Tuesday night: first step in the set-up for new taxes, to build a few new roads

This Tuesday, the Board of County Supervisors (BOCS) is primed to approve updated Land Use and Transportation chapters for the county’s Comprehensive Plan.  The elected officials who vote to adopt new chapters won’t tell you that they are supporting higher taxes or greater traffic congestion… or both, probably.

The vision in those draft chapters: stay the course.  Prince William should grow just as we have grown for the last 50 years.  Good times will return, and the Virginia Department of Transportation will expand local highways to match local population growth – no matter where we locate that new development.

By 2030, the draft update of the Transportation Chapter assumes Prince William County will have 700 miles of new lanemiles completed. Get real – Prince William won’t get $150 million/year for the next 20 years for new transportation projects.  Realistically, once remaining road projects in the pipeline are completed by 2016, Prince William might see as low as zero – zippo, nada, zilch – in $$$ for new construction.

Still, the supervisors are prepared one more time to approve new development, encouraging growth in places waaaaaay before the county can increase the capacity of the transportation network at those places.  The supervisors are playing the old game: approve massive new development, blame Richmond for traffic headaches while new subdivisions gradually generate new congestion, propose a new road bond with projects in every district, and claim that new bonds do not increase taxes.

What’s wrong with this “old normal” scenario?

Unless you’ve been imitating an ostrich with your head in the sand, you know there’s no money now for 700 new lanemiles.  You have to be a big-time optimist to think we’ll be able to widen existing highways, build new roads and intersections, and extend Virginia Railway Express by 2030.  You’re smoking something funny if you expect to see a ferry or Metrorail operating in Prince William.

Unless the new governor and General Assembly do backflips on support for new taxes/fees, and unless the economy surges into a new bubble that never pops, there will be very little/no money in the next 20 years for new roads.   Even if we sell state assets such as liquor stores for a one-time surge, we’ll be stuck with increasing costs for aging infrastructure that’s getting to be 30-50 years old.  Maintenance costs for replacing bridges and repaving existing lanemiles will eat up new funding projected to come from oil/gas development offshore.

Still, Prince William supervisors are betting that good times will roll again, so it’s OK to “bet on the come” that new transportation $$$ will appear.

Our supervisors are setting it up so new subdivisions will ask for a bailout from local voters in the next 5-10 years.  Once enough new houses are built and traffic congestion is horrible again, voters will be asked to approve new road bonds and fund some of the 700 lanemiles needed in Prince William, because the Virginia Department of Transportation is not doing the job fast enough to relieve new congestion.

How should we describe elected officials who approve new development, without having a realistic plan to fund new transportation infrastructure required by the new development?  Perhaps we should say those officials are “as financially responsible as Wall Street bankers in 2008” or  “as fiscally conservative as Enron executives in 2001”?

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