High Maintenance

Maintenance is consuming Virginia’s transportation budget,  and members of a Commonwealth Transportation Board subcommittee agree that the state should change should the way it does business. But urban-rural differences could make it hard to reach agreement.

By James A. Bacon

The commonwealth of Virginia spends roughly $1.4 billion per year to maintain its road system but that massive sum has yet to pay off with smoother roads and sturdier bridges. According to a 2009 report, VDOT rated 31% of the state’s 98,000 miles of secondary road as deficient, a marked deterioration over the previous decade, and tagged 9% of the state’s 19,400 bridges and culverts the same. The Old Dominion doesn’t just lack sufficient funds to expand its transportation network, it barely has enough to keep up what it’s got.

Meeting for the first time in Richmond Wednesday, a subcommittee of the Commonwealth Transportation Board began reviewing how the state allocates its maintenance dollars. Its object: Determine if the money can be more effectively spent or more equitably distributed.

Although most of the session was devoted to reviewing background material, subcommittee members raised a number of issues that will shape the agenda in a follow-up meeting next month. Urban CBT members made clear their interest in revising VDOT formulas for allocating maintenance funds, which are based on the number of lane-miles of road in the state system. They raised the possibility of distributing funds on the basis of entirely different criteria, such as need, as measured by the condition of roads and bridges, or where investments can generate the highest economic return.

Shep Miller

In a session where all members were actively engaged in the discussion, it was W. Sheppard Miller, a Norfolk businessman appointed to the board as an urban at-large member, who most forcefully made the case for an overhaul of the allocation formulas. If he could reinvent the maintenance allocation formula from scratch, Miller asked, why would he create one anything like the one Virginia has now? The current formula, which spreads money around the state irrespective of need or economic payoff, results in a system in which roads in some parts of the state are maintained in superb condition while roads in other areas are deteriorating.

“Does it make sense from a business perspective?” he asked. “I want to invest my scarce maintenance dollars where they give me the greatest return. If I’ve got four bedrooms in my house and one room needs to be painted, I’m not going to paint one wall in each room!

Miller argued that the lane-mile count is only one among several relevant metrics for prioritizing the allocation of dollars among state highway districts, where VDOT maintains the roads, and cities, towns and two counties (Arlington and Henrico), which maintain their own roads. “What’s the cost of having a poor secondary road system?” he asked. “Is the cost greater around Dulles than Farmville? If Rt. 15 through Prince Edward County isn’t in good shape, what’s the impact on the commonwealth, as opposed to a road through Dulles [airport] or to Hampton Roads? Some lane miles are more important [economically] than others. If I’m in a hurricane and my generator goes out, I’m not so concerned about the light in my attic. I’m very concerned about my refrigerator.”

Gary Garczynski, a Woodbridge developer and at-large urban member, backed Miller’s line of thinking. Allocation formulas must be equitable, he conceded, “but you’ve got to take into account the economic impact on the commonwealth. What’s going to deliver the greatest economic impact for the good of all of the citizens?”

The two rural at-large members, James Keen from Vansant in Southwestern Virginia and Allen Louderback from Luray in the Shenandoah Valley, did not contest the point but they did offer different perspectives. “We need to look at ways to enhance revenues,” Keen said. Louderback cited the rapid growth in the number of lane-miles in fast-growth counties, which resulted in them increasing their shares of the maintenance pot while leaving smaller shares for others. Developers routinely turn over secondary roads inside their subdivisions to the state to maintain. “We can’t keep adding things. Maybe we shouldnt.”

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13 responses to “High Maintenance

  1. “Louderback cited the rapid growth in the number of lane-miles in fast-growth counties, which resulted in them increasing their shares of the maintenance pot while leaving smaller shares for others. “.

    More people = more cars = more money needed for roads.

    Brilliant!!

    Of course the problem isn’t so much population growth as it’s the freezing of the gas tax (in cents per mile) since 1986. A freeze that has been insisted upon by Virginia’s rural interests (See also: “We tain’t payin’ fer no Nover roads.).

    Time to turn off the Hee Haw reruns and think this through …

    Today’s gas tax dollar buys less than 50 cents of what it bought in 1986.

    The problem is not that farm roads should be maintained by the state but suburban roads should not.

