Bedeviled and Becalmed

The Commonwealth Transportation Board seems adrift, unsure how to cope with shrinking resources. Here’s a place to start: Fund projects that provide the greatest Return on Investment and focus on the nexus between transportation and land use.

by James A. Bacon

Last week Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton held a strategic planning session with the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the state entity that sets policy and funding priorities for Virginia’s transportation system. The dilemma: Given the relentless erosion of the motor fuels tax that leaves Virginia fewer and fewer resources to meet its transportation needs, what can the commonwealth do differently to run the system more efficiently and equitably?

In a series of presentations, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) staff described McDonnell administration initiatives such as the creation of a state infrastructure bank, new cash-management policies and a shift to design-build contracts. Exploring big-picture ideas, the board heard from Jonathan L. Gifford, a George Mason University professor who laid out options for devolving responsibility for secondary roads to the counties and from a subcommittee that had looked into ways of making the maintenance system work better.

The two-day retreat in Portsmouth covered a lot of ground and provided a lot of valuable data, but it didn’t elicit much in the way of guidance from the board. From my perspective as an observer on the sidelines, frankly, it seemed as if board members were overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge. While several board members expressed the opinion that the transportation system needs more money, no one saw fit to propose a resolution urging the General Assembly to raise taxes or fees. The session ended abruptly and inconclusively with no decisions made or votes cast.

One possible reason for the irresolution is that the two most vital topics affecting transportation in Virginia were not on the agenda. There was no thought given to the idea of rationalizing the system for allocating scarce resources according to Return on Investment criteria, as any multibillion-dollar corporation might do. And there was exceedingly little thought given to the nexus between transportation and land use.

While Virginia transportation departments may conduct project-ROI analysis on an episodic basis, several flaws in the CTB’s decision-making process seem evident. First, ROI analysis, even when performed, is not presented in a way that helps the board compare the merits of one project versus another. Second, no agreed-upon methodology exists for conducting an ROI analysis that is valid for roads, rail, transit, ports and airports. Thirdly, no unified database of all projects approved or under consideration exists so that ROI can be ranked across transportation mode. And fourthly, there is no process for re-prioritizing projects based upon new economic realities; once projects enter VDOT’s Six-Year Improvement Plan, they are extremely difficult to dislodge.

If I had served on the CTB, I would have urged Secretary Connaughton to convene a working group comprised of stakeholders from all transportation modes and supplemented by paid academic experts from, say, the Texas Transportation Institute and the Victoria Transportation Policy Institute. The goal would be to develop a methodology for calculating Return on Investment on transportation projects of all types. Such a methodology would include placing an economic value upon traffic congestion mitigated, safety enhanced, economic development and environmental impact.

Congestion mitigation would take into account the number of hours of travel time saved and the value of that time for motorists and freight. Safety would encompass the value of reduced traffic accidents, injuries and fatalities. Economic development would incorporate gains in the number of jobs, personal income and tax revenues while distinguishing between primary job creators such as manufacturing or professional services, which bring income into a region, and secondary job creators, such as housing and retail, which largely track population and income growth. Finally, the methodology would take into consideration the effect of increased or reduced emissions from fossil fuel consumption, storm water runoff and air quality upon the environment and public health.

Until CTB board members are given such information, they are fumbling in the dark. With no ROI analysis to draw upon, they base decisions largely upon preconceived ideas, politics and what they are spoon fed by administrators. As a result, the allocation of resources is sub-optimal.

The other elephant in the room is the transportation-land use nexus. The McDonnell administration currently views that policy pachyderm through the prism of “corridors of statewide significance,” in which local governments make land use decisions that effectively treat state highways as main streets. VDOT is moving slowly but surely toward a policy of more aggressive enforcement of “access management,” which rationalizes local traffic access to state highways. At the same time, the commonwealth is back-pedaling on the questions of subdivision connectivity and VDOT traffic-impact analysis for major development proposals. Read more.

