attacked by sarcasm.

by Kolohe on Apr 4, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

One more way Republicans are working to remove the boot of government control from the necks of local citizens. Oh, wait...

by Juanita de Talmas on Apr 4, 2012 4:05 pm • linkreport

This interpretation of the legislation seems quite partisan. Could you possibly post the actual wording of the legislation? Also, localities in Virginia can opt to service their own roads...so the local option is never taken away. It's also true that Richmond and the Tidewater areas of Virginia have with innovation improved their road and bike trail systems. Aside from the lack of forward thinking by liberal bloggers...an outer beltway would solve many of NVA's transportation issues, improve the environment and quality of life. That's what it has done is most cities such as Richmond, Columbus, Birmingham, etc.

by Pelham1861 on Apr 4, 2012 5:49 pm • linkreport

As a resident of Arlington let me suggest this jurisdictions 'success' is fueled largely by immense Federal spending and payrolls. Aside from the military bases around Norfolk and Petersburg...no other Virginia jurisdiction has this luxury. It is doubtful 'Arlington' would be a success anywhere else with the questionable leadership that is always on display here. Yes, it has become a wonderful place to live...but so are Oklahoma City, Oklahoma and Chattanooga, Tennessee who did so without any large federal impact. They did it with verve, energy and united communities that did not always cut down the state in which they are located.

by Pelham1861 on Apr 4, 2012 5:56 pm • linkreport

@Lance,

Richmond suppposed "inaction" re: NOVA roads is mainly NOVa's own doing.

I once met a retired VDOT manager who told me that the knee-jerk opposition, albeit from a vocal few, to practically every NOVA road proposal from the '70's through the '90's - and the failure of officials and the general public to counter it - eventually convinced many at VDOT that NOVA simply didn't want roads.

Not to mention the transportation funding referendum debacle in 2002 when environmentalists seeking to prevent road funding hopped into bed with the usual anti-tax zealots (remember the "No Sprawl Tax" signs?") and conned the voters into defeating a one-penny additonal sales tax for NOVA transportation funding initiative.

If nothing else, this new law will prevent future obstructionism like the vicious Arlington anti-HOT lane lawsuit that actually targeted individuals for just doing their jobs and get projects moving.

by ceefer66 on Apr 4, 2012 8:25 pm • linkreport

in the very general sense I am:
1. pro smart growth
2. pro mass transit where applicable (diminishing ridership returns and increasing construction expenses per mile as one gets further and further out is something to consider however).

...but a Potomac River crossing somewhere between Reston and Rockville is LONG overdue. A parkway in the truest sense (think GW Parkway or Rock Creek Parkway, not the ICC or Fairfax County Parkway (essentially an interstate width ROW)) could be built with limited access points to protect the rural preserve along the Potomac on both sides, and link the existing and planned dense developments along 270(Rockville) and 267(Reston). I would take the position though that the main obstacle to this one issue is Montgomery County and the state of MD's protectionism towards BWI, and nothing to do with inter-VA power structure.

by stevek_fairfax on Apr 4, 2012 9:18 pm • linkreport

A new Potomac river crossing is a dumb idea. There are many, many reasons why MD shouldn't invest in a new crossing, but here are the main ones:

1. There is absolutely NO benefit whatsoever for the state of Maryland economically. The only benefit would be to the relative handful of residents people who live in Gaithersburg/Germantown and north who commute to Sterling/Reston/Dulles (the vast majority of MD->VA commuters work in Arlington, Tyson's Corner, or Alexandria).

Yeah there's traffic over the AL bridge, but the entire Beltway has serious traffic issues. If anything the Beltway west of I-270 could be widened, the AL bridge could be replaced (like the Wilson Bridge), or better yet a transit alternative could be built.

2. $$$. O'Malley trying to get dedicated transportation funding alone is like trying to pull teeth. Not to mention we just built the ICC and are in serious debt for its construction costs. We have 2 light rail and 1 BRT project in the works that aren't yet funded, and should be before any road project.

3. It would make access even easier to Dulles. BWI is equidistant (or closer) to most of Mont. Co. Rockville and up, especially with the ICC. Why would the state invest money to remove that advantage? BWI is already poised to replace Dulles as the busiest airport (in terms of passengers) in the Balt-Wash Metro Area within the next year or two.

