The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority approved an initial list of 34 transportation projects last week to be paid with the new taxes enacted by the General Assembly earlier this year. How many fewer hours will Northern Virginians spend sitting in traffic as a result of these projects? The NVTA isn’t saying, even though it is required to do so by the transportation funding and tax bill, HB 2313.
The NVTA, which consists mostly of local government officials, now has about $300 million per year in new funding, 70 percent of which is targeted for regional congestion relief. This money is in addition to our region’s share of state and federal transportation dollars coming from Richmond and Washington, D.C.
Northern Virginia ranks consistently among the worst congested regions in the U.S. Our traffic problems are often noted as the reason why more job-creating businesses don’t move to or expand in Northern Virginia. The new law makes clear that the funds designated for NVTA’s regional projects are not just for any kind of transportation improvement, but only for those projects offering the greatest congestion relief. In particular, the new law requires that the NVTA “shall give priority to selecting projects that are expected to provide the greatest congestion reduction relative to cost of the project and shall document this information for each project selected.”
There are two primary purposes for this provision, which I had a hand in drafting in the Virginia House of Delegates. One is to ensure that our region’s biggest problem — congestion — is addressed in the most rapid, cost efficient way. The other is to allow the public to better see how and why tax dollars are being allocated, so that elected officials can be held accountable for these decisions.
The new funding will pay for more buses, widening Va. 28, and new train cars for the Virginia Railway Express among other improvements. Although there is nothing proposed on the initial list to address gridlock on Interstate 66 or on Va. 7 west of Tysons Corner, somehow walking trails, bus shelters and a trolley will also be funded. None of the NVTA’s publicly available information includes a calculation of congestion reduction relative to cost for any of the projects, which is contrary to the law’s clear requirement.
Such calculations don’t have to be complicated. Simply estimating, for example, how many automobile trips would be eliminated as a result of a particular new mass transit improvement, along with the project’s cost, would be sufficient. For highways and intersection upgrades, estimating the reduced automobile travel times relative to project cost would have complied with the law.
Why does the NVTA find it so hard to provide this information? This kind of legal corner-cutting (to put it politely) breeds public cynicism that the NVTA is attempting to hide the fact that some of its projects really don’t do anything to reduce gridlock. It also invites another lawsuit. A few years ago, a legal challenge succeeded (for a different reason) in killing funding for the NVTA and left it virtually penniless until now, while Northern Virginians spent a few more years suffering in traffic congestion.
Trails for walking and biking have a role to play, trolley rides can certainly be fun, and no one likes waiting for a bus in the rain without shelter. But unless it can be demonstrated that such projects exceed all other possibilities in Northern Virginia for congestion reduction relative to cost, such needs should be funded from other budgets established for these purposes, not the NVTA’s budget for region-wide congestion relief.
The NVTA should redo its work and provide the required congestion reduction information for all 34 projects. Doing so would show the public that the recent tax increase is giving us the biggest bang for the transportation buck — or not. It would also bring the NVTA into compliance with the law and build public confidence that the NVTA is serious about solving our urgent congestion problems on a regional basis.
Del. Jim LeMunyon, a Republican, represents portions of western Fairfax and eastern Loudoun counties in the Virginia House of Delegates.