Yes, Virginia, There are Alternatives to Highways

September 20, 2011 by
Filed under: The Right Answer 

Over the past year, we have witnessed a spate of thoughtful studies that unequivocally demonstrate that America’s infrastructure is aging, crumbling and in dire need of renewal. All the measures used to determine the condition of our infrastructure in these studies dramatically document this state of affairs.

Unfortunately, many of our nation’s governors didn’t get the message. Rather than focusing on maintaining and upgrading what we have, many governors have gone on sprees to construct new highways. In Virginia, where the state cannot maintain what it’s got, the state has offered Charlottesville $400 million for an ill-conceived bypass. The state has even contrived to revive the “Western Bypass”, a multi-billion dollar project killed countless times in northern Virginia.

While the state DOT is essentially broke, it didn’t stop them from pouring $400 million (that seems to be their level of investment in new highway projects) into the Capital Beltway HOT lanes. Recently, the head of VDOT, Sean Connaughton, essentially told the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority to “Drop dead” when they had the audacity to ask the state to increase its miniscule contribution to the critical Dulles Metro extension. While we too have problems with the labor provisions for the Dulles project (see our “A Suggested Tea Party Agenda” for our suggestions for reform), I think the state of Virginia is hiding behind this issue to justify not upping the ante for Dulles.

The Virginia transportation largesse evidently does not extend to transit, which heaven forbid, they view as “subsidized.” Yes, Virginia, highways are subsidized too, but facts don’t seem to get in the way of the governors of Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio or Florida. Whereas the Governors of Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have taken an in your face rejection posture on high (and higher) speed rail, the governor of Virginia has spoken soothing words while proceeding at caterpillar speed to upgrade intercity passenger rail in Virginia, rejecting federal assistance as having too many strings attached (of course, not so with federal highway money). A new service recently started from Lynchburg to Washington, DC (an initiative started by the previous governor) has proven so popular, it is even making a profit. Shouldn’t this experience spur greater efforts to improve and expand intercity passenger rail in Virginia? Yes, there are plans to improve passenger rail to the Tidewater region but implementation on that plan is barreling ahead at, well, glacial speed. And what about plans to extend the northeast corridor service to Richmond, through Virginia, connecting with North Carolina’s efforts and eventually on to Atlanta? Yes, that is being thought about, carefully, deliberately, and ever so slowly by the McDonnell administration. Anyone who has to experience I-95 between Washington and Richmond knows that alternatives are needed. Not another lane or two but real, long term alternatives like fast, convenient passenger rail. A ninety minute trip from Northern Virginia to Richmond on I-95 can take ninety minutes or four hours, or three hours, or, well, you take your pick. God forbid that an accident might occur. Then all bets are off.

We conservatives don’t like raising taxes but we prefer that to increasing debt. You can’t build (or maintain) something with nothing. Virginia has not raised the state gas tax since 1986. Do we wonder why our transportation tax dollars don’t go as far? Look at what you were making in 1986 and think about meeting expenses with the same amount today.

However, the main culprit is the institutional framework at the state and federal level, which is set up primarily to fund highways (let’s also not forget the way we fund elections in this country). Virginia is no exception. But transportation isn’t the only area where current reality intrudes on programs set up to deal with situations that existed twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Think defense and entitlements (Medicare and Social Security). The constituencies that have grown up around these programs over the years like the status quo and are fighting tenaciously to maintain their place at the trough. Times change, conditions change, people change but our institutional framework is resisting change at all costs. The responsiveness of our political leadership will determine if we can muster the will to break the power of the status quo. If not, expect a whole lot more potholes, grossly inadequate public transportation, much higher gas prices and precious few transportation choices. A grim future? Indeed, unless we make the necessary changes to align our future direction with reality. Good transportation and our way of life really do depend on it.

Glen Bottoms serves as Executive Director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation


7 Responses to “Yes, Virginia, There are Alternatives to Highways”

  1. John Gorman says:

    As a resident of Charlottesville, I can tell you most locals are simply resigned to the bypass happening. There is opposition from the usual suspects, but the political will to make it happen appears to be quite strong, unlike at other times in this project’s 20 years plus checkered history.

    The bypass will not do anything to markedly improve local traffic flows. It will not significantly improve thru traffic around Charlottesville: the northern terminus is south of an area of Albemarle County experiencing exploding growth, with all the attendant increased local traffic.

    VDOT blew this decades ago when they failed to make route 29 a limited access highway. That opportunity has past and ad hoc bypasses, such as the one around Winchester, only serve to relocate the congestion to older sections of 29. I suppose eventually you could hook up all these bypasses into a limited access highway, but the cost will be staggering.

    The train between Lynchburg and DC (which stops in Charlottesville) works (hence its profit). The highway from Lynchburg to DC is broken and getting worse (hence its enormous cost to effect fleeting gain).

  2. nathan says:

    I live in northern Virginia. I disagree with the hotlane project especially since I believe Virginia guaranteed the contractor a certain minimum payback. I support toll roads but if we’re going to privatize some thing, privatize it including the risks. And the hot lane tolls appear to rediculous, something like a dollar a mile.

    What should have been built was the 301 bypass from Baltimore’s 695 to Richmond’s 295. They could have charged 10 dollars or more for that each way and the truck drivers alone would have gladly paid it to get away from the Washington beltway and I-95 from Washington to Fredericksburg.

    I’m sorry the Dulles rail line is way over budget and way behind schedule. Consider that at some point toll road users may end up paying 10 dollars each way? Really? Why so that people going to the airport won’t have to pay 60/70 dollars for a taxi? If they can’t afford the taxi fare they can’t afford the airfare. Trust me even now I avoid taking the toll road when I can to avoid subsidizing the southern version of the “Big Dig”.

    What makes this worse is the amount of federal money involved. Here’s the question for the class. Would a project that benefits only the Washington metro area ever have been green lighted if Virginia, DC, and Maryland had been forced to pay all the costs? Of course not. Explain why taxpayers in Lincoln Nebraska should pay a single dollar towards the construction of this white elephant.

    We need to take federal money out of all projects like this and future “big dig” exercises and tell the states and cities if you aren’t willing to pay for all of it yourselves, obviously it’s not worth doing. On that basis the silver line would never have been built.

    But also, why metro rail? We could have built dedicated bus lanes for a fraction of the cost of this project and it would have accomplished the same goals. And the nice thing about buses? They go anywhere, not just on the tracks they’re put on. So when not needed to take people to and from the airport, they can be put into service doing other things. All you supporters for rail lines, tell us where rail cars go besides on the rails. But trains are sexy and buses are so “common”, so boring.

    So northern Virginia decided it just had to have a “big dig” of its own. Hope you all like it.

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