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"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


Virginia turns back toward the 1950s by weakening road connection standards, neglecting populated areas

Virginia took a huge step forward in 2009 to make its sure its new suburban areas included the connected street networks that made older suburbs less congested, safer to walk and bike, and cheaper for local governments to maintain. But it's making a U-turn as the Commonwealth Transportation Board threw out the new standards at a meeting last week.

Photo by La Citta Vita on Flickr.

This step is just one of many from Virginia statewide agencies in recent days that decisively push toward a 1950s view of growth, one which neglects established communities and crumbling infrastructure in favor of brand-new sprawl in the farmlands which ultimately creates even more traffic.

State officials are giving the thumbs down to Metro, light rail and bus transit in favor of highway lane expansion, skipping small but significant improvements that help neighborhoods or key growth areas like Tysons Corner to instead spend billions on megaprojects that drive the region farther apart, and lose focus on key repair needs while weakening the street connectivity standards.

If you live in Virginia, please speak up at a hearing tonight at VDOT's (non-Metro-accessible) Northern Virginia office in Fairfax, or send in written comments.

The connectivity standards reformed a key mistake in suburban development: building neighborhoods composed primarily of cul-de-sacs. In many neighborhoods, there's just one way in and out for any homeowner, to one or maybe two major arterial roads.

While this gives many homeowners the ability to live on a quiet street, it creates problems for everyone. With few entry and exit points, all the traffic gets focused on single intersections at the arterials, causing significant congestion. Kids can't walk or bike to school or even friends' houses when the only route involves going out to the busiest part of the neighborhood and along a wide road designed for high-speed traffic.

And it costs taxpayers. These neighborhoods are very expansive to plow for snow and time-consuming to navigate for ambulances and fire trucks. Subdivisions in Virginia had to wait days or weeks for plowing during the major snows last year because of the way the plows had to constantly backtrack, and people couldn't get out of their neighborhoods without any alternate routes.

Older suburban areas still primarily comprise single-family houses while providing a grid that spreads traffic around and offers many safe routes for non-motorized users. Areas like Columbia, Greenbelt and Reston win constant plaudits for designing suburban areas that lack these shortcomings, with paths to walk and bike that also build community.

The connectivity rules revolved around a simple premise: Once a developer builds a subdivision, VDOT (except in a few counties) then takes over responsibility for maintaining and plowing the roads. Therefore, they should be able to require certain standards to avoid developers pushing all the costs off onto the taxpayer. The General Assembly in 2007 authorized a change, and Virginia briefly jumped far ahead of most states with this progressive policy.

Last week, however, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a policymaking body appointed by the Governor, voted to drop the old standards, especially the "Connectivity Index" which created a score based on the degree to which a street network was connected or isolated.

Instead, they set some rules for the number of connections out of a subdivision and onto main streets. A development of 200 homes needs 2 connections, though 1 can be a "stub end" road which connects to an as-yet-undeveloped area. Each additional 200 homes will only require one additional connection. It's better than nothing, but still means a new 200-house development can have just 1 way in and out.

Also, a subdivision can add a "collector road" which gives double credit if that road is part of a county transportation plan. So a developer could build 400 houses, all on cul-de-sacs off one major road through the center, and connect that road only at 2 points to major arterials. A typical suburban house can generate about 10 car trips per day, so there will be 4,000 turning movements onto and off of those 2 arterials every day. It's a recipe for major traffic that will harm every other resident who uses those roads.

While Virginia is weakening rules to create better road networks in new suburbs, it's neglecting established areas in favor of greenfield development and traffic-inducing megaprojects. Governor McDonnell and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton have made it clear they don't want to contribute to the Silver Line Phase II, even if the federal government, Fairfax, and Loudon all put in more money.

Meanwhile, but McDonnell and Connaughton are eagerly borrowing money to build large freeways like the damaging bypass around Charlottesville or to push an Outer Beltway. Much of the region's future growth will happen in Tysons Corner, but it's not getting transportation improvements it needs. And transit along the Route 1/Richmond Highway corridor is nowhere on the agenda.

