Category Archives: Transportation

A Business-Like Approach to Paying for I-87

Proposed route of I-87 linking Raleigh and Norfolk.

Proposed route of I-87 linking Raleigh and Norfolk.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, is the Republican candidate you’d almost forget was running for governor were it not for the occasional newspaper article like the one in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. He doesn’t have Ed Gillespie’s financial resources, and he lacks Corey Stewart’s penchant for controversy. But he’s out there, plugging away. As a long-time legislator, his ideas deserve a hearing.

Some of his ideas make sense. He is a fiscal conservative disinclined to gamble with big spending schemes or tax cuts that could disrupt the state budget. “This is not the federal government,” he said at a recent reception in Mathews County. “We cannot print money. We have to balance budgets day in and day out every day.”

But some of his ideas need work. His proposal for jump-starting the economy is to increase transportation spending. Because he’s a fiscal conservative, he would finance that spending through a tax hike, shifting to a sliding scale in which gasoline taxes are higher when the retail price of gasoline is lower, and taxes are lower when the price of gasoline rises.

In the article, Wagner elaborated on his thinking about transportation as a driver of economic development:

Virginia’s transportation network does not foster economic growth, he said, and the state will fall further behind North Carolina without major improvements. For one, North Carolina is planning a highway to connect Raleigh and the research Triangle to Norfolk and the port.

“That’s what business-people do,” Wagner said. “They make strategic investments and expect a return on that investment.”

Another thing business people do is conduct cost-benefit analyses before they make big investments. If anyone has conducted a reputable cost-benefit analysis of Interstate 87 between Raleigh and Norfolk, you can’t find it on the website of the Triangle’s Regional Transportation Alliance (TRA). (If someone knows of such a study, please let me know.) By way of justification, the RTA offers gassy language about investment that would accrue to North Carolina communities along the route (without acknowledging that communities not on the route might see investment shrink) and make it easier for tourists up north to reach the Raleigh area.

The singular virtue that I can see in I-87 is that half the proposed route is already constructed to Interstate standards. Supposedly, the 213-mile Interstate would cost only $1 billion to build. By eye-balling the map, I’d guesstimate that North Carolina would be responsible for building and maintaining 90% of the length. If North Carolina wants to waste its money, well, what the heck, maybe Virginia should be willing to throw in a few bucks to open up a new route for truck shipments from Virginia ports.

But that’s all back-of-the-envelope thinking. The acid test of whether such a project would be an economic boon or drain is whether it could support itself through tolls. Is there sufficient demand for a Norfolk-to-Raleigh connection — perhaps from trucks emanating from the Port of Virginia — that it could pay its own way? If so, and if private sector concessionaires were willing to put their own money into a public-private partnership, I’d be inclined to support the project. Conversely, if business people look at the project and decline to invest their own funds, then I’d be inclined to think that I-87 is just another boondoggle backed by civic boosters angling for Some One Else’s Money.

If Wagner really wants to do like business people do, perhaps he should get business people to pay for the project — and not raise Virginians’ taxes.

John Fishwick Takes on Railroad Mogul in “CSX Train Robbery”

Roanoker John Fishwick launches effort to block "repulsive" compensation package for CSX CEO.

Roanoke attorney John Fishwick launches effort to block “repulsive” compensation package for CSX CEO.

John P. Fishwick, Jr., grew up in a railroading family. His father, after whom he was named, was president of the Norfolk & Western Railway before it merged with the Southern Railway to become Norfolk Southern. The younger Fishwick established a law career in Roanoke, working as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia in the Obama administration and then starting his own law firm.

But he never lost his fascination with railroads. He has taken up a new cause, blocking the out-sized compensation package of Hunter Harrison, a 72-year-old executive hired by CSX Corp. As a CSX shareholder, Fishwick objects to the company reimbursing Harrison $84 million in compensation he forfeited by leaving Canadian Pacific.

Harrison’s claim to fame is implementing the concept of “precision railroading” to boost profitability of Canadian Pacific. In precision railroading, a railway company monitors, tracks and optimizes rail car and locomotive utilization, allowing more efficient deployment of assets and enabling customers to better plan for shipment arrivals and departures. In merger talks with Norfolk Southern last year, Canadian Pacific dangled the prospect of improved investment returns by implementing precision railroading throughout Norfolk Southern’s rail system. Harrison dropped the Norfolk Southern bid in the face of stiff resistance. Then a few months later, with the backing of outside financiers, he took over as CEO at CSX, Norfolk Southern’s main rival for railroad traffic in the eastern U.S.

