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Slate Political Gabfest

The Political Gabfest: The "Would You Like a Ride in My Ferrari?" Edition

Friday, January 24, 2014

Slate's Political Gabfest, featuring David Plotz, John Dickerson, and Emily Bazelon. This week: David Remnick's Obama profile, Netflix's Romney documentary, and the McDonells' political scandal.

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Transportation Nation

Virginia Governor Now Says He's Willing To Compromise On Gas Tax

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Virginia highway (photo by bankbryan via flickr)

(Washington, D.C. -- WAMU) For the first time Gov. McDonnell says he is willing to compromise on his plan to eliminate the state's gas tax, an idea Senate Democrats are unhappy with because it would shift transportation funding to general revenues.

"I think we can talk about that," says McDonnell. "I think this is the best solution to be able to eliminate it."

On Tuesday, the Virginia State Senate will take up Gov. Bob McDonnell's transportation funding plan that passed the House of Delegates last week. But what the governor still calls the "best solution" is still dead on arrival in the Senate.

"We will have to compromise. There's no way I'm voting for a total elimination of the gas tax. That's absolutely insane," says Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, who represents parts of Fairfax and Loudoun Counties. He says Democrats are open to a mix of solutions for paying for transportation, but the gas tax will have to be part of it.

Petersen says his colleagues are now more open to working with the governor since an unrelated but controversial redistricting measure was dumped.

"It can't help but improve things around here," says Peterson. "I think when that redistricting bill happened, it cast a shadow over the session."

If the Senate passes the measure, it will have to be conferenced with the House bill. The legislative session ends in about three weeks.

Follow Martin Di Caro on Twitter @MartinDiCaro

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Transportation Nation

Virginia Governor Promises Action on State's Transportation Funding Woes

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Interstate 495 - Virginia (photo by Doug Kerr via flickr)

Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell offered no specifics in his “comprehensive transportation funding and reform” plan to raise an additional $500 million per year to prevent the state from running out of money to build roads by 2017.

Speaking in Fairfax County at his annual transportation conference, Governor McDonnell called on lawmakers to stay in session next year until they find a solution to Virginia’s long-term funding woes, which are exacerbated by the transfer of money from the state’s construction fund to required highway maintenance projects.

“I don’t think we can wait any longer,” McDonnell said. “I don’t think I can continue to recruit businesses to Virginia and see the unemployment rate go down unless we are able to get a handle on and provide some long-term solutions this session to that problem.”

The Republican governor, who is one year from leaving office, did not specify what he will ask lawmakers for when they convene in Richmond in January.

“I’ll tell you when we’re ready… before the session,” the governor said in brief remarks to reporters following his speech. “These are plans that take a lot of work to put together.”

He refused to take a position on whether the state’s gas tax should be increased, although he indicated that doing so alone would not generate adequate revenue. The tax of seventeen-and-a-half cents per gallon, which currently accounts for about one-third of the state’s transportation funding, was last increased in 1986. It has lost 55% of its purchasing power when adjusted for inflation.

Improved automobile fuel efficiency and the rising costs of highway construction materials have reduced the gas tax’s buying power, McDonnell said.

“A key ingredient of asphalt has increased by approximately 350% over that same time,” he said.

Critics contend the McDonnell administration cannot be trusted to direct new revenues wisely. One of the most vocal critics points to a record of highway construction instead of transit projects as evidence, especially from the $4 billion dollar package approved for the administration by the legislature.

“He squandered most of that,” said Stewart Schwartz, the executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. “It’s gone to rural highway projects that have very low traffic demand and are not high priorities given the traffic congestion within northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.”

Schwartz listed State Rt. 460 in southern Virginia, the Coalfields Expressway, bypasses in Charlottesville, and plans for an “outer beltway” in northern Virginia as examples of poor spending priorities by the administration, while transit projects like the Silver Line Metro rail and existing roads like I-66 need help.

“They are not targeting the areas of greatest need. You are not getting the best bang for your buck. You are spending a few billion dollars on the wrong things,” said Schwartz.

New revenues would likely be directed to construction projects under the state’s transportation trust fund, which currently loses hundreds of millions of dollars annually to required maintenance.  The trust fund’s formula directs fifteen percent of its monies to transit projects.  The remainder is for road building.

Governor McDonnell denied his administration is neglecting transit and other modes of transportation.  “It’s going to be a multi-modal approach.  Road, rail, and mass transit, all of those will be beneficiaries of a funding plan,” he said.