    The problem is that the gas tax has been frozen in cents per gallon for 25 years.

    How well would you be doing if your salary was frozen at the level you received in 1986?

    This isn’t all that hard.

  2. VDOT ranks high in national comparisons on it’s efficient use of resources and believe it or not – general condition of the roads ( exceptions noted).

    but more intensive use of roads is going to cause cause higher maintenance costs and the question is – is the money that is being generated by those who are intensively using the roads and causing maintenance needs – adequate to pay for that?

    in that vein – all this talk about maintenance and we do not have in hand an accurate picture of where the maintenance needs are.

    And.. I get the impression (perhaps wrongly) that NoVa wants MORE roads not better maintenance….

    we have a parallel discussion of roads of statewide significance.

    shouldn’t these roads be a priority in terms of maintenance?

    we have lots and lots of politics involved here.. so I’m not optimistic but I highly respect the comments made by Mr. Miller.

    If you looked at the roads in NoVa and in other high growth areas – you’d be hard pressed to not recognize that major primary roads – roads of statewide significance are no longer reliable in terms of moving people THROUGH those jurisdictions as those roads (like in Charlottesville) have been co-opted for local development – both residential and commercial.

    We cannot get through Charlottesville for the same reason we cannot get through NoVa…

    we ought to recognize that… when we say changes are needed.

  3. I’m coming to a view that the only real way to protect roads of statewide significance is to have not only draconian measures to prevent curb cuts and median cross overs but new ones like the bypass in Charlottesville should be tolled.

    My rational is this.

    Most people trying to get THROUGH a place like Charlottesville would find the toll well worth the time savings…

    and local developers would find that toll to be an impediment to co-opting the road for their own gains.

    If I could get through NoVa by paying a toll to give me a timely transit – it would be a bargain.

    The only folks who know how to deal with NoVa roads especially at busy times are folks who live there.

    If I’m trying to get to one of the airports – it’s a total crap-shoot even though everyone and their dog in NoVa itself know when NOT to try to get to the airport – or at least they know how much lead time to allow for.

    My last misadventure a few years back occurred I allowed an hour longer than previous flights …and yet I still missed the flight by an hour because I did not realize that pre/post rush hour can be deadly in terms of estimating time delays.

    Just a few months ago.. a relative returning from NY ..OUTSIDE of rush hour was delayed more than 2 hours getting through NoVa because of a lingering rush hour….

    People now will take Rt 301 or I-81 to not get tangled up in NoVa traffic …

    and.. I-95 was ORIGINALLY planned and designed as an East Coast corridor of National significance and now it’s so compromised that horrific tales of innocents trying to navigate through the DC area are legion.

    So it”s MORE than maintenance. In fact, I find most roads in NoVa to be in pretty good shape – unlike some other urban roads (like St. Louis and Louisville)… but the traffic is over the top… and my bet is that HOT Lanes are going to result in significant changes and hopefully improvement.

  4. What does Charlottesville need a bypass for? They already have one, called I-64.

  5. North/south Darrell…. Rt 29 is preventing all the I-81 trucks from using Rt-29 south through Lynchburg and they are in a snit about it..or were before McDonnell / VDOT figured out how to crack the opposition nut

  6. Most people trying to get THROUGH a place like Charlottesville would find the toll well worth the time savings…

    and local developers would find that toll to be an impediment to co-opting the road for their own gains.

    ==========================================

    And so they will go someplace else. Tolls will create sprawl, or they will result in MORE NEW PLACES.

    Take your pick.

  7. The problem is that the gas tax has been frozen in cents per gallon for 25 years.

    ==================================

    The problem is the Virginai Gas tax has been frozen for 25 years. other states have manaed to raise their fule taxes, and some are automatically indexed.

  8. my bet is that HOT Lanes are going to result in significant changes and hopefully improvement.

    =======================================

    Wishful thinking that is counter to the results of traffice predictions, and the reason Arlington sued to prevent them.