Fishwick has created a Facebook page and launched an effort to block Harrison’s compensation package. “By forcing the resignation and termination of long-term employees, while at the same time paying a new CEO exorbitant pay which he voluntarily forfeited by leaving his previous job, CSX is crushing the morale of CSX employees,” he wrote in a letter addressed to other shareholders.

Furthermore, he argues, CSX could be liable for Harrison’s back taxes, which could amount to “a few tens of millions of dollars,” and could expose itself to a Canadian Pacific lawsuit. “We the shareholders deserve to know that someone at CSX has fully reviewed Mr. Harrison’s contract with Canadian Pacific and can explain the non-compete clause in this contract.”

Finally, Fishwick charges, CSX over-estimates the value of Harrison’s expertise in precision railroading.

Precision railroading is Mr. Harrison’s calling card and it seems to focus on running the trains on time and getting better routes. This does not appear to be that unusual a strategy and is not patented. Surely someone else could execute this strategy just as well and far more cheaply.”

The CSX annual shareholders meeting is scheduled to be held June 5 in Richmond. It should be interesting.

Woo hoo, Wonks! Interactive Map Shows Average Commute Times by Zip

Click for larger image.

If you squint real hard, you can see the map above displays Virginia and parts of surrounding states. The color codes mark the average commute time by zip code. The dark purple indicates zips with the shortest average commutes and the pinkish-yellow colors the longer commutes. To view the specifics for any given zip code, check out the interactive map created by AutoAccessoriesGarage.com, an online auto accessories retailer.

The Washington metropolitan region appears to be the commuting hell-hole of the country. Only the New York and Los Angeles metros come close. Maryland ranks 1st among all states for the longest average commute (31.9 minutes), while Virginia ranks 4th (28.6 minutes). Even the most cursory glance at the map above shows that in Virginia the longest commutes are centered on the Washington metro and outlying jurisdictions.

Interestingly, commute times in the center of Washington, D.C., are relatively short — some in the vicinity of 20 minutes. Commutes are tolerable in zips near the core in jurisdictions like Arlington, Alexandria and even in areas farther out such as Tysons, Reston and Herndon. But average travel times become brutish on the outlying fringes of the metropolitan region, sometimes exceeding 50 minutes.

Urban cores across the state have shorter commuting times. That applies to Norfolk, Richmond, Charlottesville, Roanoke, Lynchburg and Virginia’s smaller metros. Another pattern that strikes the eye  is the line of purple along the Interstate 81 corridor from north of Harrisonburg through Staunton, Lexington, Roanoke, and Blacksburg all the way to Bristol.

There are patches of pinkish-yellow in rural Virginia where, presumably, inhabitants have to drive great distances to jobs — the West Virginia phenomenon.

The map vividly shows that the biggest transportation dysfunction in Virginia is the mass movement workers from the bedroom communities of far-flung Washington exurbs to jobs in the metro core. What the map doesn’t reveal is how to solve the problem, which is rooted in counter-productive zoning and land use policies. This map shows symptoms, not causes. Still, even a map of symptoms has its uses.

Philip Shucet, Transportation’s First Responder

Philip Shucet

Philip Shucet. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Elizabeth River Crossings (ERC), the public-private partnership that built new tolled tunnels linking Norfolk and Portsmouth, has hired Philip Shucet as CEO. His first task, according to the Virginian-Pilot: Fix customer service.

“I’ve got to understand it, then we’ll fix it,” Shucet told the Pilot minutes after the announcement. “But know this – everyone who uses that tunnel is a valued customer, and we’ll treat ’em that way.”

The state contract with ERC has come under fire in recent weeks for its handling of unpaid tolls. The company has imposed late fees and processing fees that socked motorists with bills as high as $18,000, the Pilot has reported. Because the tolling contract is nearly impossible to re-negotiate, Governor Terry McAuliffe has said he would publicly pressure ERC parent companies Macquarie and Skanska to change ERC’s business practices.

Fixing ERC’s customer-relations problems is the latest in a long line of rescue operations. Shucet first made his mark in Virginia as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) when he overhauled procedures to bring in construction projects on budget and on time. After leaving VDOT he rescued the Norfolk Tide light rail system from massive construction cost overruns, and then was called upon to oversee the ticklish implementation of upgrades to U.S 29 north of Charlottesville.

