transportation debate, one would judge from reading the
newspapers, is all about money. How many more dollars
does Virginia need to raise in taxes or divert from the
General Fund to pay for
transportation improvements? A billion dollars a year,
as Gov. Timothy M. Kaine is asking for? Or a mere $400
million that the House of Delegates is proposing? That's
the capital press corps' story, by Gawd, and every last
reporter is sticking to it.
impending budgetary conflict between Gov. Kaine and the state Senate on one
side, and the House of Delegates on the other, was the
uniform narrative in the newspaper coverage Saturday,
the morning after the House of Delegates announced its
long-anticipated transportation plan.
Fiske at the Virginian-Pilot and Hugh Lessig at the Daily News a modicum of credit:
They at least acknowledged that the House plan entails
more than dumping more money into Virginia's failed
transportation system: Proposals to reform VDOT and
address land use issues rated 25 words in Fisk's story
and 54 in Lessig's.
balanced in the sense that reporters told "both
sides" of the story, or, more precisely, both sides
of one strand of the story, they played directly
into the hands of those who want to raise taxes by
defining Virginia's transportation "crisis" as
a financial issue. All other potential solutions are
routinely ignored. The only issues that make it into
print revolve around a single point of conflict: to tax
or not to tax? When the debate is framed this way, low-tax advocates come across
as obstructionists and do-nothings.
can't explain why the reporting has been so inadequate
-- all sorts of uncharitable thoughts spring to mind. But
I do know this: Virginia's press corps is failing its
readers in spectacular fashion and biasing the outcome
of Virginia's most important political debate of 2006.
Vital issues are going grotesquely under-reported.
House plan, as
Speaker William J. Howell, R-Fredericksburg, emphasized,
is a "three-pronged" plan. One thrust of the
plan -- the one you know about if you've read the
newspapers -- revolves around how much more money to
inject into the system. In a nutshell, the House would
add about $400 million per year by plowing budget
surpluses into transportation projects, dedicating
revenues from insurance premiums and recordation taxes,
setting up a revolving loan fund to pay for projects in
Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, and increasing
fines on habitually reckless drivers. I won't dwell on
the details because that's the one aspect of the debate
that the dailies have covered.
the press is overlooking two critical components to the
House plan: overhauling the way VDOT does business and
linking transportation and land use planning.
me say up front that there are elements of the House package
that I don't care for. To my way of thinking, the
proposals represent only a feeble first stab at
addressing the fundamental changes that need to take
place. The House still focuses too much on raising money
and adding capacity, and not nearly enough on managing
transportation demand. But I'll give Speaker Howell and
his colleagues credit for this: They've broken free
from the old tax-and-build paradigm, and that's big
second prong of the House plan -- one you probably have
read nothing about -- endeavors to transform VDOT
governance and provide a greater role for local
governments and the private sector in devising
was created in the 1930s," Howell explained to me
in an interview late Friday. "We're dealing with
the same basic model today. It's just not working!"
House bill would mandate the outsourcing of maintenance
on all Interstate highways within the state. That single
measure could save tens of millions of dollars
per year. (See "The
Waste in Maintenance," Jan. 30, 2006.)
bill would shift operation of the Intelligent
Transportation System from VDOT control to private
control. The logic: Privatization would harness the
ingenuity and technological expertise of the private
sector to implement the latest ITS capabilities.
pieces of legislation would encourage the use of
design-build contracts, increase revenue-sharing grants
to local governments, and, momentously, allow the state
to grant "concessions" to private contractors
to "offer new opportunities to expedite
infrastructure improvements to increase highway safety,
reduce traffic congestion and enhance mobility."
