Photo by La Citta Vita on Flickr.

Virginia took a huge step forward in 2009 to make its sure its new suburban areas included the connected street networks that made older suburbs less congested, safer to walk and bike, and cheaper for local governments to maintain. But it’s making a U-turn as the Commonwealth Transportation Board threw out the new standards at a meeting last week.

This step is just one of many from Virginia statewide agencies in recent days that decisively push toward a 1950s view of growth, one which neglects established communities and crumbling infrastructure in favor of brand-new sprawl in the farmlands which ultimately creates even more traffic.

State officials are giving the thumbs down to Metro, light rail and bus transit in favor of highway lane expansion, skipping small but significant improvements that help neighborhoods or key growth areas like Tysons Corner to instead spend billions on megaprojects that drive the region farther apart, and lose focus on key repair needs while weakening the street connectivity standards.

If you live in Virginia, please speak up at a hearing tonight at VDOT’s (non-Metro-accessible) Northern Virginia office in Fairfax, or send in written comments.

The connectivity standards reformed a key mistake in suburban development: building neighborhoods composed primarily of cul-de-sacs. In many neighborhoods, there’s just one way in and out for any homeowner, to one or maybe two major arterial roads.

While this gives many homeowners the ability to live on a quiet street, it creates problems for everyone. With few entry and exit points, all the traffic gets focused on single intersections at the arterials, causing significant congestion. Kids can’t walk or bike to school or even friends’ houses when the only route involves going out to the busiest part of the neighborhood and along a wide road designed for high-speed traffic.

And it costs taxpayers. These neighborhoods are very expansive to plow for snow and time-consuming to navigate for ambulances and fire trucks. Subdivisions in Virginia had to wait days or weeks for plowing during the major snows last year because of the way the plows had to constantly backtrack, and people couldn’t get out of their neighborhoods without any alternate routes.

Older suburban areas still primarily comprise single-family houses while providing a grid that spreads traffic around and offers many safe routes for non-motorized users. Areas like Columbia, Greenbelt and Reston win constant plaudits for designing suburban areas that lack these shortcomings, with paths to walk and bike that also build community.

The connectivity rules revolved around a simple premise: Once a developer builds a subdivision, VDOT (except in a few counties) then takes over responsibility for maintaining and plowing the roads. Therefore, they should be able to require certain standards to avoid developers pushing all the costs off onto the taxpayer. The General Assembly in 2007 authorized a change, and Virginia briefly jumped far ahead of most states with this progressive policy.

Last week, however, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a policymaking body appointed by the Governor, voted to drop the old standards, especially the “Connectivity Index” which created a score based on the degree to which a street network was connected or isolated.

Instead, they set some rules for the number of connections out of a subdivision and onto main streets. A development of 200 homes needs 2 connections, though 1 can be a “stub end” road which connects to an as-yet-undeveloped area. Each additional 200 homes will only require one additional connection.  It’s better than nothing, but still means a new 200-house development can have just 1 way in and out.

Also, a subdivision can add a “collector road” which gives double credit if that road is part of a county transportation plan. So a developer could build 400 houses, all on cul-de-sacs off one major road through the center, and connect that road only at 2 points to major arterials. A typical suburban house can generate about 10 car trips per day, so there will be 4,000 turning movements onto and off of those 2 arterials every day. It’s a recipe for major traffic that will harm every other resident who uses those roads.

While Virginia is weakening rules to create better road networks in new suburbs, it’s neglecting established areas in favor of greenfield development and traffic-inducing megaprojects. Governor McDonnell and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton have made it clear they don’t want to contribute to the Silver Line Phase II, even if the federal government, Fairfax, and Loudon all put in more money.

Meanwhile, but McDonnell and Connaughton are eagerly borrowing money to build large freeways like the damaging bypass around Charlottesville or to push an Outer Beltway. Much of the region’s future growth will happen in Tysons Corner, but it’s not getting transportation improvements it needs. And transit along the Route 1/Richmond Highway corridor is nowhere on the agenda.

Virginia could get far more bang for its precious transportation buck by focusing on local street connections, and most of all repairing crumbling roads and bridges. Instead, the McDonnell administration seems bent on repeating the mistakes of the 1950s: building unsustainable transportation networks at the periphery while letting a more central economic engine sputter. Then, it was center cities across America; now, it’s Arlington, Alexandria and Tysons Corner which state officials are looking past instead of toward.

Tonight is an important meeting where Virginia residents can speak up about priorities. VDOT is having a public meeting to hear input on its 6-year priorities tonight, at the VDOT Northern Virginia District Office, 4975 Alliance Drive in Fairfax. Sadly, VDOT doesn’t seem to think it’s a priority to locate a meeting near Metro. An open house format starts at 6, and presentations by local officials at 6:30 followed by public testimony.

Bob Chase’s Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a group funded by greenfield developers in Virginia to lobby for roads that would feed suburban development on their land, has been pushing its members to attend and push for an Outer Beltway. Chase even argued, with an apparent straight face, that new highway lanes were more important than repairing crumbling bridges during a round of news stories last week concerning the dire condition of the nation’s infrastructure.

It’s important to get more residents who support good road connectivity, local street improvements, repairing crumbling infrastructure, pedestrian and bicycle projects, and local transit improvements to counter the sprawl lobbyists. If you can’t attend, you can also send in written testimony at this Coalition for Smarter Growth page.