Bacon’s bottom line: Most people working the interstices between the public and private sectors are usually looking to line their pockets by trading on their relationships. Philip Shucet is a different breed. Not to say that he hasn’t done well for himself as a businessman and consultant in recent years, but he could work anywhere in the country he chooses and probably make a lot more money. Fortunately for the commonwealth, Shucet, who lives in Virginia Beach, has chosen to dedicate much of his career to public service and tackling some of the state’s biggest, stickiest transportation problems. We’re lucky to have him.

Update: Neil Williamson with Charlottesville’s Free Enterprise Forum offers a different take on Shucet’s departure from the Rt. 29 Solutions team: “In our three years of observation, we have grown to appreciate the charming manner in which Shucet manages (some might say manipulates) meetings and their outcomes.”

McAuliffe Orders WMATA Review

Governor McAuliffe has ordered a sweeping review of WMATA, the Washington area's train-wreck of a commuter rail system.

Governor McAuliffe has ordered a sweeping review of WMATA, the Washington area’s train-wreck of a commuter rail system.

Governor Terry McAuliffe has announced an independent review of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (MWATA), the troubled organization that runs rail and bus systems in the Washington metropolitan area. Hampered by massive maintenance backlogs, high labor costs, safety issues and declining ridership, the authority requires billions of dollars in capital funds and hundreds of millions a year in operating funds to reverse a devastating loss of traffic. There is no consensus on where the money will come from.

Ray LaHood, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, will lead an “objective, top-down review” of WMATA, said a statement issued by the governor’s office today. Virginia will pay for the review but will not control it. WMATA is governed by an interstate compact between Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

WMATA’s rail and bus operations move more than one million people a day, making it essential to the Washington-area economy. “Unfortunately,” the statement said, “WMATA today has significant problems that hinder its ability to serve this region’s residents and businesses. It did not happen overnight. It is the result of decades worth of decisions.”

“Everything will be looked at, including operating, governance, and financial conditions,” the statement said. That includes board governance, labor policy, and long-term financial stability. The study will benchmark system costs and expenses, governance, funding levels, cost recovery, maintenance costs, and rail safety incidents. A final report is expected to be issued this November.

The latest fiasco. There was no explanation of what prompted McAuliffe’s decision to launch the review, but news of another management fiasco today illustrates how badly WMATA has broken down. Federal track inspectors have found that the new 7000-series rail cars, which are heavier than the older cars, may be damaging the tracks, reports the Washington D.C. Patch.

WMATA purchased 528 of the 7000-series rail cars in 2013. News reports revealed last year that the cars wouldn’t be used on Blue, Orange and Silver lines because they can’t navigate a steep curve on a stretch of tracks shared by the three lines. Then this year, it was reported that the trains were experiencing failures every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, way below the contract expectations of 20,800 miles.

The decision in 2013 to purchase rail cars that can’t navigate a critical curve, experience failures at three times the contracted rate, and also damage the rail lines is a management failure of spectacular proportions — and the responsibility doesn’t go back decades.

McAuliffe’s decision to act is welcome, even if it’s overdue. The Commonwealth of Virginia cannot continue to dump money into a dysfunctional organization without concrete assurances that the money won’t be wasted.

Update: I was curious about how the McAuliffe administration came to the decision to launch this review but had no insight to share when I made this post. Turns out that the 2017 budget bill called for it, ordering the Secretary of Transportation to “initiate an objective review of the operating, governance and financial conditions” at mWATA.

The review shall encompass the following: (1) the legal and organizational structure of WMATA,; (2) the composition and qualifications of the WMATA board of directors; (3) potential strategies to reduce the growth in labor costs; (4) options to improve the sustainability of employee retirement plans; (5) safety and reliability; and (6) efficiency of operations.

Loudoun County Never Bargained on This

Loudoun County doesn’t even have service on the Metro Silver Line yet, but potential liabilities are escalating beyond levels county officials ever imagined when they signed up to participate.

Metro’s capital needs and operating deficits are growing as the transit system grapples with a multibillion-dollar maintenance backlog, union featherbedding, and declining ridership.

The system’s operating shortfall of nearly $300 million by fiscal 2018 and could double by 2019, said Jim Corcoran, a Virginia representative to the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) board. “If things don’t change, it will be impossible. … We’re at $300 million this year … but next year it’s going to be $500-$600 million.”

WMATA hopes to close the gap through some combination of help from the federal government, the states of Virginia and Maryland, Washington, D.C., and local governments served by the commuter rail system. There is nothing close to a consensus on how to apportion the costs. Many, including Corcoran, said that changes to the regional compact between Virginia, Maryland and D.C., may be necessary to reach a financial agreement.

