Photo by debcll on Flickr.

Who should decide how an area grows? Local officials and voters, or the government in Richmond? The focus on decisions would shift under Virginia’s latest transportation bill, which gives the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) new powers to supersede local planning.

The bill, passed on March 10, requires local governments to revise their plans to include projects favored by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, a governor-appointed, 17-member body that oversees VDOT.

Localities that don’t adjust their plans to confirm state priorities would have their transportation funds taken away and given to other jurisdictions. If they want to significantly alter a project to better suit local needs, like lengthening a proposed bridge to help protect a stream, or re-routing a planned road to protect a neighborhood, they would pay the extra cost.

If a locality rejected a project outright, local taxpayers would have to reimburse VDOT for any money it has spent, even if they’ve rejected it based on hard data, or if the locality never wanted the project in the first place.

Governor Bob McDonnell has until mid-April to either sign the bill into law or use his line-item veto authority. Local officials and groups such as the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties are asking McDonnell to remove the provisions giving VDOT its new powers, as are smart growth advocates, and many local governments.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth (CSG) has an action alert for Virginia residents to ask local governments to challenge the bill, and to contact the governor directly.

Stewart Schwartz of CSG says, “VDOT is notorious for failing to consider a range of alternatives and community impacts, but can now punish local governments and local taxpayers for daring to offer alternative solutions or for recommending cancellation of ill-advised projects based on information about environmental or community impacts. In the end, the state will waste billions of dollars.”

Lieutenant Governor Bill Bolling, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to pass the bill, described the legislation as “a modest effort to ... improve the coordination of land use planning and transportation planning.”

Critics might substitute “coercion” for “coordination,” and “overreaching” for “modest.” In editorials, the Roanoke Times observed that the bill “promotes ill will rather than harmony,” and the Lynchburg News & Advance raised the specter of VDOT as a “mega-agency with vast powers over local governments.” Both alluded to the bill’s incompatibility with Governor McDonnell’s professed attitude toward mandates.

The McDonnell administration’s approach stands in contrast to a bipartisan 2007 law that required localities over a certain size to designate “urban development areas” (UDAs). These are specific areas where zoning would allow future growth and reduce pressure for more sprawl. The law called for siting UDAs near existing infrastructure that could handle the growth.

At the time, Republican Delegate Clay Athey promoted the concept as a cost-saving measure, since the state pays for roads to serve far-flung developments that come from poor local planning. The state would save money on roads, local governments would save on infrastructure and services, and residents would save on transportation.

The UDA rule enjoyed broad support from smart-growth proponents, fiscal conservatives, and the Kaine administration. But this March, Governor McDonnell signed legislation that makes UDAs optional and allows local voters to abolish them. He portrayed UDAs as “burdensome mandates on localities,” despite the fact that the state paid to help 32 localities meet the law’s requirements, and despite evidence that compact development saves money in many ways.

Why would the state weaken one bill that coordinated land use and transportation planning to the benefit of both state and local governments, only to replace it with another bill that forces coordination at the expense of local voices and priorities?

The reason may be less about coordination or cost, than a simple preference for highways. VDOT and the governor have been pushing contentious highway projects. Here are some examples:

  • Charlottesville Bypass, widely opposed at the local level. VDOT has largely disregarded the better “Places29” alternative.

  • Widening most of I-81 to 8 lanes at a long-term cost of $11.4 billion.

  • The Coalfields Expressway in the far southwest, which could cost $2.1 to $4.2 billion.

  • A new Potomac River crossing and Outer Beltway, which past Loudoun County Boards have opposed.

  • Route 460. McDonnell replaced most of the Virginia Port Authority’s Board of Commissioners to move the project forward, ignoring regional officials’ requests to spend the money on bridge and tunnel bottlenecks.

Schwartz believes that Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation and VDOT Chair, Sean Connaughton, “isn’t interested in better land use at all, but in the ability to force controversial highway projects through communities. In the process, he is destroying the necessary coordination and discussion between local, regional, and state officials.”

The governor should restore 2007’s conservative, cost-saving approach to transportation