By David Foster – RAIL Solution Executive Director – April 14, 2014
For years we have had a frustrating time in Virginia, the focus of much of our operations, combating a rigidly-entrenched highway-centric mentality among transportation planners at VDOT. I am cautiously optimistic that this wall may be cracking. The new McAuliffe administration with Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne has been making headlines questioning some of the highway mega-projects strongly backed by the previous McDonnell administration. In fact, a halt has been ordered in the boondoggle U.S. 460 expressway project and calls have gone out to re-examine and re-think others. We had a high risk in Virginia that things might have gone otherwise, because the McDonnell administration did secure a big increase in new transportation funding for the state, and that could have meant an explosion of new, poorly-conceived highway exploits.
The hell of it is that $270 million of taxpayer money has already been spent on U.S. 460, with nothing to show for it. $270 ÷ 55 miles = $4.9 million/ mile, and in my professional estimation, which of course would have to be subject to detailed engineering, 55 miles of the parallel NS rail line could have had a third track added for roughly $5 million/mile. And the freight carrying capacity of the enhanced line would equal or exceed that of the 4-lane expressway with minimal environmental impact. Bizarre situations like this result from past failure in Virginia to examine all construction alternatives before starting to spend money on highway projects
Another positive development, in my view, is passage of HR-2 by the Virginia General Assembly. While not perfect (we were unable to get Barbara’s wonderful “life cycle costs and benefits” language included), it does for the first time that I am aware of set up with some rigor a hierarchical process for prioritizing transportation projects and specifies a list of factors to be considered in evaluating all proposed projects. Every politician loves a road project for his district. It’s been the quintessential plum to take back to constituents for decades. Now knee-jerk road solutions for every problem of congestion and growth will be harder to force through. Alternatives will have to be examined and a process followed.
Furthermore, in all its recent state plans (Statewide Freight Plan, State Rail Plan, and VTRANS visioning plans), there has been a consistent theme of intermodalism. This is all good. We must remain vigilant because where politicians are concerned, there is certainly the possibility of back-sliding. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by these developments and wanted to share that upbeat note with you. Too often, year after year, we work hard and feel we are not accomplishing anything. But persistence pays, and RAIL Solution has been on message with intermodalism and the advantages of freight rail for over 10 years now. I think what we have shaken up disserves some of the credit for these latest tectonic policy shifts.
HB 2 Commonwealth Transportation Board; statewide prioritization process for project selection.
Introduced by: Christopher P. Stolle
SUMMARY AS PASSED:
Allocations within highway construction districts. Provides for the development of a prioritization process for projects funded by the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Such prioritization shall weight factors such as congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety, and environmental quality and be applied within each highway construction district.
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