Writes the  Loudoun Times-Mirror:

According to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s latest projections from October, Loudoun will start to pay Metro around $12 million in fiscal 2019 in annual operating and capital costs. The next year, the number is slated to jump to $50.8 million, then to $58.4 million in 2024 and as high as $82.1 million in 2025.

Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which is still under construction, is scheduled to go into service in Loudoun in 2020. How much more the county will have to pay as its share of keeping the rail system solvent is not known, but it is sure to measure in the millions of dollars yearly.

Autonomous Cars — a Cheap Economic Boost?

Who needs to build new roads or create tolled express lanes when the driverless car revolution is almost upon us? Clifford Winston and Quentin Karpilow suggest that autonomous cars will reduce traffic congestion by boosting highway throughput, creating a huge boost to economic productivity and output.

In a new paper published by the Mercatus Center, “A New Route to Increasing Economic Growth: Reducing Highway Congestion with Autonomous Vehicles,” Winston and Karpilow write:

Widespread adoption of autonomous (driverless) vehicles —- which American and foreign technology companies and automakers are actively developing, testing, and perfecting, with some industry leaders and US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx expecting driverless vehicles to be available to the public by 2021 —- could reduce highway congestion by greatly improving the flow of traffic and by reducing vehicle accidents without significantly increasing the monetary cost of commuting.

Using our estimation results for California and conservatively extrapolating to the nation, we find that the adoption of autonomous vehicles could have potentially large macroeconomic stimulative effects. Specifically, in a given year, a 50 percent penetration rate for autonomous vehicles (i.e., half of the vehicles used by motorists would be driverless) could add at least $214 billion in GDP, 2.4 million jobs, and $90 billion in income to the US labor force.

Read the paper and decide for yourself if this analysis holds water. If it does, Virginia needs to jump on board the autonomous-automobile train (pardon the ironic metaphor). Early-adopter states will enjoy tremendous economic advantages over the laggards. It could be the least expensive economic boost ever.

Virginia’s Infrastructure Deficit

Virginia's infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

Virginia’s infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

I have often opined on Virginia’s hidden deficits — fiscal time bombs in the form of budgetary gimmicks, pension under-funding, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. These problems are national in scope, and Virginia has been somewhat less derelict in its duty than other states, but sooner or later the Old Dominion will have an ugly confrontation.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) rams home the message. The U.S. overall infrastructure rates a D+ rating. Virginia-specific infrastructure rates a C-. (For whatever reason the 2017 national report card links to the 2015 Virginia report card.)

Here’s a summary of the ASCE’s run-down of major infrastructure categories.

Bridges. Virginia has 20,977 bridges and culverts, and their overall health is in decline due to age and lack of funding. Fifty-six percent are approaching the end of their 40-year anticipated design life. Some 30% are more than 50 years old. In 2013, 23% were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  “Available funds are often used to address immediate repair or replacement needs, leaving few remaining funds for preventative maintenance. … The statistics indicate an impending peak of replacements which may be required within the next 10 years.”

Dams. Virginia’s dam inventory continues to grow older and more susceptible to damage. The majority were built in the 1950-75 era, and their average age is 50 years old. Of the state’s high-hazard dams, 45% have conditional certificates, indicating that they do not meet current safety standards. The rehabilitation cost for high- and significant-hazard dams is estimated to be $392 million.

Drinking water. Virginia has 2,830 public water systems supplying drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians. A large number of these systems have passed 70 years in age. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment showed that Virginia waterworks need nearly $6.1 billion over the next 20 years. “Deferral of the necessary improvements has worked so far, but can result in degraded water service, water quality violations, health issues, and higher costs in the future.”

Parks & recreation. Park attendance in Virginia is on the rise, and state parks are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation. The ASCE commentary vaguely states that “a lack of commitment to adequately fund and maintain our facilities will change things for future generations.”

Rail and transit. The report focuses mainly on the inadequacies of funding for passenger rail, which must share rail lines owned by railroad companies that give their own commercial traffic priority. Virginia did recently set up a Rail Enhancement Fund, and it created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, although it did not actually put any money into the latter. “The current funding is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rail and passenger service or to complete the much-needed rail infrastructure improvements and upgrades.”

Roads. The condition of Virginia roads is tolerable from a maintenance and safety standpoint, but traffic congestion in the Washington and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas has a huge negative economic impact. The average Washington-area commuter experiences 74 hours a year of delay. Despite an increase in transportation funding in 2013, “a network that has grown by 14% over the last 35 years and with every dollar buying less construction work, more funding is needed to maintain safe roadways while adding needed capacity, making this a  high priority for Virginia.”

