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Proposed Overhaul in Allocation of Transportation Dollars

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In September House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford, gave a major policy speech to the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce declaring that money alone cannot solve Virginia’s transportation problems. He called for a “new way” to think about those problems that relies heavily upon new technology and prioritization of projects by Return on Investment.

Part of the promised legislative package came to light in a bill filed by Del. Christopher P. Stolle, R-Virginia Beach. in which the Commonwealth Transportation Board, acting in cooperation with regional organizations, shall develop a process for prioritizing funds allocated under the Six-Year Improvement Program.

There are two critical pieces to the reform. First, funding categories shall include highway, transit, rail, roadway, technology operational improvements and transportation demand management (TDM) strategies. While technology projects have been getting more funding in recent years, there still is a bias in the Virginia Department of Transportation to increasing capacity by building new roads and adding new lanes. The bill potentially puts technology and TDM projects on an equal footing.

The other breakthrough is the methodology used to rank priorities. States the bill: “The prioritization process shall be based on an objective, quantifiable analysis that considers at a minimum the following factors relative to the cost of the project or strategy: congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety, and environmental quality.”

The Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) may assign different weights to the factors based upon geographic location and other factors. Small pots of money — air quality funds, state matching funds and the like — are exempt.

The bill was expected to win approval by the House of Delegates.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m not so naive to think that these reforms will totally take the politics out of transportation funding decisions. I’m sure the special interests will have a lot to say about the factors and weights that go into the ranking methodology, and I’m certain they will make the case that certain projects are so unique that they should be exempt from this review altogether. Still, objectively quantifying the touted benefits of projects and calculating the Return on Investment for each should be a real eye-opener. When it can be demonstrated that a politician’s pet project offers fewer benefits per dollar expended than competing projects, it will be a lot more difficult to push it through.

This reform likely would divert money from splashy, high-visibility mega projects to smaller projects with more localized impact but a higher ROI. The new methodology also is likely to steer more money into technology and TDM programs, which have gotten short shrift in the past.

Presumably, the CTB would build upon the ranking methodologies already under development in the Secretariat of Transportation, so we won’t have to wait for years until the new prioritization process is approved. This bill is unlikely to generate one one-hundredth of the visibility that Governor Bob McDonnell’s transportation tax overhaul did but it is every bit as important. Virginians can be assured that their money will be better spent.

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