Ken Plum: Transportation progress?

Column by Ken Plum
www.kenplum.com
 

Gov. Bob McDonnell ran for office as the only candidate with a “transportation plan,” a multi-page, single-spaced document that was good for waving to political crowds but which critics who read its content said had little substance. A report from the governor’s office last month on the progress of implementing his transportation plan raises anew the question of whether this plan will do anything to relieve traffic congestion.

The first mentioned accomplishment of the governor’s new plan was the reopening of nineteen rest stops, now called “safety rest areas,” by April 15. While this action draws a contrast with his predecessor, Gov. Tim Kaine, who had closed some rest stops as part of a $4.2 billion budget reduction, the report of the reopening was accompanied by an announcement that “VDOT will soon announce a creative plan to implement innovative concepts that will reduce the costs of operating and maintaining all of Virginia’s safety rest areas.” Apparently there is some recognition of the questionable use of highway funds for rest stops when there is so little money to go around, but why the closed stops were not opened under the “creative approach” is not mentioned. The alternative is likely to be a “pay as you go” plan.

The governor reported on a measure passed by the General Assembly “initiated at my request…to reduce congestion on rural sections of the Commonwealth’s interstates” by increasing the speed limit to 70 miles per hour “where feasible.” VDOT is currently studying where the increases will occur. It is unlikely that a study will conclude that raising the speed limit on a congested road as being feasible, and raising the speed limit to less than the prevailing speed of traffic on uncongested roads is not likely to make much difference. The first area announced for the higher speed limit is I-295 south of Richmond, hardly an area known for heavy traffic.

A popular promise among politicians who suggest that traffic congestion can be relieved without spending any money is to propose an audit of VDOT. The governor reports that there are currently three audits underway of VDOT: one by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission; one by Cherry, Bakaert and Holland LLP; and the final one by KPMG. That will make seven audits in five years by my count with no recommendations forthcoming that will add a single mile of road, save any significant amount of money, or add a transportation alternative.

The governor in one sentence in his press release acknowledged that his bill to devote eighty percent of all “offshore energy exploration royalties” to transportation passed the legislature, but there was no mention of when or if that will ever happen. The only part of his report that produces any revenue is a request to the federal government to add tolls to I-95 at the North Carolina border. Projected revenue from the tolls is estimated to be $50 million toward the one billion needed annually.

The governor promises that “in the coming weeks the Secretary [of Transportation] will be meeting with agencies, legislators, business groups and other stakeholders to assemble a set of initiatives to dramatically improve transportation.” There was no mention of the other elements of his campaign plan including the sale of ABC stores. Sounds like he is trying now to figure out what to do.

Impacting on transportation issues in the state is the governor’s announcement in a separate press release of his “business-friendly proclamation to attract large trucking firms to title and register fleets in Virginia.” Under this plan, trucks that operate in interstate commerce under federal requirements for annual safety inspection will not be inspected for safety in Virginia. His press release states that “many large trucking firms meet safety requirements through a self-inspection program.” Will this help move traffic in Virginia or make our streets safer?

In his usual affable style, the governor ends his report by expressing appreciation for the “hard work many of you have put into achieving these successes.” Hopefully the standard for success will be raised in the future, for I cannot see where anyone’s commute is any easier as a result of this first round of “successes.”



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