Changing gears on transportation in Virginia
Virginians recently got a more detailed look at the McAuliffe administration’s transportation approach with a new six-year plan approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board and a major policy address by the governor. These developments suggest a significant departure from the misguided focus of the McDonnell administration and may signal an overdue move toward a more balanced, efficient, innovative and sustainable 21 st-century approach to transportation.
The list of transportation needs across the commonwealth is long. Our limited available funds must be invested wisely, as the General Assembly recognized in passing legislation this year requiring a new process to prioritize potential construction projects. As the governor noted, we cannot measure the success of our transportation program by the amount of money we spend. We need to focus on results and ensure that we are getting the biggest bang for the buck with the billions of taxpayer dollars Virginia spends each year on transportation.
The first law of holes is that when you are in one you should stop digging. And the new administration has thus sensibly begun by taking a fresh look at some of the flawed highway proposals it inherited and working to find better solutions.
The new package of alternatives to the now-defunct proposed Route 29 Bypass of Charlottesville is particularly significant. Approved as part of the new six-year plan, the package provides a template for refocusing spending on more effective projects.
The proposed bypass would have cost more than $244 million and offered minimal benefits relative to its cost, while causing considerable damage to communities and the environment. After the Federal Highway Administration warned that the proposal was likely unjustifiable, McAuliffe and Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne convened an advisory panel to develop alternatives. The recommended package of targeted solutions ultimately approved by the CTB includes two major street network additions to take local drivers – who are the vast majority of traffic on this stretch of Route 29 – off the highway, address the worst congestion chokepoints, synchronize stoplights and help fund a new passenger train between Lynchburg, Charlottesville and Washington, D.C., that will build on the successful existing service on that route. These measures will significantly improve mobility on Route 29 for years to come for local and through traffic far more than a bypass ever would, providing a far greater return to taxpayers while better protecting the environment.
The $1.4 billion proposal to build a highway right next to the existing Route 460 from Petersburg to Suffolk presents a similar opportunity. The governor rightly halted work on the project after learning that roughly $300 million had been spent without a shovelful of dirt being turned on an unneeded proposal that lacks necessary permits and would destroy more wetlands than any other project in Virginia since the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. A far smarter investment is to improve the existing Route 460 and rail service in the corridor.
Unfortunately, these are not the only boondoggle proposals the prior administration was pushing forward. Funds should be reallocated from other destructive and wasteful highway projects that remain in the state’s transportation plan — such as the proposed Bi-County Parkway in Northern Virginia and excessive widening of I-81 — and invested instead in less damaging and more efficient solutions.
In addition to funding better alternatives to these particular projects, we need to invest in a broader range of transportation choices, including transit, rail, walking and bicycling options. Providing alternatives to driving offers numerous important benefits, including promoting economic development, freeing up road capacity, helping to clean our air and water, reducing vulnerability to higher gas prices and better serving the needs of our growing and aging population.
The governor has recognized the growing public demand for more transit options and for walkable communities, as well as the fact that we cannot pave our way out of congestion, and the new six-year plan makes some important progress in advancing transportation alternatives. In addition to the funding for Lynchburg-Charlottesville-D.C. rail service, it includes funding for extending light rail to Virginia Beach, building the Fairfax-Arlington streetcar, providing two additional passenger trains from Richmond to Norfolk, extending passenger rail to Roanoke and helping launch Richmond’s first bus rapid transit line. This sensible approach needs to be continued.
The governor has made a significant start toward wiser investments that will improve Virginia’s transportation network, benefiting taxpayers and our economy, communities and the environment. We still have a long way to go, but we are finally moving in the right direction.