Photo by Virginia Guard Public Affairs on Flickr.

A newly-passed General Assembly bill will make transportation spending in Virginia more practical and less political, by replacing ad-hoc funding decisions with more transparent performance measures.

HB1887, the “omnibus transportation bill” which the General Assembly passed this session, makes dozens of changes to the complicated web of formulas and regulations that govern Virginia’s transportation budget.

The biggest change completely replaces the state’s system for deciding which local road projects to build. Other changes set aside more money to maintain existing roads and bridges, and add more money to transit.

The new legislation will “revolutionize the way Virginia invests taxpayer dollars to restore aging roads, build new capacity and increase transit,” says Virginia secretary of transportation Aubrey Layne in an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Funding decisions should become less political

Proponents of HB1887 argue it will make transportation planning and budgeting far less political.

Currently, a group called the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) makes decisions about what projects to advance, and where to spend money. But CTB members are appointed by the governor, and it’s common for governors to fire and replace any CTB members who don’t toe the party line, or who toe the wrong party’s.

HB1887 changes that. Not only does it restrict governor’s ability to fire CTB members without cause, it also requires the CTB to follow objective performance measures when allocating certain pots of money.

Money for repairs and key projects

Once signed into law, HB1887 will direct a larger percentage of Virginia’s transportation budget to maintaining and replacing old bridges and roads, as opposed to building completely new highways. The CTB will develop a priority ranking system to distribute those funds, so the money will go where it can do the most good.

Still, a lot of money will go towards projects to expand interstates, major roadways, and rail lines across Virginia. The CTB is also responsible for distributing these funds, but under new, more mode-agnostic criteria mandated under last year’s HB2 legislation.

Improvements to local project funding

Another large pot of money will go to road projects that local jurisdictions request funding for directly, via Virginia’s nine road construction districts. Any county, city, or town can apply to its VDOT construction district for a grant. VDOT will analyze each request according to pre-determined performance measures, and fund as many as it can each year.

Northern Virginia’s district includes the cities of Alexandria, Falls Church, Manassas, and Manassas Park, along with Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William counties.

“Projects selected will receive full funding for all phases, allowing projects to proceed more quickly from design to construction,” wrote Layne. He adds, “this is a significant improvement from the old system” which guaranteed a small amount of money to each jurisdiction every year, and “in which communities often “banked” funds for five to ten years so they had enough money to build the projects they wanted.”

$40 million for transit

The bill also moves $40 million statewide from highways, ports, and aviation toward transit projects, such as new buses or railcars, and rehabilitating track. This transfer is key, because without it Virginia’s transit capital funding would drop 62% in the coming years.

That’s only a partial win. The coming drop in transit funding is close to $100 million, so there will still be less money for transit in the future than there’s been in the past. But $40 million is better than nothing.

By comparison, individual highway interchanges frequently cost over $40 million each.

Other good transportation bills also passed

In other good news, legislators amended HB1915/SB1314, which would have forced officials to use highway-favoring “congestion metrics” in choosing transportation projects, to be less damaging to transit, bike, and pedestrian projects. And HB1886 passed, which partially reforms the Public Private Transportation Act, meaning Virginia should see even more accountability and transparency.

Canaan Merchant was born and raised in Powhatan, Virginia and attended George Mason University where he studied English. He became interested in urban design and transportation issues when listening to a presentation by Jeff Speck while attending GMU. He lives in Reston.