The Secretary is Right (Except when he’s Wrong)

Yesterday I attended the annaul transportation seminar put on by the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance in Tysons Corner. The presentation was well-attended and informative.

The primary speaker was VA Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton.  I’ve known Sean for 10+ years and have a very high opinion of him.  He’s smart, knowledgeable and very responsive to questions and comments from lawmakers and others.

Here are some highlights from his 45-minute talk.  His points were largely correct regarding the status of VDOT and our major roadways.  However, there are some important qualifiers.  I’m going to add those in parentheses after the quotes …

“Came into office at a real nadir.  There was administrative chaos.”  (I’ll give Sean the benefit of doubt here since he runs the show in Richmond.  There did seem to be delay in getting projects going in 2008-2009.  However, I note that the 2010 audit criticized VDOT for not spending its money fast enough — no one alleged that it was wasting money).

“We have over 100 projects underway with lane closures”  (Yes, we have a ton of road construction going on right now in NOVA, especially in the 34th SD with the I-66, Rte 50, Gallows Road and Fair Lakes Parkway projects.  That’s a good thing.  Ironically, a lot of it is being funded thru Federal stimulus money and supplemented by the 2011 bond package, which is a one-time hit).

“Contracts for bond projects are coming in 17% below estimate”  (That’s great news and the #1 reason why I voted for the 2011 bond.  It’s a buyer’s market).

“Revenue sharing program with localities is expanding”  (Another positive aspect from the 2011 bond bill was the aspect which allows localities to pull down VDOT matching funds for secondary road improvements).

“We are looking to diversify revenues”  (Ok, that sounds great but what steps are we actually taking here?  Discussion below ….)

“We are using tolling and user fees”  (I support an I-95 toll south of Richmond, which the Feds recently approved.  However, that will only generate an estimated $40M in revenues, about 1% of VDOT’s annual budget.  Locating a toll north of Richmond will cause major gridlock.  So I’m skeptical that tolling is the answer.  Unlike general fund revenues, it does at least shift the burden to out-of-state drivers which I support.)

“We stopped paying for traffic information services”  (VDOT is apparently ending its relationship with, a Fairfax business that puts its live highway feeds on-line for free, and moving to a Maryland company which will charge the general public and media for this service.  I think that’s pennywise and pound foolish.  The public owns those cameras.  The information should be provided free.)

“We have Devolution by omission in secondary roads”  (This refers to the state’s pathetic support of secondary roads, which has increased pressure on localities to pick up the slack, even where they don’t own the roads.  As Sean accurately pointed out, this is a uniquely NOVA issue, i.e. taking control of local secondary roads.  In Hampton Roads, the Seven Cities control their own roads and rural counties don’t want the headache.   Really, it’s a question of whether Fairfax, PWC and Loudoun ask the Assembly for this authority.  But they must have the taxing authority that comes with it or else it’s an empty gesture).

“I’m concerned about the long term”  (Yes, obviously.  Right now our projects are being completely funded by 2009 Federal stimulus money or the 2011 bond proceeds, which we securitized and thus front-loaded 10 years worth of revenues.  What are we going to do after all this money is spent off?)

“We must address the cross-over of construction funds”  (right now, there is no significant state $$ for construction — except for stimulus or bond money — because the Trust Fund money is all going by law to maintenance, which must be covered first by law.  The gas tax has failed to provide sufficient funds since 2002 to cover both maintenance and construction.  Sean stated that one reason is the cost of asphalt going up.  A more significant reason IMO is the fuel-efficiency of new vehicles.)

“Bad news is good news”  (The news that traffic is increased in D.C. area is directly related to our economic growth.  Yes, that’s true — but that’s not really an answer we can give our constituents.  We need to accommodate new commuters).

Again, Sean is right on with his comments.  There’s a lot of new construction going on.  That’s a positive.  But this is all short-term.  No one has addressed the long-term sustaining of an integrated road and transit network.

As one Assembly colleague remarked to me afterwards:  “You don’t want to be the next Secretary of Transportation.  All the money will be spent by then.  All you will be able to afford will be a 1-800 number to take complaints.”








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