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.
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.
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.
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.
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.