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16 responses to “Bedeviled and Becalmed

  1. “There was no thought given to the idea of rationalizing the system for allocating scarce resources according to Return on Investment criteria, as any multibillion-dollar corporation might do. “.

    You better think pretty carefully here Jim.

    If a multi-billion dollar coporation had 10 subsidiaries and two of those subsidiaries perenially lost money and had to be supported by the 8 subsidiaries which made money – what do you think the corporation would do?

    Do you think there would be ANY investment in the perennial money losers?

  2. Take a look at Delegate Jim LeMunyon’s HB 1998. I think it is a good start. http://lis.virginia.gov/cgi-bin/legp604.exe?111+ful+HB1998E After amendments, it passed the House 85-13, but died in the Senate Finance Committee.

  3. Died in the Senate Finance Committee. As far as I can see, it died with no vote. Overwhelming support in the house and then it just dies in the Senate Finance Committee.

    So, what say you Jim … is this evidence of a Clown Show or not?

    Shouldn’t these bill get voted on?

    85 – 13 and then dies in the Senate Finance Committee.

    Does that sound right to you?

    Does it sound competent?

  4. I am baffled that the Senate Finance Committee would have killed LeMunyon’s bill. Not having access to the committee’s reasoning, I can presume only that there were partisan overtones to the decision. LeMunyon is a Republican. The chamber that passed the bill, the House, is run by Republicans. The Senate is run by Democrats. Perhaps Democrats have political reasons for wanting to avoid the kind of accountability that LeMunyon is seeking — I don’t know. Does the existence of partisan differences make the General Assembly a clown show? Yes… if you concede that partisan differences make Congress a clown show and local boards of supervisors as well.

    I *would* agree to that proposition.

  5. it’s not so simple setting up a priority system… in objective terms… that everyone agrees with.

    and if you set up a system with one side likes it and the other side does not…

  6. I don’t know if the priority system was good or bad. All I know is that it received support from 85% of the House of Delegates and then was silently killed in a committee which has only a fleeting relationship to the bill.

    The question is not this particular ROI model, it is the lack of honesty and transparancy in the Clown Show.

    Might be time for an Occupy Richmond march.

  7. Setting the priorities is a mistake. Back up another step and first set the rules. By which priorities will be determined. Agree on a fair set of rules, which is easy in the abstract. Then let the rules set the , which may not be so easy to swallow.

    It what is this about comparing and ranking the ROI across projects? Is there an echo in here after all these years?

    But please explain the nexus between land use and roadways. Would not the goal be to create the highest net social value, regardless of whose pocket it falls in? Don’t we already have miles of roads built, where the land use is highly restricted? Is this the nexus between road expenditures and FUBAR? What did Garreau say in today’s paper? The auto is the apex of high tech transportation?

    We already know the rules for how to best spend public monies, and those rules might leave roads way down the list. If the tea party and price slashers have their way, the priorities will become obvious and stark.

  8. Your proposed methodology represents a good outline of what a systems analysis would consist of. But It it is only a start. A real analysis is harder than that.

  9. For the lice of me, I cannot understand how someone so attuned to environmental issues continues to Foster the idea that the motor fuels tax is dead or dying.

    It is the one method that combines payment for weight, speed, distance, and bad behavior. The one method that requires no new technology, no new bureaucracy, no giant public private partnerships, and no tracking of where everyone has been.

    Sorry, I just don’t get it. Vehicles need energy, and Decent roads. It is a simple matter to calculate the correct ratio between the use of one and the cost of another.

    A simple matter the clown show has been incapable of calculating since 1986. That is freaking stupid crazy.

  10. “Sorry, I just don’t get it. Vehicles need energy, and Decent roads. It is a simple matter to calculate the correct ratio between the use of one and the cost of another.

    A simple matter the clown show has been incapable of calculating since 1986. That is freaking stupid crazy.”.

    See: Opaque, Incompetent, Corrupt

    I believe this qualifies as Corrupt. However, the opaqueness makes that conclusion somewhat difficult.

