How Hampton Roads plans to redirect transportation funding away from Northern Virginia

It’s a no-brainer: we need to identify the highest-priority transportation projects, and direct funding to those projects.   There’s not enough $$$ to build everything, despite the irresponsible promises of our elected officials (and of candidates who want the job).

Don’t believe it when the Washington Post chimes in, claiming there’s a $100 billion backlog of “needed” projects.   There’s no need to build many of the projects in the TransAction 2030 wish list.

For example, a $1+ billion bridge across the Potomac River between Dumfries and Chicamuxen, Maryland is not a  gotta-build-someday project.  A Woodrow Wilson Bridge alternative at Dumfries is just a wish-list subsidy for extending more subsidized-for-developers sprawl into Charles County, Maryland.

In Hampton Roads, local officials are going to change the transportation funding game in Virginia, because that region has been sucking wind.  By their calculations, “from 2004 to 2015, Northern Virginia’s share of the state’s interstate funding is 57.6 percent, compared with Hampton Roads’ 16.6 percent.”  What’s the Hampton Roads plan?

They will start setting clear regional priorities for specific projects.

Constant bickering about transportation projects in Hampton Roads has fractured the region’s political impact.  That’s helped Northern Virginia win the competition for scarce road/rail funding.  Southeastern Virginia is deciding where to focus, then plans to mount a full court press in the General Assembly to redirect transportation funding to their region.

It ain’t easy to set transportation priorities.  The Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization tried to convert the tough local political choices into a technical decision, and let a computer determine what projects were #1, #2, #3…

The computer just spit out the answers.  As described by The Virginian-Pilot, “the stark reality of seeing a number assigned to a project without human input raised eyebrows.”  The clarity of ranking projects in priority order was too bright, for those whose projects (such as the Midtown Tunnel expansion) came in with a low rank.

Now the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization will revise the computer model, give each project multiple rankings, and fuzz up the numbers enough so the computer is no longer in charge of setting priorities.  Soon, however, the elected officials in Hampton Roads will stop throwing money at consultants in order to avoid the hard choices.

Once the Hampton Roads politicians stop waffling and actually negotiate to closure on their transportation priorities, southeastern Virginia will be positioned to redirect $$$ away from Northern Virginia – in preparation for the day when the General Assembly finally raises taxes/fees to fund new transportation projects.

What’s the best Northern Virginia countermeasure?

We could follow Plan A: talk a lot, but do nothing different.  Hey, elections after redistricting in 2011 will guarantee NOVA domination of the General Assembly, right?  Business can continue as usual.  We can keep producing misinformation such as VTrans 2025 and TransAction 2030 and making fraudulent claims about “backlogs,” while scarfing up an unfair share of funding through raw political power.

(Hmmm… think Hampton Roads is savvy enough to build alliances with ROVA – the Rest of Virginia – so a new formula for distributing transportation funds might benefit Roanoke, Richmond, and Hampton Roads at the expense of NOVA ?)

NOVA hurisdictions could follow Plan B: mimic the Hampton Roads playbook and negotiate regional priorities in Northern Virginia.

Since Hampton Roads has shown the political quagmire of ranking each individual project, we might create three priority “lumps.”  (If you want some international flavor, call them “tranches” for the French word for “slices.”)

The obvious candidates for the First Tranche are projects now in the Six Year Improvement Plan (SYIP).  Second Tranche would include the most-desired projects in the Constrained Long Range Plan (CLRP).   Third Tranche would include the remaining projects in the CLRP.  Distinguishing which projects go into each lump is a political challenge – but if Northern Virginia politicians don’t want to engage in heavy lifting, then they should have run for the Clerk of the Court job.

And to be credible in a tough competition with ROVA, let’s drop the rest of the wish-list projects into a new category of Not-to-Be-Funded Tranche.  That way, no politician needs to discard completely the “we heard the ideas, but realistically there’s no money over the next two decades to fund them” projects.

The Washington Post might continue to refer to that lump as a backlog, and developers/real estate agents trying to sell a house in a subdivision far from employment centers might claim those projects are still coming “someday” – but NOVA transportation planning will be more credible if we drop the pretense that we can build everything, everywhere, with no increases in taxes/fees.

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