Proposed new regulations would reform – or undermine, depending upon your point of view — a keystone 2007 law designed to limit the negative impact of local land use decisions upon state roads.
By James A. Bacon
In 2007 members of the General Assembly were struck by a revelation: There were ways to address the problem of traffic congestion in Virginia that did not entail building expensive new roads and highways. Gridlock arises not only from a growing population and increasing traffic load but from poor planning and design. Accordingly, the legislature enacted a sweeping overhaul of state law regulating the interface of transportation and land use.
Provisions of the law required traffic impact analysis for new development, greater street connectivity between new subdivisions and tighter regulation of public access to state highways. The bipartisan action was widely regarded one of the signature achievements of the Kaine administration.
This year the General Assembly passed a law directing the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to review the legislation and enact new regulations as needed. A VDOT advisory committee has recommended several changes, which await approval either by the Virginia Highway Commissioner or the Commonwealth Transportation Board.
The revisions represent a victory for the real estate industry. Two measures – one that would reduce the size of rezoning projects required to conduct a Traffic Impact Analysis, and another that would modify regulations requiring new subdivisions to connect with one another – stand out as particularly important. The two provisions will relieve developers and home builders of significant regulatory costs while still preserving the intent of the original law, maintains Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association of Virginia.
But smart growth activists say the proposed new regulations will dilute the effectiveness of what had been one of the most progressive efforts in the country to coordinate transportation and land use. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, described the 2007 law as an effort to stem the growing and unaffordable list of transportation projects requested by local government and passed up to the General Assembly.
“We will never have enough funds to build the quantity of infrastructure created by patterns of development that have been increasingly used since World War II,” Schwartz wrote to Virginia Highway Commissioner Gregory Whirley. “By preserving the throughput of our highway network through better access management, by measuring traffic impact and applying creative solutions to reduce demand, and by increasing local street connectivity to reduce demand and traffic on our overburdened arterial roadways, we can save the tax payers of Virginia huge sums of money that would otherwise be required for new highways, the widening of dozens of arterials, and the addition of dozens of new interchanges.”
The idea behind the regulations, says Trip Pollard, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, is to look before you leap. “Yes, there is a cost, but it’s a very reasonable cost.” The proposed revisions “are not the end of the world,” he concedes, and Virginia still will be better off than five years ago. “But we’re losing a lot here. … If you don’t address transportation and land use, you’ll end up with sprawl and congestion.”
The revisions address three broad areas: traffic impact statements, secondary street acceptance requirements and access management regulations. (View VDOT’s video presentation of the regulatory changes here.)