  11. ” For the lice of me, I cannot understand how someone so attuned to environmental issues continues to Foster the idea that the motor fuels tax is dead or dying.”

    it’s not me – it’s virtually every State – it’s the reason they are going to tolls and even considering GPS taxing….

    I just consider the numbers or organizations that say it – and the logic they use and the numbers and it’s not a hard conclusion.

    it’s not “dead” – it still brings in money but as even recent threads show – it does not even bring in enough to pay completely for maintenance any more, much less new construction.

  12. ” All 50 states do not have the worst congestion in the country”

    many, many urban areas across the country and they take turns who is the “best” but the best characterization is that they ALL have the SAME problem – rush hour congestion – and high numbers of solo drivers at rush hour.

    imagine what Washington area roads would like like at rush hour if there were no solo cars. I’m not advocating we do that – I’m just saying that solo cars are by far the biggest percent of rush hour and that all those extra lanes would not be needed if it were not for solo rush hour.

    and that’s the entire premise behind HOT Lanes by the way,

    The “clown show” had precious little to do with Hot Lanes other than to not oppose it.

  13. The Clown Show has their problems – no question about it – but that also makes them convenient targets for all manner of things that they had nothing to do with creating and have few options to fix that does not involve higher taxes – or tolls.

    but as I said before there is a striking similarity between why US 29 in Charlottesville is a “problem” ( not for your local sol-driving citizens ) for the 10,000 cars a day that merely are trying to get through Charlottesville on their way to their destination.

    NoVa has the same problem except they are affect the entire East Coast.

    it IS possible to build more roads in NoVa .. The ICC proves that but it comes at a high price both in $$ and in impacts to businesses and neighborhoods.

    but that is a choice for NoVa to make – and pay for … not people who have chosen NOT to live there – even though they’d make more money… the costs would be higher ..and the congestion….

    Oh.. having had the “opportunity” to drive I-5 in Seattle this year – I can tell you if NoVa outranks Seattle in “congestion”, it is a Pyrrhic victory.

    Finally – the fact that VDOT and FHWA – had to be the ones to bring solutions to congestion in NoVa – tells one that NoVa itself would NEVER had brought themselves as a region to that decision.. it was an outside decision done because NoVa kept expecting someone else to take care of their “problem”.

    the truth hurts Groveton….eh?

    😉

  14. – and high numbers of solo drivers at rush hour.
    ==========================================

    There are high numbers of solo drivers at all hours: it is no t the solo drivers that are the sole problem, and neither is it the long distance drivers. the sooner you get past that the sooner you will be on a path that leads to an an actual solution and not simply the affirmation of a political belief that we should somehow socialize travel and transportation.

  15. it’s not me – it’s virtually every State
    ========================================
    Several states have successfully raised their gas taxes to a level sufficient to meet the needs.

    HOT Lanes, GPS tolling systems and mileage tolling sysems are ALL a major mistake that we will one day rue. They are off budget taxes that obscure accountability, cost more to collect and have NONE of the beneficial effects that a properly calibrated fuel tax will provide and ALL of them are dirctly computable as an equivalent gas tax.

    The other methods are nothing but smoke and mirrors, and in my opinion they are lowusy social policy and lousy environmental policy.

  16. ” the sooner you get past that the sooner you will be on a path that leads to an an actual solution and not simply the affirmation of a political belief that we should somehow socialize travel and transportation.”

    it’s not me… I’m not the one who invented HOT lanes nor decided to implement them. I concur with the logic but had no direct role in any of it.

    ” Several states have successfully raised their gas taxes to a level sufficient to meet the needs.”

    okay – show me the top 3 who have funded at higher levels and a a result have less congestion.

    these are the highest gas tax states:

    California – 46.6
    Connecticut – 41.9
    Hawaii – 44.4
    Illinois – 39.0
    New York – 44.6

    http://www.taxfoundation.org/taxdata/show/245.html

    can you actually show less congestion for these states? I doubt it.

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