Transportation – A Lack of Funding Requires New Thinking

The Commonwealth of Virginia yesterday (10/15/08) announced budget cuts for the Virginia Department of Transportation that will total 1.38 billion dollars over the next five years.  Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer announced that state and federal transportation revenues are projected to decrease between $2.1 and $2.6 billion over the next six years.

According to a VDOT Media Release:

During the meeting, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Commissioner David S. Ekern presented a high-level plan outlining how VDOT will respond to the six year revenue forecast and position itself to address long-term economic changes to transportation revenues.

“In the future, VDOT will be a smaller agency. We cannot afford to administer and deliver our services, programs and projects the same way we have in the past,” said Ekern. “Safety, emergency response and maintenance of existing roadways will be our top priorities, but we will have to make some difficult decisions to live within our means.”

VDOT’s plan includes reducing service and staffing levels throughout the commonwealth, particularly through reductions in residency offices, senior management and repair shops.

VDOT will also evaluate services provided throughout the commonwealth including roadside maintenance, lighting, mowing, signage and other activities.

The six-year program will be revised by the CTB by January to account for the state and federal revenue reductions. These reductions will greatly impact state and local highway construction throughout the commonwealth.

Reading between the lines, most if not all future road construction projects will be eliminated as VDOT priorities (or at least moved to the back burner).

Rachana Dixit of The Daily Progress has the story from the Charlottesville area perspective.  This news comes at a time local officials are attempting to drum up political support for a new transit authority and a local sales tax option for transportation (see Regional Transit Two Step). 

The Daily Progress article quotes Supervisor David Slutsky:

“You know if they tell you to expect it you’re not going to get more,” Slutzky said, referring to the General Assembly.

‘Derelict of duty’

“The current General Assembly is totally derelict of duty,” he added. “It’s shameful.”

It is imperative that we consider the statewide impact of a lack of funding for new roads.  Too often, this region considers itself an island without contemplating the impacts for even more populous (more gridlocked) regions such as Tidewater or Northern Virginia.  The definitions of gridlock differ widely throughout the state.  Some in NOVA and Tidewater that are spending 1 1/2 hrs each way on their commute may look fondly at North US 29 at 5:15 pm.  Using this wide lens may assist in appreciating the true scope of this policy shift. 

If we accept the State Government is not willing to fund Transportation projects, how do we, as citizens of the commonwealth, seek to address this imperative need?

  1. Change the State’s position by augmenting funds with a broadbased state tax (ie. a dedicated state sales tax) where all funds generated return in form of transportation projects that serve the localities.
  2. Change the State’s spending priorities by changing the butts in the seats
  3. Develop local funds for transportation with a local tax (ie. a dedicated sales tax)
  4. If no new roads will be built, increase road capacity by other means (transit, flex-time, telecommuting)
  5. Recognize that this is the fiscal reality and accept it.

The Free Enterprise Forum believes transportation funding requires citizens to look beyond their desire to have a Berkmar Bridge (or a new bus route, bike lane, etc) and focus on the fundamental governmental shift the local sales tax option would represent.  In the past the “deal” between the state and localities has been locals handle the schools and the state would take care of the roads.  The state’s is clearly no longer committed to this ideal.

Intuitively, The Free Enterprise Forum believes state funding of transportation prevents the balkanization of transportation projects between localities within a region. Further, of the four alternatives posted above #1 seems unlikely in the current political environment, #2 has been historically impossible (power of incumbency) this leaves the do nothing option, the local tax option and increase capacity by other means. 

Based on the current transit trends in like sized localities, it could be imagined that transit may increase its market share but it will only be at the margins.  Significant capacity may be added through the increased use of telecommuting and flex time.  These low cost employer driven solutions should be investigated and, if found to be sound, promoted throughout the region.

The do nothing option may be fine for a twenty four month strategy but if played out for 6 years, negative economic impacts would be seen from Cape Henry to Winchester as product transport times continue to increase across the Old Dominion.

Finally, the Free Enterprise Forum is very concerned about the local sales tax option that is not regionally based.  Retail sales are already fleeing the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County (down significantly this year).  The introduction of a new sales tax will push even more sales to Augusta, Greene, Louisa and Henrico Counties. 

Given all of the above, and the current economic climate, I am doubtful the General Assembly would allow the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and The Charlottesville City Council the ability to enact a local sales tax option.  If put to a voter referendum in the next election cycle, I do not see it passing in both the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Therefore, given VDOT’s focus on maintenance and safety and a lack of other revenue sources, the Metropolitan Planning Organization must look for low cost, market driven innovations to increase the capacity of our current road network.


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