Howell summarized the thrust of the legislation,
"We've been trying to reform VDOT. ... The Governor
and the Senate get the cart before the horse. They want
to raise revenue before they get VDOT fixed. ... Let's
reform the system before we worry where the money's
VDOT requires more than a new super-hero transportation
commissioner because the problem runs deeper than the
agency's organizational culture. Reform requires making
changes to the governance structure, especially
the Commonwealth Transportation Board, which decides
which road projects get funded. "The guy from
Fredericksburg [appointed by former Gov. Mark R. Warner]
is a real nice fellow, but he's a funeral home
director," notes Howell. "He knows nothing
about transportation, but he's making decisions about
how roads get built."
can't afford to put amateurs in charge anymore, Howell
House package would provide for the election of district
representatives to the Commonwealth Transportation Board
in place of political appointees, require the
transportation commissioner to report periodically on
VDOT efforts to "privatize, outsource and downsize,"
and set up a Joint Commission on Transportation
Accountability to exercise legislative oversight.
sum, the House of Delegates proposes to engineer the
most radical overhaul in 80 years of the Virginia
Department of Transportation -- how the agency is
governed, as well as its relationship with local
government and the private sector -- and Virginia's
press corps doesn't deem the idea worth printing.
the press were subject to the same laws as tobacco
companies or asbestos manufacturers, Virginia's
newspapers could be sued for criminal negligence.
third prong of the House plan addresses land use, an
issue the press corps ignored until Tim Kaine made it a
major campaign issue year, and still downplays even
today. In this regard, the House agrees with Kaine on
the importance of linking transportation and land use
reform. Indeed, Howell and Kaine share very similar
critiques of what happens when local governments create
comprehensive plans and make zoning decisions without
consideration to the impact on the local transportation
uses an example in his home district to illustrate how
the system is broken. The Fredericksburg City Council
permitted a major developer, the Silver Companies, to
build a massive complex of shopping centers, big box
stores and restaurants, called Central Park, right off
Interstate 95. As the dominant shopping complex in the region, Central Park sucks in traffic from miles
around, overloading the fragile road network. To make
matters worse, City Council has more recently allowed
Silver Companies to build a big new convention center
and Hilton Hotel nearby.
city says, sure, you can build it, without any thought
to the roads," says Howell. "Instead of 20,000
cars a day, you'll have 40,000 a day. Who's going to fix
it? The state."
there are important philosophical differences on how
transportation and land use planning should be aligned.
Kaine wants to give local governments more power to
reject rezoning requests that would allow development in
areas where the transportation infrastructure is
inadequate to handle the resulting traffic. Howell
doesn't like that kind of
House reform package would require local governments to
include transportation improvements -- and the estimated
cost of those improvements -- in their comprehensive
plans. Furthermore, localities would have to submit
their comprehensive plans and traffic impact statements
to VDOT for review and comment.
measures would ease requirements for allowing local
governments to extract proffers from developers, and
would put more money into the hands of local governments
for transportation improvements.
are modest measures, and Howell concedes that they
represent only a first step. My personal reaction: It
can't hurt to require local governments to consider
transportation when they assemble their comprehensive
plans. If county supervisors understand the impact their
zoning decisions will have on traffic congestion, and if
they know how much the roads will cost to fix, they
might exercise more prudence.
the other hand, the House proposals don't touch
underlying problems, such as the zoning codes and
subdivision ordinances that cause development to be so
scattered, disconnected and low-density. Until that
pervasive pattern of dysfunctional development changes,
any land use reforms will be cosmetic.
even my criticisms of the House plan miss a larger
point: The House is thinking about the
transportation-land use connection. That is a momentous
Virginia's political reporters and editorial writers
have failed to grasp is that the terms of the
transportation debate are shifting. Even if Kaine and
Howell disagree on the specifics of land use reform, so
what? Look at how much they agree upon.
Mainstream Media, which dwells on conflict and discord,
fails to see the traffic jam for all the cars: Land use
reform is not just a local issue anymore; it's a state
issue, and the Governor and the House have resolved to
the media radar screen, a vibrant debate is taking place
about the future of Virginia transportation. From
the ranks of
free-market think-tank wonks and the Smart Growth
activists, creative thinking is bubbling into the
political arena. Even the politicians are getting it.
The reporters, it seems, are the last to know.
February 13, 2006
Opens Fray in VA Over Road Funds
Crystallize on Spending, Taxes
Opens a Third Transportation Route
GOP floats $2B roads plan
legislators have a transportation strategy that raises
less money but avoids tax hikes
The Daily Press
Pitch Plan for Roads
The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star
Richmond Times-Dispatch covered the
story, I could not find it online.