Yes, Virginia, There is a Better Transportation Future

Gridlock continues in Congress when it comes to reauthorizing a federal transportation law that fully funds the country's daunting infrastructure needs. At the earliest, nothing will happen on Capitol Hill to move transportation funding forward until the current bill expires on March 31,2012. Meantime (and regardless), the states are left to figure out how to fill their budget potholes to pay for fixing, maintaining and expanding their roads, bridges, railways, runways and public transit systems.

A few miles down the Beltway from me, in my native state, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonald is trying to figure out how to tackle that challenge. Yesterday the governor unveiled his plan to raise revenues for transportation, carving out money from year-end surpluses and boosting the state's sales tax in lieu of increasing its tax on gasoline purchases. 

“Transportation and economic development and prosperity are inextricably linked,” McDonnell told attendees at his transportation summit in Norfolk. “Whether it’s the infrastructure needed to move people and goods, or certain transportation-related industries poised for major growth and job creation, we must continue to make progress in improving our transportation networks if Virginia is to remain economically competitive.”

The Washington Post offered faint praise to Gov. McDonald's proposed plan, lauding him for making "the connection between jobs and economic development, and improvements in the state’s severely underfunded roads, rails and bridges" and for "honestly acknowledg[ing] that the modest recent steps he has taken to increase funding, such as accelerating borrowing for major new road projects, are inadequate." But the editorial criticized the governor's "half-measures" which won't adequately address "the daunting magnitude of the problem." As the editorial explained:

"[T]he harsh truth is that in the best-case scenario it will only stop the current bleeding of construction funds that have been siphoned off by the state’s mounting maintenance needs. Virginia needs more. How much more is a matter of debate, but a middling estimate is something on the order of $1 billion annually in new revenue — now, not eight years from now."

The "sensible thing", the editorial concludes, would be to raise the state’s 17.5 cents-per-gallon fuel tax, which was last increased in 1986 and -- in addition to having been badly eroded by inflation -- is now among the nation’s lowest. (As I have previously stated, the same could be said for the federal gas tax, which hasn't gone up since 1993.)  

Beyond the funding challenge, there is the question of how Virginia should invest its hard-to-find transportation dollars. Gov. McDonald, like a lot of elected officials, emphasizes the importance of highway expenditures. Certainly, for the sake of safety and commerce, existing roads and bridges warrant funding to keep them well-maintained. However, government spending traditionally has heavily favored highways at the expense of other modes of transportation that offer multiple benefits.

  • More transit means less taffic: Obviously, the more people have access to trains -- as well as buses, carpool lanes, bike baths and walkable communities -- the less they have to hit the roads in their cars to get where they want to go. Consider this: every rail car has the potential to remove up to 125 passengers from our roadways (and every bus full of passengers removes 40 cars from traffic). 
  • More transit means more jobs: Spending on transit makes economic sense because every $1 invested in public transportation generates approximately $6 in economic returns. In fact, over 300,000 jobs  and $30.8 billion in economic activity is supported through transportation spending in the recent congressional appropriations bill -- including some 6,200 jobs in Virginia.
  • More transit makes us more secure: Giving people the freedom to travel other than by automobile is good for national security because less driving helps lessen America's dependence on oil. On average each person riding transit rather than driving alone in a car saves 200 gallons of gasoline a year. 
  • More transit means less pollution: Simply put, reducing the distance and frequency people may be forced to drive reduces dirty, harmful, unhealthy tailpipe emissions that pollute the air and cook the planet.

Kudos then to the Sierra Club for it's comprehensive new report: "21st Century Green Transportation, A Vision for Virginia." This excellent report calls out Gov. McDonald's "frantic road-building program" as the wrong way to invest in the state's transportation future. Rather than spending billions in borrowed money to build unneeded and destructive roadways that will fuel continued sprawl and worsen congestion for Virginia commuters, the Sierra Club lays out an alternative vision of "smarter, cleaner transportation and more livable communities for the Commonwealth."

The report highlights the benefits of Virginia’s intercity passenger rail service and of moving freight to rail and taking more trucks off of our highways. It also points out flaws in the governor’s priority paving projects, condemning the heavy reliance on road building as "right out of the last century when more and wider highways were seen as the solution to traffic problems." But the old way did not work, Sierra Club notes. It only led to more sprawl, and more congested roads and some of the worst traffic in the country.

Indeed, over the last 40 years, Virginia has lost more land to development than it did in the previous 400 years. This rapid growth has spurred sprawling development, which is why so many Virginians have to spend so much more of their time and money driving more miles on crowded highways. This is especially true in the Washington, DC metropolitan area (which includes northern Virginia) where commuter congestion is ranked the worst in the nation -- with drivers spending an annual average of 74 hours (almost two work weeks!) stuck in traffic. 

"Virginia needs to focus more on moving people and goods, and less on moving more cars and more trucks,” says Roger Diedrich, Sierra Club’s Virginia Chapter Transportation Chair Diedrich. “We cannot simply drive our way out of congestion. We need to make smart investments in more public transit, and bicycle and pedestrian friendly communities."