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VDOT, Too Big To Fail

February 1, 2012
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The Springfield Interchange “Mixing Bowl” was sold to the region as the solution for the 21st century, but it’s lack of utility and destruction of a once thriving Commerce Dr./Backlick Rd corridor has counteracted any intended benefit economically.

The past two years for Tysons Corner has been an optimistic time for residents, business owners, developers, and Fairfax County. This progression in the idea of what Tysons Corner is intended to become has evidently halted in Richmond, where for VDOT the new urbanization plans pose a future of gridlock and funding. In our discussions on the widening of Route 123 we have provided historical evidence against the suburban freeway concept of traffic resolution, however for VDOT the previous projects are not as high of a priority in design as idealized models. The new Tysons Corner Comprehensive Plan has several conceptual conflicts with VDOT’s traditional Right of Way including parallel parking, bulb outs, plant selection, intersection design criteria, and the prioritization of pedestrian access over vehicular flow. For most people VDOT is only considered to be in charge of our highways and major arterial roads, but in reality nearly every road in the State is under the maintenance and control of the Virginia Department of Transportation. How did VDOT go from controlling inter-city travel through the highway system of the state to a design body which has more sway over planning and design of projects than all other departments.

Even with the massive addition and multi-billion dollar investment by taxpayers, funding which could have been provided to extend the orange line or provide better inter-connectivity between cities, traffic jams remain a part of the equation for those on the beltway.

The problem with accepting State funding and maintenance for roads is the triggered requirement to follow all rules that the appointed VDOT officials in Richmond believe are important. These rules have, over the past 20 years, expanded beyond traditional vehicular flow design to include city planning concepts such as avoidance of interconnected roadways, excess lane widths which are intended to avoid accidents, excess right of way acquisition intended for future widening, and pedestrian walkway/plant selection. The typical excuse for why VDOT has to control these aspects of what would be typically a city planners role is maintenance cost under the implication of public safety.

Interconnected roadways mean more intersections which means more traffic lights which cost VDOT money to maintain. VDOT’s reasoning when this idea was created was that additional intersections create additional traffic.

  • Lane widths have increased from 10′ to 11′ and now to 12′ over the past decade for all roads including most subdivision roads.
  • Right of Way acquisition for future widening is required to avoid future property purchase cost for VDOT.
  • Pedestrian walkways and plant selection is required to find suitable materials and plants which will cost the least for VDOT to replace and maintain.

VDOT's solution to why Gainesville's traffic fails during rush hour? It needs more roads. In a town with nothing but 6-lane oversized 99% of the time pavement plans, we continue to see Richmond imposing land use policies.

When most people complain about traffic conditions and poor design and accessibility in this region they blame the local county or city, which for some land use decisions Fairfax County has no excuse. However the public should really understand Richmond’s (VDOT) role in what has become the worst region in the country to be a driver, mass transit user, and pedestrian all in one. At the heart of the problem is the concept that every road is a miniature scaled version of a freeway and the grading scale of freeway design (From the AASHTO manual) should be used to analyze urbanized roadways. This freeway design method has created unfair prioritization of existing road way widening over the typically more efficient provision of more roadway inter-connectivity. Additionally, as noted above, VDOT typically owns right of way beyond the current roadway surfaces and for the State it is always cheaper to expand in an owned property than to build and maintain a new road.

So what is the problem with saving public funds and helping to keep tax payer contributions to transportation low? The problem is over the past 30 years this idealized concept of cheap benefits to the public good have been proven wrong. Capital costs and maintenance costs for transportation projects has exponentially increased since this adherence to VDOT method, congestion continues to escalate, and with all funding going to pavement projects other more efficient systems that could have been incorporated have gone under funded or completely absent of funding. Due to these requirements and the computer models created, we have been told by the State that Tysons Corner’s problem is that its roads are too thin and need more lanes. Even implying this leads me to question if the VDOT officials making the decisions at the funding level have ever even been to Tysons Corner. Instead of providing three or four shorter connections (example between Scotts run to Jones Branch) where clearly a significant amount of traffic would like to proceed, we are told that all of Route 123 needs another two lanes. If you try to convince a VDOT official that people will use the shorter, all be it, not AASHTO Condition A design road, that traffic will flow better they will return to their models, and more importantly their available widening right of way as the only way forward, atleast if you want Daddy Warbuck’s money. The real question becomes is provision of state funding helping us as the public and the county as a whole or crippling us into a dependent and subservient design partner in the process?