 

 

 

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Transportation Nation

Highway Expansions Are Only A Short-Term Solution: Expert

Thursday, August 09, 2012

Highway construction in Virginia (photo by bankbryan via flickr)

When the express lanes projects on the I-495 Beltway and I-95 in northern Virginia are ready for commuters, they will be designed to serve a dual purpose: encouraging carpooling by giving HOV-3 vehicles a free ride, and reducing congestion by also giving motorists the option of paying a premium toll to escape the usually jammed non-toll lanes.

The first of those goals is attainable. But the second is not, according to an expert on drivers’ behavior, who says expanding two of the busiest highways in the Washington metropolitan region will produce the unintended consequence of more congestion in the long term.

“The biggest potential problem is that we’re building more roads that will provide very short-term congestion relief and will cause other kinds of traffic and travel problems,” says transportation consultant Rachel Weinberger, the co-author of Auto Motives: Understanding Car Use Behavior.

Weinberger believes enough drivers will be willing to pay the tolls so Transburban, the private entity building the 495 and 95 Express Lanes, will make a profit.  However, she says, there's little evidence to suggest expanding highways will solve a region’s congestion woes.

“First we have to ask, do we really need this road? All of the research shows that when you add capacity to highways, rather than relieving congestion in the long run, you actually create more congestion in other parts of the system,” she says.

In short, wider highways induce more traffic. Those new users ultimately have to exit the highway somewhere, producing more traffic on secondary roads where expansion is not possible. “Now you have dumped more cars onto the streets on Washington D.C. because you’ve added this capacity on I-495,” Weinberger says.

Earlier this week, TN asked Virginia governor Bob McDonnell if northern Virginia is becoming overly reliant on highway expansion projects to solve congestion problems. McDonnell responded that the state is trying different solutions. “We are trying to do everything,” he said, adding that Virginia is investing in transit projects like the Silver Line.

Backers of the Express Lanes projects are relying on drivers’ willingness to pay pricey tolls for a faster, more predictable ride.  They are also calling the possible increase in carpooling a win-win, even though more free rides on the new lanes mean less toll revenue for Transurban.  However, in the contract with the state of Virginia, Transurban is protected in the event the number of free rides rises dramatically.

The state is required to subsidize ride sharing if the number of carpoolers on I-495 reaches at least 24 percent “of the total flow of all [vehicles] that are… going in the same direction for the first 30 consecutive minutes during any day… during which average traffic for [the toll lanes] going in the same direction exceeds a rate of 3,200 vehicles per hour…”  The threshold on I-95 will be 35 percent under similar conditions.

In Weinberger’s view, there will enough new carpoolers and toll payers to provide the appearance of relief -- but it won’t last.

“We sit in traffic and we fume about it and we think that the easy solution is to build more lanes and then we won’t have so much traffic, but I am sure the Beltway has been expanded several times and there continues to be traffic,” she says.  "Typically when we build more capacity we make somebody’s trip a little bit faster, but it’s very rare that people actually conserve their travel-time savings. Instead they’ll make some other adjustment like they may move further out, creating more sprawl."

 

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Transportation Nation

Virginia Budget Passes Without Silver Line Funding

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rendering of a future Metro station in Tysons Corner, Virginia (image courtesy of Fairfax County)

(Sharon Rae -- Washington, DC, WAMU) In a swift legislative turn of events, the Virginia Senate abruptly passed the $85 billion state budget Wednesday -- without including money for a Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport.

The bill had been voted down three times in the past two months.

One moderate Democrat, Sen. Charles Colgan of Prince William County, broke with his party and joined Republicans to give the budget the one-vote majority required for passage. Colgan had been pushing Gov. Bob McDonnell for $300 million for the Metrorail extension to Dulles Airport, but he said the need to pass the budget outweighed the need to secure funding for the Silver Line project.

Democrats had balked yesterday over the Republicans' refusal to grant the funding for the Metrorail extension to Dulles, saying the costs for commuters who use the Dulles Toll Road would rise from $2.25 to $6.75 one-way within a few years. They argued that the sharp increase was an undue burden that could stifle the economy of Northern Virginia — a region that provides 40 percent of Virginia's tax revenue.

The budget bill now goes to the governor for consideration.

Meanwhile, officials in Virginia's Loudon County are deciding whether or not it wants to go ahead and shoulder its share of the construction costs.

You can listen to the audio version of this story here. More TN coverage of the Silver Line can be found here.

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