Schools. More than 1,800 public school buildings serve Virginia’s K-12 students. A comprehensive 2013 analysis found that 60% of schools are at least 40 years old. Estimated renovation costs exceed $18 billion for schools more than 30 years old.

Solid waste. Virginia’s solid waste infrastructure is in “good” condition. Increased recycling, a reduction in out-of-state waste, and the addition of 11 additional waste facilities have increased the state’s capacity from 20 years to 22 years.

Stormwater. About one-third of Virginia’s stormwater infrastructure is more than 30 years old, and much of the remainder was built 25 to 30 years ago. Most stormwater infrastructure has a 50- to 100-year lifespan. But the ASCE report is not impressed. “There are shortcomings to address for state-level, standardized reporting, public education, and ensuring a dedicated source of funding commensurate with the economic benefits of a healthy Chesapeake Bay and Virginia ecosystems.”

Wastewater. Virginia has $6.8 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, a 45% increase from ASCE’s previous report card in 2009. That includes $1 billion for combined-sewer overflow, and much  more to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean water standards. “Virginia has made progress with considerable investments and has a comprehensive plan, but has tremendous challenges ahead.”

I don’t share the ASCE’s sense of urgency for every category. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, there are alternatives to building more road and transit projects: (1) reforming land use to provide a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities, and (2) accelerating the Uber-ization of ride sharing in order to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. I also question whether 40 years is an appropriate standard for rehabilitating or replacing school buildings. Clearly, many schools need rehabbing, but the study may overstate the number.

Even with these caveats, Virginia’s infrastructure deficit runs into the billions of dollars. And this analysis does not address recurrent flooding, an increasing problem in Hampton Roads. On top of all the other issues mentioned above, hardening the region’s infrastructure will cost billions of dollars of dollars more.

Update: Charles Marohn over at the Strong Towns blog eviscerates the ASCE report, which he describes as a “propaganda document.”

The reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Sixty years of unproductive infrastructure spending later, we are awash in maintenance liabilities with no money to pay for them. This is what happens when you have a government-subsidized, Ponzi-scheme growth system that, at all times, lives for the next transaction. America is all about new growth, which is why we don’t even bother to question the findings in a study like this.

Is Virginia Ready for the Transportation Revolution?

The 21st-century transportation revolution is undermining core pubic policy assumptions about surface transportation. Will Virginia change its thinking?

The 21st-century transportation revolution is undermining core pubic policy assumptions about surface transportation. Will Virginia change its thinking?

The 21st-century transportation revolution is shifting into higher gear. Technology companies, automobile manufacturers, and energy companies are reassessing the future to see how they  might exploit emerging trends. Where it all goes, nobody yet knows. But state and local governments, which build the infrastructure this emerging industry will run on, need to pay attention.

Highlights from an IHS Markit study, “Reinventing the Wheel,” appear in a Wall Street Journal advertorial today.  The thrust is that the surface transportation industry has not seen this much turmoil since the invention of the automobile more than a century ago. Three trends are converging in ways that are difficult to divine:

  • The rise of driverless cars
  • The rise of electric vehicles
  • The rise of mobility as a service

Of the three, the concept of “mobility as a service” — the idea that people don’t need to own their own automobiles but can order transportation when and where they need it — is potentially the most transformative. “Mobility as a service,” says the essay, “offers a new form of affordable, convenient, and time-effective transportation that could increase miles traveled around the world.”

Uber, which has first-mover advantage in ride-hailing, now has a market capitalization of $68 billion — more than any of Detroit’s “big three” automotive companies. China’s Didi ride-hailing company averaged 20 million rides per day in the second half of 2016.

The invention of ride-hailing apps for automobiles is just the beginning. “Mobility as a service is in its infancy, and even newer business models may appear soon enough,” says the essay. “In Europe we could foresee a modal switch from public mass transit to new forms that offer a different service experience than trains, metros, or buses.”

(We’re already seeing experiments in ride-sharing such as carpools and commuter buses. I fully expect ride-hailing apps to rejuvenate mass transit in the form of jitney-like van services. The advantage of van ride-sharing is that vans, which carry smaller numbers of passengers, can convey people from Point A to Point B with greater flexibility and precision than buses and trains that must stick to fixed routes at fixed times. Uber-ized vans won’t provide as much flexibility and precision as single-occupancy automobiles, but they will provide rides at a more affordable price — potentially for less than mass transit — thus making the service available to a much broader market.)