First, let’s find out where the magical, appear out of thin air, state funding comes from that provides Richmond an annual Four Billion Dollar (closer to 4.5 Billion) operating budget. Nearly $1 Billion comes from the fuels tax, nearly $500 million comes from the state overall sales tax, over $1 Billion comes from bigger daddy Federal DOT, another $1 Billion comes from vehicle sales/license/other uses, and more than $1 Billion from State Bonds. These funds are all directly or indirectly connected to population, real estate taxes, and overall commercial productivity.

While a grid system of streets is viewed as wasteful spending and unproven by road models for the Northern Virginia region. This is strange seeing as the primary economic power of the state, and the home of VDOT, is a primary example of how a grid network can improve commerce and resident accessibility while addressing traffic demand.

Route 250, Broad Street, through downtown Richmond has remained 4-lanes wide and serving as a central corridor in Richmond. Given the number of "users" that would be attributed to this road it is shocking that Richmond has not found this road also is undersized.


Northern Virginia is comprised of 2.9 million residents, the largest regional population in Virginia’s total 8.5 million residents. As a leading economic power in the country, let alone the state, it is obvious that beyond the population ratio that NOVA holds over the state that both by percentage and total quantity the gas and car sale tax is funded by Fairfax, Loudoun, Arlington, and Prince William Counties. All of this funding leaves our area to fund the process in Richmond and is returned to us, at least the state argues it does, through VDOT’s Chantilly office in the form of road maintenance and new capital projects. The State of Virginia has continued to fund massive capital projects for vehicular traffic with an increase of 6% annually, while other agencies such as DRPT, Department of Rail and Public Transit have had to reduce drastically a budget which now is only 10% of VDOTs annual budget. Additionally, much of this funding goes toward existing heavy rail corridors and very little is used toward new projects. In the absence of a state concept for mass transit, Northern Virginia has instead relied on the MWAA and VRE to provide a more efficient form of transportation in regions where roads are inefficient. Instead VDOT has chosen to construct more rural highways, create more lane widening projects, and continue the overall cycle of pavement prioritization which has helped grow the required funding of VDOT while crippling the transportation network of Fairfax.At the heart of the problem is a mentality which many in the financial sector, and frankly anyone effected by the current recession, too big to fail. The gradual increase in revenue requirements for VDOT, notably due to improperly unanticipated maintenance costs, has now given individual counties only two choices. Continue to play by Richmond’s rules, an endless growth cycle of funding for unsustainable road projects, or end the relationship with VDOT and devolve road ownership to the counties. This would clearly require a massive annual maintenance budget (for Fairfax County alone hundreds of millions of dollars) to be transferred from VDOTs budget to Fairfax County. As smaller jurisdictions have seen however, this does not excuse the county from continuing to fund the state gas tax and car sale tax. By controlling the rules over the past 25 years VDOT has assured itself a dominant position over individual counties assured that counties could not afford to inherit this bill while being unable to attain the same taxes which funded it originally. To add insult to injury it is our counties which are the revenue engine which continues to propel these policies.

Downtown Richmond has several examples of 2-lane and 4-lane intersections that also include bulb outs. Strange that VDOT has found these designs for the rest of Virginia to be inefficient for traffic flow.

A postcard worthy picture of downtown Richmond. With all these connected roads and lack of central freeways cutting through the urban heart it must be a traffic nightmare!

VDOT designers, officials, and policy makers will continue to require what they believe is necessary for building and maintaining roads, they will continue to a 100% devotion to vehicular traffic, and they will continue to hold the bill for this unsustainable system over the heads of the residents which attain the least reward and the highest funding percentage. With the grumblings of Fairfax officials towards the State’s control becoming more public in the past few years, and the retorts and warnings of VDOT to a new devolution system it is obvious the public interest and traffic relief has little to do with Richmond’s current stance on Northern Virginia’s transportation crisis.










