News | July 27, 2015

Word on the Street: Where should the money go? Setting priorities for transportation spending

SELC’s Land and Community Program tackles the growth challenges and decisions shaping the Southeast. This series of posts runs every other week and highlights some of the broader issues driving this work—transportation and land use developments, alternatives, and progress in our region.

Who decides how transportation resources are spent and how those decisions are made? Given the massive role transportation projects play in shaping the environment we live in and the billions of dollars spent on them, the need for a transparent process grounded in concrete data seems obvious. Yet for too long in the Southeast, transportation decisions have been made behind closed doors. This allows political influence to trump a full and fair assessment of how best to spend scarce taxpayer resources.

Consider Virginia, where the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) allocates a large portion of state and federal transportation dollars. Historically, the CTB has offered little to no public justification for its funding decisions; the process has largely taken place inside a black box. Next year, that will change. A new state statute will require all transportation projects under consideration to be scored based on factors such as their effectiveness in reducing congestion and their impact on the environment. The results of this scoring will be made public and must be considered by the CTB as it determines which projects to fund. SELC helped improve the initially proposed statute and continues working to strengthen its implementation.

“The goal is to create an objective way to compare and prioritize proposals so that, if the state proposes to fund an ineffective and destructive project that scores poorly, it will at least have to explain why,” said Trip Pollard, leader of SELC’s Land and Community program.

This is a big shift for the Commonwealth. Consider how far a proposal for a new Route 460 in southeast Virginia went before it was finally cancelled. Despite clear and consistent warnings that the project was too destructive to wetlands to garner a permit under the Clean Water Act, the former McDonnell Administration allocated over a billion dollars to the project and the state entered into a rushed contract to have it built. That contract has now been terminated and the proposal abandoned, leaving taxpayers out $253 million with nothing to show for it.

Pollard feels this is where prioritization can help. “Had that project been subjected to an objective scoring system that considered its ineffectiveness and properly factored in the tremendous environmental damage it would inflict, it’s much less likely this ever would have happened,” he said.

North Carolina also altered its construction plans. The state replaced its politically mandated list of highway projects with a data-driven scoring system SELC helped to shape in 2013. A number of projects SELC long opposed, including the widening of U.S. 64 through the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the expansion of I-73 through North Carolina’s Green Swamp, and the boondoggle Garden Parkway, scored poorly and are now unlikely to be built.

Attorney Kym Hunter summarized the Garden Parkway debacle this way: “There was never any need for this project; support for its construction was rooted exclusively in the politically connected people who own land at each of the road’s proposed exits.”

Designed as a 21-mile toll road west of Charlotte, the Garden Parkway is estimated to cost $930 million. The state’s own data show that it would actually increase congestion on surrounding roadways and result in net job-losses for North Carolina. SELC put the brakes on the project when it filed litigation in 2012. As a result, the costly toll highway was forced to compete in North Carolina’s new scoring system where it fell to the bottom of the heap and was removed from the state’s 10-year construction plan.

With new scoring practices in place or soon to be established, both states are providing examples of how to increase the likelihood that taxpayer dollars will go to right-sized projects that truly meet transportation demands. While such systems are by no means perfect – political influence is impossible to eliminate entirely – they help open transportation decisions up to the light of day and are an important step in the right direction.

Read the previous Word on the Street posts: