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Paving the Way

If Gov.-elect Tim Kaine finds the answer to the state's transportation troubles, he'll be the first.


No doubt Kaine has the commonwealth's undivided attention. Traffic woes have become a daily obstacle for drivers in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads in particular. That's where the state's dwindling road construction resources are likely to be directed, bumping other areas of the state with less-pressing needs, such as Richmond.

The growing budget gap offers the first big test for the governor-elect. An additional $1 billion a year is needed, estimates Senate Finance Committee Chairman John H. Chichester. But Kaine's vowed to resist raising taxes for road construction unless state lawmakers agree to put that money in a constitutionally protected "lockbox" that guarantees the additional revenue will be spent on transportation.

Money, however, is only part of the problem, as Kaine reiterated during the town-hall meeting in Richmond Nov. 22. An even bigger issue, he says, is the disconnect between land-use policy and transportation needs. Localities are charged with managing residential and commercial development, while the Virginia Department of Transportation manages the lion's share of the state's roadways — with the exception of slower-growing cities and two counties, Arlington and Henrico.

This divide leaves localities at the mercy of the state when it comes to controlling how development affects traffic patterns, and vice versa.

"It is a very, very troubling problem and we don't have a lot of good solutions for that," says Jonathan Gifford, professor of transportation studies at George Mason University. "It's particularly difficult in the system that we have here in Richmond, which is state accountability for roads and local accountability for land use. They have a different span of controls. It's very, very difficult to get effective coordination."

Take, for example, the recent development of Route 895 — Pocahontas Parkway, the 8.8-mile roadway that opened in 2002. It was the first major highway built under Virginia's Public-Private Transportation Act, which allows private developers to build and own roads by floating bonds that are paid for with toll revenues.

Privatizing roads is seen by many as the best option for dealing with the state's budget crunch. Route 895 would have never been built if it weren't for the transportation act, and it opened up rural corridors in Henrico and Chesterfield counties for residential and commercial development that would have otherwise been improbable.

A happy marriage? Not quite. Last year in Varina, for example, the state initially recommended approval of a new interchange on 895 for which private developers petitioned. Yet no development plan had been filed with Henrico. Without the interchange, the massive 3,000-home Wilton Farm development wouldn't fly.

The state pulled back from its approval earlier this year, seeking more input from Henrico. But the process underscored the growing disconnect between land use and transportation, one that Kaine deems to fix. After all, the state had recommended approval of a major interchange without first consulting the county, which would have to pay to school Wilton Farm's children and provide other public services that would strain the county's tax coffers.

Therein lies the conundrum of privatizing roads. Experts say private roads work best when they are truly private. In 895's case, it was a public-private partnership in which the road builders weren't required to invest in the road's success — in other words, by a portion of the bonds — and in the first year developers' toll revenue projections were off by 58 percent.

"That's what happens when there is no skin in the game, if you make your money from construction in order to get the construction contract, build the thing and walk away," says Robert W. Poole, director of transportation studies at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles. "Shifting that risk away from the public and putting it onto the shoulders of investors, that's the right way to do these public-private partnerships."

Doing so, however, also means giving more control to private developers to manage how and where new roads are built, further deepening the divide between local land use policy and transportation needs.

Kaine, for his part, doesn't seem to support giving more power to developers to manage the state's roadways. "We need to be in the driver's seat," he said after last week's meeting, referring to VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board.

As for how he plans to bridge the gap between land use and transportation, Kaine says he's still studying the issue and taking questions and input. He says he wants to approach the transportation crisis holistically — the solution must include roads, rail, light rail and mass transit — and give localities additional power to reject residential and commercial developments because of their impact on traffic patterns.

Translating that philosophy into a policy that works will be the tricky part, Poole says. For example, he says, the idea of getting cars off the road by building more urban and light-rail lines simply isn't as cost-effective as building freeways.

"I know politicians generally love the idea. It looks sexy, but when you actually crunch the numbers the cost is so high," Poole says. "You don't get very much per billion spent when you put in expanding transit."

In a study of North Carolina's urban rail plans in June 2004, the Reason Foundation found that the average cost per new rail passenger would be $6,747 for Charlotte and $10,358 for the Triangle; the planned $2.1 billion rail system overall would provide just 16,730 daily passenger trips.

At the Roanoke town-hall meeting two weeks ago, Kaine expressed support for expanding rail along the Interstate 81 corridor to get more tractor-trailers off the roads.

"I believe he's heading in the right direction," Michael L. Testerman, president of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons, says of Kaine. "In terms of investing, raising total property values, I think the investment in rail will be justified."

Over the next 10 years, Testerman says, his rail advocacy group estimates the total capital needs for expanding rail, including high-speed rail lines from Washington, D.C., to Richmond, at $12 billion to $15 billion.

He says rail makes more sense because the increase in maintenance expenses for roads over the long haul winds up costing much more than the investment in rail. By focusing on light rail and rail as alternatives to simply building more roads, Testerman says, the state will reap far greater benefits in the long haul.

"It really is the only way we can move forward," he says. "We're going to run out of land and the ability to build new roads."

Kaine promises the issue has his full attention. "There is no one right answer," he says. S

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