Mobility as a service has enormous momentum. And it overlaps with two other significant changes: driverless cars and electric vehicles.

“Removing the driver from the car would lower the cost of ride-hailing, thereby opening up access to new population segments,” the essay suggests. Technology companies such as Google and Apple, with some of the largest cash reserves globally, have the resources to overcome technology challenges (and, I would add, the liability issues surrounding car crashes and injuries).

Electric vehicles could diminish the resistance of those who fear that an increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled would increase air pollution and CO2 emissions.

There is one more element in the transportation revolution that the essay overlooks, and that is the assumption that automobiles must be four-seaters. As seen in the photo of experimental Toyota vehicles above, designs for single-seaters are multiplying, even as we see innovations such as battery-assisted bicycles. Such vehicles will bring down the cost of mobility as a service even more.

This multi-faceted transportation revolution is being driven mainly by companies outside Virginia. But, as the essay makes clear, the new technologies and business models will play out on local roads and streets. “The forces driving change will interact in different ways across the globe,” says the essay. “The key decision-makers may well be cities. Some may make bets on all all-electric fleets, while others could see more rapid adoption of autonomous vehicles.”

How will Virginia respond to the transportation revolution? In the previous post, I noted that state government faces a long-term structural mismatch between revenue and spending. Unless we are willing to raise taxes, we must fundamentally re-think how government delivers core services. The mobility revolution offers a once-in-a-century opportunity to do things differently — to provide more mobility for more people at less expense. Will we take advantage of this opportunity, or will we continue, out of institutional inertia, doing things the same way we always have?

Vehicle Miles Traveled: Where the Action Is

Where Vehicle Miles Traveled has increased the most, 2002 to 2015, as shown on this map of VDOT's transportation districts.

Where Vehicle Miles Traveled has increased the most, 2002 to 2015, as shown on this map of VDOT’s transportation districts.

A few days ago I published a graph showing that Virginia has experienced a modest increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) since 2002, but I couldn’t draw any meaningful conclusions. Statewide numbers obscure the traffic dynamics in different parts of the state, and I didn’t have the time to drill deeper.

Inspired no doubt by my sparkling prose, Carol Bova took the trouble to compile the VMT numbers broken down by Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT)’s nine transportation districts between 2002 and 2015. As the beneficiary of her exertions, I no longer have any excuses.

The data make it very clear: While Virginia roads and highways are getting more congested overall, some are getting congested faster than others. Indeed, some parts of the state are de-congesting (if that’s a word). This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Virginia’s demographic trends. The districts with stagnant VMT are experiencing stagnant or shrinking populations.

The overwhelming increase in VMT occurred in the  yellow oval in the map above. Other than an anomalous jump in Interstate traffic in the Staunton district — either Interstate 81 is getting very busy or Northern Virginia’s Interstate 66 commuter shed has leaped over the Blue Ridge Mountains — the overwhelming majority of the traffic growth occurred in just four districts: Northern Virginia, Richmond, Fredericksburg and Culpeper. Those four districts saw an increase of 13.2 million Vehicle Miles Traveled over the 13-year period — four times more than the 3.1 million increase for the other five districts combined.

Even this conclusion cries out for more granularity. The growth in VMT was almost assuredly more concentrated than a glance at transportation districts alone would show. The growth in the Richmond district occurred mainly in the Richmond metro area, not the rural expanse to the south. Likewise, growth in Culpeper and Fredericksburg assuredly took place in the counties in the growth path of metropolitan Washington. (Charlottesville might have added a small kicker for the Culpeper region.)

For all the region’s traffic bottlenecks, the percentage VMT growth in Hampton Roads was modest — on a par with Roanoke/Salem, a less populated transportation district. The Lynchburg district tread water, while the Bristol district lost traffic.

As an aperitif, here is a breakdown of the Vehicle Miles Traveled in absolute numbers (not percentage growth) broken down by transportation district in 2015. While traffic volume may be increasing the fastest in the Culpeper/Fredericksburg exurbs, the districts representing the three main metros — and that includes Hampton Roads — still predominate.

VDOT data exists to drill down locality by locality to confirm or rebut my tentative conclusions. If I ever have the time, I will compare 2002 and 2015 VMT for each Virginia locality and map the percentage increase with Exel’s cool new data mapping software (assuming I can figure out how it works). But don’t hold your breath. My sponsors keep me busy with energy and higher-ed.