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14 Responses to VDOT, Too Big To Fail

  1. MrJC on February 1, 2012 at 2:51 pm

    o Excellent post! A clear illustration of the supreme arrogance and parasitic nature of government bureaucracy. This supposed public agency is so completely out of tune with the actual needs of the region. Their mindset is 40 years out-of-date, and their methods widely discredited by modern transportation planners. VDOT’s abolishment should be a priority for the next round of elected officials. Saddling the public with the cost of poorly planned, shoddily constructed infrastructure should be considered a crime of the highest order. Instead of being an agency of vision, innovation, and flexibility, it is a bloated regulatory cartel of provincial good ‘ol boys set on maintaining a vehicle-centric transport system at the cost of everything else and in the name of perceived safety.

  2. PGHokie87 on February 7, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    Correct me if I am wrong, but from the Bryd Road Act, all coutnies in Virginia have the option to have state maintained roads, however they can opt out if they choose (I think Arlington maintains its own roads, despite being a county and not an independent city). If, for example, Fairfax county opts out of state maintained roads, would VDOT standards still apply? Furthermore, would a state tax still exist in the county to go to state roads, in which obviously the county would have to impose a new road tax to fund its own road system?

    • Tysons Engineer on February 7, 2012 at 6:11 pm

      So my understanding of this is, yes a jurisdiction can take on responsibility for its own roads like Arlington (old town Alexandria is another case) which means they can design as they believe is best but the drawback is they also take on all capital and maintenance costs as well. Additionally, the hanging axe over Fairfax is the possibility that VDOT will say ok to a gesture like that, but that the state gas tax from this region would still go to VDOT (a pro-rata would not go to FFX alone, although in my opinion it should for any gas purchased in FFX county). In the absence of this gas tax revenue(and to a lesser extent the other taxes on sales etc that go towards VDOT) Fairfax would have to introduce an additional tax (Arlington does have a higher gas tax level for this purpose I believe).

      I am all for it, if it means that a 10cent Fairfax gas tax creates a more wholistic system of transportation for our County, what do you think about the idea of devolution of maintenance requirements?

  3. Incorrect information on February 8, 2012 at 10:43 am

    There are numerous incorrect or misleading “facts” in this article. The writer should get the facts straight and have a better understanding of how the state design standards and funding are established and enforced. Clearly the writer has not done this with this article and is doing a great disservice to the residents, the County and the State by not accurately depicting his “facts”.

    • Tysons Engineer on February 8, 2012 at 11:22 am

      Can you provide an indication which facts you believe to be incorrect? Also please note that this article is our editorial, and many of the items are subjective and interpretive. We would like to know which facts are in question however. Thank you.

      Hello? Mr. VDOT man?

      • Steve on February 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm

        The inaccuracy that got me was that Northern Virginia has its own district of VDOT. While Richmond is responsible for distributing funding, how that is spent is up to a combination of that office and the MPO. You allude to this in the paragraph starting “Northern Virginia,” but you seem content to blame Richmond as an extension of VDOT for these transgressions. Look to your local leaders…

        • Tysons Engineer on February 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm

          Well, but the point is that VDOT guidelines are designed, created, reviewed, and approved through Richmond. These guidelines are extremely difficult to grant variance on, especially when all decisions on exceptions eventually must be approved by Richmond. The requirement for 12′ wide lanes in all situations, the one size fits all design approach to intersections, and the inability to distinguish subdivision/freeway from urban setting roads is what creates a difficult criteria for development. In this way VDOT very much counteracts the goals of urban density in making other modes of transportation much less prioritized over the vehicle.

          While Avian parkway VDOT does have final word on specific reviews of plans in this region, they can not create decisions that do not work within the framework created from Richmond (and yes with the inclusion of FFX VDOT in the discussions as well). Regardless often the case is that the final decisions are dictated as much by politics and budget battle as much as correct traffic design and compromise to land use practice.