4. It encourages sprawl. Despite what the nearsighted neocons think South of the river, there is no need for an Outer Beltway. It would simply be another waste of money encouraging sprawl and deforestation.

Virginia is free to carry out all the ludicrous wingnut social reforms and backwards thinking projects it wants to. In fact its humorous to watch Republican dominated Richmond regress the state back to the 1800's (while poor Arlington is taken along for the ride), but please leave Maryland/DC out of it. Thanks.

(btw this is coming from somebody who lives in Germantown and used to work at Dulles)

by King Terrapin on Apr 5, 2012 3:43 am • linkreport

@Pelham

While the current strength if the local industry (fed govt) has contributed to its recent success, Arlington would be successful in the long run if it's industry was technology, health care, education or anything else. Look at the successful places in the country with massive wealth and generally low unemployment -- NYC, Boston, San Fran, LA, Seattle, etc. Arlington has a lot in common with all of those places in terms of progressive policies and how the place is generally run. Arlington's biggest reason for success is the highly educated people who live there. Why not let them continue running the place in a way that's worked in many places throughout the country. The bottomine us if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

by Falls Church on Apr 5, 2012 7:49 am • linkreport

I keep way too many tabs open. This is a leftover comment from yesterday.

@Canaan: I'd argue people not knowing how to drive around trucks is more of a problem than the actual truck drivers. There are exceptions, but a lot of problems come from non-commercial drivers simply not understanding that the left lane is a passing lane and the right lane is for driving. People look at 81 and don't immediately see the difficulty with driving on the road since it's relatively straight. The difficulty is because of the hills. They can be a cause for some drivers to be very poor at maintaining speeds. Trucks gain speed going down hills and pass other vehicles and then will likely get over into the right lane going up hills. Unfortunately, some drivers are impatient and pass the trucks on the right which can keep vehicles boxed and not allow traffic to flow.

Also, There is a significant difference between "pushing for" and studying different proposals and options. There is no push for 81 to be 8 lanes. There has been a push for 6 lanes or at least for there to be truck lanes in certain areas to prevent the issues I already explained, but I'm not familiar with 8 lanes (separated truck lanes) being a priority at all. More rail along the corridor and truck lanes have always been the priority.

by selxic on Apr 5, 2012 8:44 am • linkreport

I don't disagree with you. It was just shocking for me because 8 lanes seems like a real nuclear option for a road that still operates at speed a large percentage of the time.

by Canaan on Apr 5, 2012 9:37 am • linkreport

Canaan, I-81 is not as congested as it could possibly be, but it is very dangerous for motorists, given both the steep grades and the high percentage of truck traffic on the route. The push to widen the road is less about relieving congestion in this sense than it is to improve its safety. Calming traffic, such as that could possibly happen, will not change the geometries of the road.

Falls Church: I appreciate the statistics, but having spent a great deal of time in both Hampton Roads and southwest Virginia, I can tell you their economies have very little to do with each other. There may be an upstate/downstate political divide in many senses, but I believe "ROVA" can't be said to meaningfully exist.

by J.D. Hammond on Apr 5, 2012 12:53 pm • linkreport

Jasper: Continuing about the statistics, other than on the Southside, I'm not seeing a huge correlation between unemployment and voting habits - the Northern Neck, Pittsylvania and Warren County all show up big for McCain on that map, for example.

by J.D. Hammond on Apr 5, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

Pelham1861: Having lived in both Norfolk and Richmond, the bicycle infrastructure seems somewhat wanting, unless you're talking about recreational bike trails in suburban areas. Richmond is only just now installing sharrows on some routes; there's a roughly mile-long lane on Lombardy between Broad and VUU, as well as a quarter-mile lane on a very fast section of Northampton Boulevard in Norfolk between Military Highway and I-64, but they're not very well-connected lanes.

I'm not sure in what sense opposition to the 2002 referendum is "vicious". It certainly doesn't appear to be ad hominem. I produced a 30+ page report on the failure of the referendum in Hampton Roads, and frankly, as I see it, those supported a terrible package of roads that were alternately overdesigned and unnecessary. Some of them (like improved Elizabeth River crossings) were important; others could have been reconsidered. I suggested another package of projects, many of which were smaller and would have provided for more immediate impact, while it also would have increased the share of funded transit by six times (to roughly a third).

by J.D. Hammond on Apr 5, 2012 1:13 pm • linkreport

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