  9. “and so they’ll go someplace else”

    that’s find as long as they are not ruining the primary roads that people depend on to get through the area.

    re: gas tax – it’s the simply reality that pushes us towards tolls.. people don’t want the taxes.. they’ll accept the tolls because in their mind it won’t cost them unless they want to use the road.

    re: Arlington

    yes…. Arlington sued primarily because the NEPA study did not look at what the HOT lanes would do to Arlington’s surface streets but I notice that Arlington bailed …. and/or VDOT found a way past that problem.

  10. I see several issues beyond just the amount of revenue available to VDOT. One is the institutional problems with the CTB. VDOT’s board of directors often has internal conflicts of interest and make too many investment decisions to please their connections, lobbyists and the real estate development industry, rather than on the basis of economics and engineering. Delegate Jim LeMunyon has sponsored legislation to fund projects in NoVA based on the returns they produce to reduce traffic congestion and improve safety. How sensible. A proper price signal would also result in less damage to Virginia’s roads and bridges. Why should people pay higher taxes until the CTB is fixed?
    Parasite enabling. Virginia drivers subsidize overweight trucks by more than $200 million each year. Why should people pay higher taxes until this subsidy is eliminated?
    Lane miles versus vehicle miles. While we need a statewide road system, why are we maintaining high-quality roads that are not heavily used, while heavily used roads are not well-maintained? Why should people pay higher taxes when they won’t see any improvement in their driving? We need to move maintenance dollars to the roads being driven.
    Adequate Public Facilities laws. Most states, especially those with higher gas taxes, also have adequate public facility laws that postpone development when the infrastructure won’t handle the growth. In Virginia, we can keep digging ourselves deeper holes. Why should people pay higher taxes when the land use laws operate such that there will be no traffic relief from the added spending in most instances?

  11. pretty much the way it works is that VDOT tells the locality how much money is available to them and then asks them to prioritize the roads they want.

    the localities often see new roads as opportunity for economic development ..more tax revenue.. more things that people want like schools, libraries and parks and will pretty much blame VDOT for not giving them enough money to do BOTH economic development AND transportation utility.

    The CTB reps pretty much represent the wishes of the areas they represent…. not surprisingly…..

    but roads in Va have always been viewed as economic development venues so the recent change at VDOT is a bit of a shock.

    In Spotsylvania .. VDOT’s recent announcement that access management would result in closing median cross-overs.. the immediate come back from the BOS was that doing so would “hurt” businesses….

    No city, town or county in VA is particularly focused on transportation utility.. to them ..that’s VDOTs job but it should not affect their own roads… i.e. build bypasses – not with their money but other money…

    I’ve been a severe critic of VDOT but to a certain extent – they were listening to localities rather than dictating state-level fiats to localities.

    So … I find the “central planning” advocacy for VDOT – for Richmond VDOT … for roads of statewide significance.. interesting…

    one more thing… – the FEDS have instituted MPOs – which are intended to focus on coordinating regional transportation … and to do away with “wish” lists and focus only on the roads that you actually have funding for.

    that’s had an impact on VDOT…. over time…. although they still ultimately call the shots because the money allocation for roads from the Fed goes through VDOT and is not directly allocated to the regions and localities.

    that may change… we’ll see but turning over transportation money directly to the localities may not be the best thing.

  12. “Adequate Public Facilities laws. Most states, especially those with higher gas taxes, also have adequate public facility laws that postpone development when the infrastructure won’t handle the growth. In Virginia, we can keep digging ourselves deeper holes. Why should people pay higher taxes when the land use laws operate such that there will be no traffic relief from the added spending in most instances?”
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    TMT: I agree with you, but I also know Virginia will NEVER have APF laws, or even the ability to adopt APF by ordinance. Some localities have APF policy, but the don’t dare deny a zoning case based on APF alone. The courts have been very clear on that point. Dillon and his rule, you know?

    In Chesterfield, when a developer wants to rezone property for residential use, the developer builds the roads. Miles of them. They are forced to make the “voluntary” contribution in the form of proffers. Same with water and sewer where none exists, or improvements are needed.
    My issue with this is that no matter how many opinions exist to the contrary, more lanes of travel have never and will never ease congestion. You simply just can’t build your way out of it. We need new thinking.

  13. BTW… I also think the gas tax should be tied to some form of index. If we had raised it 15 years ago, we might be in better shape.
    Oh, wait. That depends on who makes the decisions on how to spend the money…crap.

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