          • Steve on February 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm

            Many of the standards you list: lane width, speed limits, curve radii, etc., for interstate and primary routes are set by the MUTCD created by FHWA. In this sense blaming VDOT is like blaming Fairfax County for lack of repairs on I-66. There is little VDOT can do without the consent of FHWA.

            As for subdivision roads, the problem is that the localities want VDOT to maintain them (meaning the locality receives more maintenence funding for existing roadways). In order for VDOT to accept them, they need to meet these standards, which is why you see a one size fits all approach. After all, cash is king…

            What you see as VDOT counteracting the goals of urban density is simply a result of you not understanding VDOT’s goals and methodology. They are not trying to create sprawl, but there is very little you can do when you’re almost exclusively limited to creating roadways (the exceptions being sidewalks, multi-use paths, etc.) and traffic volumes continue to grow. All public transit in VA is based at the regional or local level.

  4. Tysons Engineer on February 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    I don’t disagree with the facts you are saying, and I dont think the article is implying this isnt the case. I am well aware of federal DOT standards and the requirement to use the Green book (AASHTO) and MUTCD in design principals, but there are hundreds of jurisdictions in the US that don’t, and they aren’t threatened by their DOTs of de-funding of maintenance just because they disagree. NYC doesnt have 12′ lanes, Richmond frankly doesnt have all 12′ lanes. There are bulb outs all over the place that theoretically block sight distance at intersections. There are thousands of streets that are allowed to be at a failed LOS level all around the country because it encourage alternate paths and other modes of transportation.

    Sometimes the best solution for the money and the public is to do nothing, or atleast do no harm. But when you tell people and ingrain in their heads that widening a road will make things better always, you are deceiving them about the true mechanics of traffic flow. Sometimes a road widening does nothing, and I’ve seen cases (route 50/29/west ox) where widened and complicated systems made traffic worse.

    If VDOT wants to change my mind on this, they will stop saying, do it our way or we will devolve responsibility for maintenance, or start changing their standards to also include design methodology for high density districts.

    I do appreciate the dialogue, and I’m not trying to be confrontational, heck most of my traffic has come from VDOT today (ironic I know!). I think this kind of dialogue is a healthy way to see each others side.

  5. Michael G on February 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm

    I have served the public as a Transportation Professional for the past 25 years. One consistant fact I have observed is “the asphalt is always smoother and less congested if we did it our way”. The ‘we” I speak of is always the one or few with their mouth open. The mass majority like to drive to work, to home, to play, to school, to shop, to wherever. The minority seem to consistantly complain that government, who serve all, does not equally fund their utopian dream environment. Plainly put, the grass is greener and the asphalt is smoother on the other side. It is not that the government does not desire to serve the pedestrian, the cyclist or the mass transit user; the majority has voted with their pocket book and their vote consistantly in favor of roadways to facilitate their automobiles. Period. Love the life and environment your parents and grandparents have created for you or leave it. If you want to control how things are run, please become politically active. But at least regard those who have given their professional lives to attempting to make your world functional and as safe as possible a small dose of credit. We all do the best we can with what we have to work with. Quit bitching and get in the game.

    • Tysons Engineer on February 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm

      So when pedestrians get killed every 3 months in Tysons Corner because if you step outside of your vehicle you are likely to be hit, that is something that people love to be able to do? That is defeatist mindset. I dont hate the car, I think it just shouldn’t be prioritized unfairly over all modes of transportation, and currently the budget shows that it is. VDOT for pavement projects gets 4 billion dollars a year, DPRT gets a couple hundred million and is facing steep budget cuts. Is the reality that we have a lot of roads and they need maintenance? Yes, but to keep taking from one to fund the other is by every sense of the word prioritization. Arlington shows that people can have vehicle accessible lives, address traffic congestion, have multi-modal options, and be viable and sustainable for commerce if you stop building cities as if they were Gainesville.

      Whats good for the suburbs is not what’s good for places that have a shuffle of 200,000 people every day. I am not saying that VDOT is to blame even, and certainly not the design engineers, many of whom I am colleagues and friends with. I am saying it is not appropriate to only view the solution through VDOT’s eyes, sometimes when there is an issue, the answer from VDOT has to be, we can’t solve this problem in an efficient way. By denying that this is the case in many situations you lead the public who isn’t as educated to the design process to believe that bigger roads and bigger networks always works. You can look to Southeast Asia and see the worlds largest road networks and see that they operate far less efficiently than smaller more interconnected vehicular/pedestrian/mass transit networks.

