Photo by Mrs. Gemstone on Flickr.

One of two bills that would base all transportation decisions on models that prioritize the fast flow of cars passed the Virginia House’s transportation committee Tuesday. All of Northern Virginia’s Republicans on the committee and several Democrats voted for the bill.

HB1998 would make it state law to base transportation decisions on traditional traffic models, which consider only the fast movement of cars and nothing about how closely people live to their jobs, the relative value of transit versus roads, safe movement of pedestrians and cyclists, or any other factors.

This bill is, in essence, the exact opposite of the USDOT’s “livability” push. That agency has been retooling the formulas for federal transit funding to move away from only favoring projects that move the most people the longest distance.

Under the old formulas, if a city wanted to build a rail line to an empty warehouse district, they wouldn’t get funding, because nobody lives there and therefore the rail line wouldn’t move anyone. But, of course, the whole point was to attract people to that district who would then ride the line.

This bill would mandate the road analogue of the old-style formula. It requires that VDOT exclusively prioritize “(i) the total amount of reduction in traffic congestion regionally and, separately, (ii) the amount of reduction in traffic congestion expected to be achieved per dollar cost of the project.”

Say there’s a congested roadway and two potential transportation projects. One would simply widen that roadway, temporarily reducing traffic but also spurring substantial new auto-dependent office parks 30-50 miles from many of the existing residents in the area, which will fill up the new lanes and make traffic even worse than it is. Another would do less for the roadway itself, but would make it possible to add jobs near the residents to drive economic growth without adding traffic. The second option is actually better for congestion in the long run, but this law would require VDOT prioritize the first.

As Dan pointed out this morning, parts of our region which have attracted fewer jobs have somewhat less stifling traffic than the areas with more jobs. Adding infrastructure to an area draws growth and investment. If this bill passes, Virginia would have to continue neglecting areas where better transportation would drive needed job growth, and instead would have to keep pumping dollars into more and more freeways for those areas where people live far from jobs, thus have to drive long distances, thus creating congestion.

Last night’s snow also showed how living long distances from work can create serious problems for commuting during major snows. Some people faced up to 5-hour or even 8-hour commutes home. Virginia shouldn’t be creating legal requirements to develop in patterns that will only set the stage for more of these horrific experiences.

Rather than throwing more money to exacerbate existing problems, Virginia should invest in growing cities and towns with jobs and housing close together. The COG Region Forward project aims to steer development around such “activity centers.” Bob Chase and other outer-Beltway boosters are trying to head off this approach before it starts by taking the planning authority away from COG and regional governments and locking in old-fashioned planning mechanisms.

Unfortunately, several Northern Virginia representatives including some Democrats supported the bill in the committee. All of the committee’s Republicans voted for it, including five from Northern Virginia: Joe May of Leesburg, Tom Rust of Herndon, Tim Hugo of Centreville, Edward Scott of Culpeper, and Barbara Comstock of McLean.

Four Democrats voted for the bill: Hampton’s Jeion Ward, Newport News’s Mamye BaCote, Charlottesville’s David Toscano, and Richmond’s Dolores McQuinn. Eileen Filler-Corn of Springfield wasn’t present for the vote but voted for it in the subcommittee. The only no votes came from Arlington’s delegates Adam Ebbin and Bob Brink, and Richmond’s Betsy Carr, all Democrats.

Unfortunately, there was no debate on the bill in the committee. House committee chairs have been rushing bills through full committees with absolutely no debate after they receive approval from only a small subcommittee. The Virginia legislature already has a too-compressed schedule; skipping debate pushes the legislature to make more rush decisions on important issues.

Please contact your delegates and senators to ask them to reject this bill and its companion, HB1999, which hasn’t come up for a vote yet in the Transportation Committee, as well as HB2016. Here’s more about those bills. Or, if you are in Ebbin or Brink’s districts, thank them for their efforts.

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.