Virginia could get far more bang for its precious transportation buck by focusing on local street connections, and most of all repairing crumbling roads and bridges. Instead, the McDonnell administration seems bent on repeating the mistakes of the 1950s: building unsustainable transportation networks at the periphery while letting a more central economic engine sputter. Then, it was center cities across America; now, it's Arlington, Alexandria and Tysons Corner which state officials are looking past instead of toward.

Tonight is an important meeting where Virginia residents can speak up about priorities. VDOT is having a public meeting to hear input on its 6-year priorities tonight, at the VDOT Northern Virginia District Office, 4975 Alliance Drive in Fairfax. Sadly, VDOT doesn't seem to think it's a priority to locate a meeting near Metro. An open house format starts at 6, and presentations by local officials at 6:30 followed by public testimony.

Bob Chase's Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group funded by greenfield developers in Virginia to lobby for roads that would feed suburban development on their land, has been pushing its members to attend and push for an Outer Beltway. Chase even argued, with an apparent straight face, that new highway lanes were more important than repairing crumbling bridges during a round of news stories last week concerning the dire condition of the nation's infrastructure.

It's important to get more residents who support good road connectivity, local street improvements, repairing crumbling infrastructure, pedestrian and bicycle projects, and local transit improvements to counter the sprawl lobbyists. If you can't attend, you can also send in written testimony at this Coalition for Smarter Growth page.


The zombie outer beltway returns

Zombies are notoriously hard to get rid of. They keep coming back. The same is true of a 1950s concept for an outer beltway that has been revived by Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.

Proposed alignments. Image by VDOT.

In response, the Coalition for Smarter Growth has launched a petition campaign arguing that the outer beltway would waste scarce taxpayer resources, intrude upon Manassas National Battlefield, and induce more traffic congestion than it solves.

If we don't act now to call for different solutions, Secretary Connaughton will force the outer beltway through with minimal public involvement or analysis of alternatives, as he did recently for another questionable highway near Charlottesville.

A little history: The zombie outer beltway has had many names and a colorful past. In the late 1980s it was the Washington Bypass, a controversial and costly proposal for a complete outer loop highway through Maryland and Virginia. That proposal was eventually dropped.

In the late 1990s two individual segments of the original loop plan were pursued, the InterCounty Connector (ICC) in Maryland, and the Western Transportation Corridor (WTC) in Virginia. The proposed WTC would have run between I-95 in Stafford and Route 7 in Leesburg.

In 2001 highway proponents pushed for a new northern Potomac River bridge between Virginia and Montgomery County that would be part of a proposed road called the Techway. Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA) halted that effort after concluding the new bridge would harm communities on both sides of the river.

In 2002 voters in Northern Virginia rejected a proposal for a dedicated transportation sales tax in a public referendum, in part because the tax would have funded multiple segments of the outer beltway.

Finally, in 2005 and again in 2011, VDOT has proposed what they call the Tri-County Parkway, a new highway to run between I-66 in Prince William and Route 50 in Loudoun. Their preferred alignment for the Tri-County Parkway runs along the western boundary of Manassas National Battlefield. It is the same alignment studied in 1997 as the Western Transportation Corridor.

It is this highway that Secretary Connaughton has made a top priority, by designating it as a new Corridor of Statewide Significance. It is this highway that the Coalition for Smarter Growth opposes today.

Instead of building yet another wasteful highway that induces more traffic and more sprawl, VDOT should focus our tax dollars on more important transportation needs. They should also avoid harming the historic Manassas Battlefield, which would be impacted by the Tri-County Parkway.

The Coalition has performed an exhaustive study of the parkway / outer beltway, and found that the major traffic problems in its vicinity are on radial east-west commuter routes, not on north-south roads. The parkway won't relieve any congestion because it doesn't serve travel paths that are congested.

This table, based on information from VDOT traffic counts, compares traffic volumes on roads in the vicinity of the Tri-County Parkway. It clearly demonstrates that radial corridors have dramatically higher volumes than any north-south routes.