      The point is, to point to the gods of models and say this is the way forward always neglects the reality of 60 to 70 years of design empirical data that shows that at a certain point road widenings do more harm than good, specifically in intracity travel. I am not trying to say that VDOTs work is meaningless, I am trying to say that one solution can’t always be applied, and VDOT has the criteria of being able to only improve vehicular (and bike I guess) systems. Sometimes the pen should be put down and compromise should be made even at the cost of a smaller budget that will shift to an agency like DPRT or non-state MWAA. To only continue to design because the voter has said so is diregarding your first duty as an engineer, to serve the public good. And with that kind of statement I feel you can sometimes forget that, sometimes the public, who may not fully understand engineer design, should be assisted in understanding the limitations of certain design, even if it puts at risk your departments job security.

  6. Brian on February 8, 2012 at 7:00 pm

    This is a little off-topic but I feel that VDOT’s signaling is terrible. Instead of managing the flow of traffic more efficiently by properly timing traffic signals, they continue to widen roadways. The roadways that we have in this area should be of sufficient capacity to handle the amount of traffic that is present. It doesn’t help congestion when you have to stop for every single red light. This obviously trickles down to the rest of the system and causes backups. VDOT should modernize our roadways to use the current capacity more efficiently. It may cost a lot of money upfront but the long-term savings will be tremendous.

    Also, does VDOT use a portion of its budget to fund Metro rail expansion? The population of NoVA will more than likely continue to expand and the reliance on paved roads and highways is unsustainable. There will always be a choke point inside the beltway.

    And… since people from VDOT are actually looking at this: Could someone please take a look at the exit ramp from 267E to 495N? Every morning it’s backed up almost to the toll booth. It seems foolish that they added another lane to the first portion of the exit, only to have it merge into a single lane. With the addition of what seems to be the HOT lane traffic on this ramp (merges in from the left side), the problems in the morning will only get worse. It currently takes anywhere from 15-30 minutes every morning to clear that section of roadway.

    I should probably say that I do appreciate all of the hard working folks over at VDOT. We happen to be in a metropolitan area that is dealing with explosive growth. I can only imagine how difficult their job must be!

    • Tysons Engineer on February 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm

      Brian this is a well put comment. And I agree with you, the designers and engineers at VDOT do a great deal of work and 99.9% of them have to work within the system that is given to them. My critique really is more to the top of VDOT and frankly at the top of the state legislature and governor. I have a lot of fellow civil engineers who went to VDOT and they can often be frustrated by the resent they receive from the population. To that point, I think VDOT designers do great work, if only the politics didnt ruin all that hard work.

      VDOT funds and Mass Transit funds are kept separate. MWAA is a private entity which has oversight by Maryland, DC, and Virginia and receives a significant amount of subsidization for capital projects but none of those funds come from VDOT. VDOT is in charge of roads, bridges, and tunnels. DRPT is technically the department in charge of rail/public transit… unfortunately they are little more than a figurehead department which has been unfunded for the most part by the State. So to that point, Metro is sorta a weird entity, its not public technically, but it does have oversight and some funding assistance from public budgets.

  7. Fletch on February 9, 2012 at 3:14 pm

    Having lived in this area for 12 years – and hating every moment of getting on the road in NoVA – I’ve got to admit that a lot of this article was pretty eye-opening. It’s unfortunate that the commentary section even has folks from VDOT ostensibly saying “There’s really nothing you can do,” when the *GENERAL* idea behind concerned citizens voicing their dissent about government activities is that the governing body responsible goes “Huh, the citizens are concerned, maybe we’ll see if we can do something about that.” Instead, it seems like the commentary you’re getting could be boiled down to “Not MY problem…” which seems to be about the common response that you get from VDOT at any level of complaint (potholes, light outages, all the way up to the major issues like congestion and gridlock.)

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