Virginia solves national infrastructure challenge : or not

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) recently gave America’s infrastructure a D+ and estimated that we need to invest $3.6 trillion in infrastructure by the year 2020. The administration of Governor Terry McAuliffe in Virginia is trying to do its part with plans announced earlier this year for a $2–3 billion project along the I66 corridor in Northern Virginia. Virginia’s Senate Democratic leader Dick Saslaw recently wrote in support of this plan (“The Public is Driving Interest on I66 Project,” Dick Saslaw, July 24, 2015), but Senator Saslaw and Governor McAuliffe overlook some important points.

The first point is most fundamental: we should only invest in good projects. Transportation investments are about more than just concrete, not all projects justify investment, and not all projects are equitable. The recently canceled US 460 project, which cost Virginia $250 million but was never built, is an example of a project that didn’t justify investment. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) project that lost federal funding is an example of a project that was inequitable (“America’s Unfair Rules of the Road,” Corinne Ramey, February 27, 2015, and “Oakland’s Stimulus Flap: A Shot Across the Bow for Transport Equity?,” Elana Schor, January 27, 2010).

“Washington metropolitan region’s transportation system will provide reasonable access at reasonable cost to everyone in the region” — MWCOG

We should invest in projects that will help make our community what we want it to be, but it isn’t always clear who “we” is. Northern Virginia is comprised of separate political jurisdictions with independently elected officials rather than a single entity that represents the entire area, and besides being comprised of separate jurisdictions, the region is also comprised of different racial, ethnic, and economic groups, with different transportation needs. One organization whose purview is the entire region is the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG), with voting members who are elected officials from the various jurisdictions. MWCOG has established transportation goals for the region. Its first goal is that the “Washington metropolitan region’s transportation system will provide reasonable access at reasonable cost to everyone in the region” (The Vision Statement, retrieved August 14, 2015)

Transportation that provides reasonable access to everyone is an important economic and social justice objective. Alan Berube at Brookings wrote that “Nationwide household access to automobiles is quite low for African-Americans (especially poor African-Americans), with a disparity relative to white households that is somewhat smaller than, yet comparable in magnitude to, the racial disparity in home ownership rates.” (“Socioeconomic Differences in Household Automobile Ownership Rates: Implications for Evacuation Policy,” Alan Berube, Elizabeth Deakin, Stephen Raphael, 2006). If Black Lives Matter to the McAuliffe administration, the administration should ensure that its infrastructure investments serve everyone.

“Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy” — Pope Francis

The recent encyclical from Pope Francis, Laudato Si, widely recognized for its focus on the environment, made a strong argument for better public transit for environmental as well as social justice reasons. “The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation.”

Washington Area Traffic Congestion Has Steadily Declined

Making infrastructure project selection even harder is the fact that it requires an understanding of current as well as future requirements. Travel behavior is changing because of technology and changing preferences, driven in part by changing demographics. We have seen the impact of technology and changing preferences in the steady reduction in road congestion over the past four years (“Review of the Draft 2014 Congestion Management Process (CMP) Technical Report,” Wenjing Pu, May 30, 2014). There is a danger that because of the Governor’s age and auto industry background that he may pursue a long term infrastructure project that is unsuited to the future needs of the state (disclosure: Governor McAuliffe is younger than I am).

Any investment in the I66 corridor should be designed to satisfy travel needs of individuals and not simply to move automobiles. While the current I66 plan quantifies the amount of highway that would be created — two high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes and three unmanaged lanes serving automobiles — it doesn’t quantify the number of non-automobile trips that individuals will be expected to take. The only estimate that I am aware of concerning the share of non-automobile trips expected in this corridor after the planned project’s completion came from VDOT staff at a recent public meeting. Responding to a direct question, a staff member estimated that ten percent of trips would be on public transit. I believe this is a wholly inadequate figure.

“Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” — Louis Brandeis

As for the use of a Public-Private Partnership (P3) on this project, we need far more transparency on the matter than we have had to date. P3s can take many different forms, but the nature of the project itself should determine whether to use a P3 or not, rather than the requirements of a P3 determining the nature of the project. Senator Saslaw has echoed statements from Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne that public financing could save up to $600 million. You don’t need an outside advisor to tell you that most governments can borrow at lower interest rates than the private sector, but transparency is needed here as well. Of particular concern is the fact that Senator Saslaw’s office indicates that Secretary Layne is using PFM, a financial advisor that was relied on two years ago by the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) when NVTA was deciding whether to use Paygo or debt to finance local transportation projects. PFM provided advice to NVTA that was simply wrong — their model incorrectly assumed that NVTA would stop making debt payments after twenty years (“Final Report, Overview of Financing Approaches, Executive Summary,” PFM Group, July 24, 2013, and “Why Debt Financing Will Reduce NVTA’s Project Funding Capacity,” Stuart M Whitaker, August 12, 2013). Transparency in this regard can help avoid similar mistakes and improve the outcome for the people of Virginia.

Principal, Whitaker Associates

Falls Church

Originally published at on August 21, 2015.