The Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) controls a vast budget for transportation projects all over Northern Virginia. Now they’re gearing up to build 34 new projects, including new Metro stations, more buses, and wider highways.
NVTA may be the most important infrastructure agency in the Washington area that few people know much about. “The authority,” as officials call it (to distinguish it from the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a lobbying organization that favors aggressive highway-building), gives Northern Virginia the ability to raise and spend its own money on its own priorities.
That’s the theory, anyway. But the Virginia General Assembly requires NVTA to prioritize projects that reduce road congestion. Before NVTA can fund any projects, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has to run each proposal through a computer model that rates its ability to reduce congestion.
“Congestion reduction” sounds great, but it doesn’t work
VDOT’s rating system for NVTA projects rewards expansions of the busiest highways, on the assumption that more road capacity will reduce congestion. It’s a flawed 20th century metric that ignores decades of real world experience that bigger roads actually make congestion worse.
The VDOT system does not measure things like how a project might benefit safety, or increase accessibility, and doesn’t take into consideration how land use changes are driven by infrastructure.
The biggest problem is simply that VDOT’s model doesn’t know what to do with short distance trips, which are the exact type of trip that transit-oriented development produces more of. So when a transit or pedestrian project makes it possible for thousands of people to walk two blocks instead of drive five miles, the VDOT model doesn’t always show that as reducing congestion.
Thus, road expansion projects end up looking good, and other things have trouble competing. Transit does OK if it relieves traffic on a major road, but pedestrian or bike projects are almost impossible.
Many other regions are using broader metrics for measuring transportation performance and congestion mitigation, but Northern Virginia can’t because the General Assembly won’t let it.
NVTA’s proposed project list
NVTA has announced a draft list of 34 projects the agency recommends for funding over the next two years. The list includes 18 road projects and 16 transit projects, totaling about $350 million.
Road projects include widening Route 1, Route 7, Route 28, and Loudoun County Parkway, as well as intersection expansions along Route 50 in the City of Fairfax, new interchanges in Leesburg, and more.
Transit projects include money for the Innovation Center and Potomac Yard Metro stations, a new entrance at Ballston station, VRE platform expansions at Franconia-Springfield, Rippon, and Crystal City, Metrorail power upgrades, and new buses for WMATA, Loudoun, Fairfax, and Fairfax City.
Here’s the complete list. Projects that NVTA staff is recommending for construction are highlighted in yellow.
Over the next week NVTA is holding a series of town hall meetings on its project list, and a public hearing in Merrifield on Wednesday, March 25 (tomorrow!), beginning at 6:00 pm.
It doesn’t end with this list
NVTA is also developing a long-term regional plan to guide decisions from 2018 on.
NVTA’s last long-term plan, TransAction 2040, is an aspirational list of projects that was developed before the agency had any funding. Now that it has money, NVTA is developing a more structured framework to determine how to prioritize funds.
Building the new regional plan will take two years, and there should be many opportunities for citizens to engage in it. A critical issue will be how NVTA and VDOT choose to measure “congestion reduction” and the cost-effectiveness of projects, and to what extent they will take into account the benefits of shifting more single-occupant car trips to pedestrian, bicycle, and transit ones.
Watch for news on the next TransAction plan later in 2015.