Only Route 28, which connects to the strong job centers on the east side of Dulles Airport, carries significant north-south traffic. Among north-south roads west of the airport and in the vicinity of the proposed Tri-County Parkway, Route 659 carries just 9,100 vehicles per day (VPD) from Prince William to Loudoun, and Route 15 carries just 15,000. In contrast, I-66 carries up to 63,000 VPD in Prince William, and Route 50 carries up to 40,000 VPD between Loudoun and Route 28.

In 2005 the Coalition for Smarter Growth commissioned a national traffic modeling expert, Norm Marshall of Smart Mobility, Inc., to analyze VDOT's Tri-County Parkway study. He demonstrated significant flaws in that study, finding that the new highway would induce new development and traffic, but not reduce congestion. Marshall recommended a more efficient set of solutions focusing on land use, conservation, transit, and demand management.

A more recent review of the Loudoun County Transportation plan by Lucy Gibson of Smart Mobility found that transportation engineers were overestimating north-south traffic compared to east-west traffic volumes.

Overall it is clear that the push for the new outer beltway is driven at least in part by those seeking to spark more development in western Prince William and Loudoun Counties, rather than focusing our scarce transportation funds on existing congestion problems. The Tri-County Parkway is an unnecessary and costly diversion from more rational transportation planning. We urge you to sign the petition against it.


Ties are a total waste; all gifts have to be video games

The Examiner ran an article Monday about the shocking news that a small share of a family's gift budget will go to gifts for some family members other than the kids:

Photo by sean dreilinger on Flickr.
Of the $11,200 the Thompson family plans to spend on holiday gifts over the next six years, $2,300 will be used for purchases other than video games, the chief concern of Thompson children.

Thompson children listed 587 video games and electronic devices in their draft Christmas list that would cost about $8,000. The rest of the money, however, is for items like clothes, ties, jewelry, spa treatments—and holiday cards.

Proponents of non-toy gift purchases argue that those gifts do play a role in improving the family's happiness.

"Daddy deserves a present from Santa too," said mommy Mary Thompson. Others, though, want some of that money redirected to pay for actual toys.

8-year-old Jimmy Thompson proposed shifting some of money set aside for Daddy's ties to presents he argues would do more to reduce boredom, such as getting a new XBox Live and installing a new giant flat screen television set.

Doesn't that seem like a ridiculous article? Fortunately, it's not real, but it almost is. The real article, by the Examiner's David Sherfinski, sounded almost the same, but about transportation.

Sherfinski reports the shocking news that a small portion of Virginia's transportation money will go to bicycle and pedestrian improvements, but phrases it a way that sounds like he's actually shocked. Why? Well, roads are "the chief concern of Northern Virginia drivers," as if nothing and nobody else matters.

He quotes Mary Hynes of Arlington and Jeff McKay of Fairfax saying that road building alone isn't the answer for Virginia, and there needs to be some transit and some bike/ped as well as roads. Sherfinski writes: "Others, though, want some of that money redirected to pay for actual roads." Actual roads, because anything that's not roads isn't "actual" transportation?

The real news is how much of the state's budget Governor Bob McDonnell and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton are putting toward new road construction and expansion ($7 billion of $8 billion in road spending) even though more than half of the state's roads need repair and the state should be spending $3.6 billion a year just to rehabilitate aging roads and bridges.

But instead of highlighting the growing backlog, Sherfinski's article parrots talking points from Rep. Jim LeMunyon (R-Fairfax), who has jumped on the national bandwagon about cutting all funding for bicycle and pedestrian transportation projects.

LeMunyon and Sherfinski also play up the fact that wildflowers is a line item in the transportation budget. But when you juxtapose that item ($258,000) against the road spending ($7,100,000,000), it doesn't look like so much. If you're a demagoguing state delegate, though, why talk about real priorities when you can complain about something that constitutes 0.0023% of the total transportation budget?


McDonnell trying to take WMATA seats from NoVA

The McDonnell administration is making a push to take some of Virginia's WMATA Board seats away from Northern Virginia jurisdictions, which currently appoint elected officials to the Board.

