Transportation 'We need more than more money'
Transportation–We need more than more money
Wednesday, February 01, 2012
The Washington Post's editorial staff recently published several editorials supporting higher gas taxes for transportation, arguing more money is necessary to address the state's significant transportion problems, including congestion and maintenance needs. A fair case can be made that VDOT needs more funds and that indexing the gas tax make sense.
However, anyone understanding Virginia's transportation system knows the problems are much greater than a need for more money. Simply raising taxes without enacting major reforms will not solve transportation problems.
The entire system needs key changes to become efficient, effective and fair. What are some of the problems?
Today, we too often fund road projects that benefit private parties more than the public. The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) makes funding decisions, but not always on the basis of engineering and economic studies. Quite often, the CTB seems to make decisions based on closed-door lobbying, often by land speculators.
A case in point, last year, the CTB approved a new Northern Virginia North-South Corridor of Statewide Significance (COSS) in Prince William and Loudoun Counties, which some believe might become a part of an Outer Beltway. However, the road is not wanted. The Loudoun, Clarke, and Fauquier County Boards of Supervisors have all passed resolutions opposing the designation of the Northern Virginia North-South COSS, largely because of insufficient need and high cost. For many years, Maryland has refused even to consider a new bridge over the Potomac.
Despite this opposition, the CTB launched a new Northern Virginia project that will compete for state funding with the $2 billion in roads projects needed for Tysons by 2030. Without these roads, Tysons' redevelopment cannot succeed as planned. Massive traffic failure will certainly happen. Tysons is a key economic engine for the entire state, and rail alone will not handle a larger Tysons. It is not in the public interest for the CTB to have created a competitor to Tysons for state transportation funding.
Another major flaw in the system is the lack of meaningful controls on increases in traffic. Drivers can pay and pay, but unless new real estate development is tied to road improvements, taxpayers will not see any congestion relief for their higher taxes. Virginia needs either an adequate public facilities law or better land use plans, tying approvals for more development to concrete steps to address additional traffic, such as that which occurred in the amended Comprehensive Plan for Tysons.
Then there are questions of fairness. Cars and light trucks do not damage roads and bridges. Heavy and overweight trucks do, and they don't pay their way. According to a University of Virginia study, overweight trucks caused $204 million in damages to roads and bridges annually, but paid fees of less than $3 million. It just doesn't seem fair to make everyone pay more at pump while some of biggest causers of higher VDOT maintenance costs are subsidized and essentially encouraged to damage our roads and bridges.
Fortunately for Virginians, some public officials who can see further than the Post's standard solution–higher and higher taxes. Delegate Jim LeMunyon has authored legislation that would require the CTB to rank planned transportation projects based on the amount of congestion reduction achieved per dollar spent on each project. Delegates Mark Keam and Joe May have separately introduced bills that would address the taxpayer subsidy for overweight trucks.
Many government officials, including those in Fairfax County, have started to scrutinize the relationships between more development and traffic congestion. Fairfax County has embraced VDOT's "527 Traffic Impact Analysis" process. Its submission for Tysons helped win the County the prestigious Daniel Burnham Award for planning. The County is now working with Tysons landowners and other stakeholders to study the impacts of mixed use development, rail, new roads, bus transit and traffic demand management efforts at each of the four station areas, with the goal making decisions that can help keep traffic congestion manageable.
VDOT has reached out to community groups, such as the Great Falls, McLean and Reston Citizens Associations to help plan the widening of Route 7 heading west from Tysons and possible expanding of transit in the corridor.
For higher taxes to work, we need these types of reforms and changes to be mandatory statewide. We need to fund transportation facilities that benefit the public and not well-connected land speculators. We need heavy and overweight trucks to stop damaging roads and bridges or pay the full costs for their damage. We need landowners and developers to work with state and local government and existing residents to link land use and transportation. Improving transportation requires much more than higher taxes. It requires major reforms first.
Attorney Robert H. Jackson, a McLean resident, serves as president of the McLean Citizens Association.