Connaughton (left) and McDonnell (right). Photo by VDOT.

In a letter to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC), Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaugton wrote:

With the increase in [state] funding [for transit], plus the recent commitment of additional resources to improve the performance of the federally-mandated state safety oversight program, the Commonwealth believes it is appropriate to request that NVTC provide two of its four appointments to the WMATA Board of Directors, one Principal Director and one Alternate Director, to [the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation,] DRPT.
This would be a big setback for riders and the region. The Virginia members, being elected officials, are some of the most responsive and transparent members of the WMATA Board. It was the Virginia members who pushed for the proposed budget to be released and have most strongly opposed overuse of executive sessions, for example.

Northern Virginia counties also were the first to increase their support for transit after residents demanded it. Maryland, where the Governor answers to the entire state, was far more difficult. At least a tough reelection that depends on Montgomery and Prince George's voters, coupled with strong support from the Post editorial board, persuaded Governor O'Malley not to raid transit.

In Virginia, the state government is already beholden to rural interests and refuses to let Northern Virginia govern itself as it sees fit. Northern Virginia is not Governor McDonnell's base. He isn't making this move because he wants to listen to riders and make the Board more responsive to our concerns. He doesn't want to make transit better. He doesn't seem to even believe in transit at all.

While WMATA faced its historic $190 million budget gap, Governor McDonnell never offered state assistance, and according to an NVTC member, Northern Virginia never really asked. Until now, it's always been expected that Northern Virginia appoints the Board members and Northern Virginia finds the money if they want more transit service. In contrast, in Maryland, where the Board members are appointed by the Governor, the state pays the full WMATA bill.

There's also been strong speculation that this is the objective of the Board of Trade/MWCOG commission that was created to "study WMATA governance" but didn't include any representatives of riders or transit advocates. Some influential business figures would like to make WMATA more like MWAA: run through backroom deals by powerful insiders, completely unresponsive to residents, like when they pulled the rug out from under the Fairfax Connector.

Connaughton argues that the state will soon provide a little more than half (52.2%) of the funding for WMATA, including Virginia's share of the $50 million per year in federal match and the existing discretionary and formula capital and operating funds that go to transit systems across the state.

However, this argument obscures several realities. As Connaughton notes, much of the money is allocated to Northern Virginia via a formula, worked out in the General Assembly through long negotiation. Northern Virginia allocates more of its money to transit, while the rest of the state gets more for roads.

Plus, this money is all Northern Virginia taxpayers' money anyway, just collected by the state and then distributed in part to WMATA via NVTC. Overall, Northern Virginia residents pay more to the state in taxes than they get back.

Connaughton seems to threaten not to participate in the 6-year capital funding that continues after Metro Matters expires unless he gets control. Area Congressional representatives would probably not look kindly upon such a move. At the recent Senate hearing, Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who sits on the appropriations subcommittee that handles transportation, expressed a strong feeling that the states and the District need to keep up their commitments to a state of good repair if Congress is going to continue making extra contributions.

Virginia, like Maryland, DC, and now the federal government, appoints four members to the WMATA Board: two voting Principal Directors and two nonvoting Alternate Directors. NVTC consists of 13 elected officials from Arlington (3), Alexandria (2), Fairfax County (5), Fairfax City (1), Loudoun (1), and Falls Church (1), 2 state Senators, 4 state delegates, and one appointed by the Governor.

NVTC then selects the four Board members. The current Principal Directors are Catherine Hudgins from Fairfax County and Chris Zimmerman from Arlington, and the Alternate Directors are William Euille from Alexandria and Jeff McKay from Fairfax County.

If the change were to go through, DRPT Director Thelma Drake, a former Republican Congresswoman from the Hampton Roads area and current resident of Norfolk, is expected to be chosen as the voting member. At their meeting last night, NVTC didn't act on the proposal, but agreed to send a letter in response to Connaughton outlining their concerns about the idea. Most representatives were opposed to the proposal. One of the few supporters was Joe May, delegate from Loudoun and Clarke Counties and Chair of the Virginia House Transportation Committee.

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