Friday, July 15, 2005

A Transportation Plan for Hampton Roads' Future - or Past?

The Metropolitan Planning Organization for Hampton Roads has put its imprimature upon nearly $9 billion in high-priority road improvements for the region. The projects include $4.2 billion for the "third crossing," $1.5 billion for the Southeastern Parkway, $1.5 billion for improvements to U.S. 460, $1.6 billion for Interstate 64 and $550 million for a parallel Midtown Tunnel and related improvements. (You can read the details in a letter written by Virginia Beach City Manager James K. Spore and distributed widely by e-mail.)

The plan envisions using tolls to fund bond payments on all of these projects. Toll revenues would generate a projected $191 million a year, leaving an unfunded deficit of $275 million that would have to come from some other source. The MPO recommends raising that money through a mix of higher regional taxes and fees on retail sales, gasoline, motor vehicle registrations, the motor vehicle sales & use tax, and profits from the toll on the midtown tunnel.

Spore urged the General Assembly to take action on the regional taxes in the 2006 session, predicting dire results if the improvements are not made. Old Dominion University's modeling and simulation center in Suffolk, the city manager noted, has concluded that "between 2008 and 2010 something akin to the 'last vehicle' will be dropped in to the roadways of Hampton Roads, at which time the entire network will be substantially in gridlock for many hours of the day. This is a very ominous prediction, I'm sure you'll agree."

Clearly, Hampton Roads is facing a critical juncture: On the one hand, traffic congestion is a serious and growing problem; on the other, $9 billion is a massive public investment that, once made, will crowd out other potential investments in the region's well being. I do not dispute the recommendations in Spore's letter, but I submit that the magnitude of the MPO's plan demands that the citizens of Hampton Roads, indeed the citizens of Virginia, subject the numbers to close scrutiny.

At this stage, I won't rehash all the transportation alternatives to building roads. I would raise one question. Does this transportation plan really advance the vision for Hampton Roads' future? Traffic congestion in the region is partly a seasonal phenomenon tied to summer tourism, partly a function of the increased volume of shipping through the region's ports. Clearly, transportation improvements are needed to maintain the competitiveness of both industries. But are ports and tourism the industries that the region's business, civic and political leaders want to invest in? Is the continued expansion of these industries so crucial to the economic health of Hampton Roads... is the vision of an economy built around stevedores and freight forwarders, cocktail waitresses and time-share salesmen, so compelling that it justifies raising $275 million in taxes on the public -- roughly $180 per year for every man, woman and child?

1 Comments:

At 9:57 PM, Blogger Jim Hoeft said...

Jim,
Hampton Roads is hardly an economy that is based solely on shipping and tourism. I would say the several rather large Naval Bases in the area also add to the travel woes, not to mention a significant number of white-collar communtors into downtown Norfolk.

However, where we make our money is not quite the question. The question is how much more gridlock can this region take?

As one who actually lives here, I somewhat resent someone from Northern Virginia -- the bottomless pit of Virginia's transportation dollars -- suggesting spending some peso's in Hampton Roads might not be worth it.

The problem with Hampton Roads is that we are surrounded by water. You can't get anywhere without going over water at some point. This means lots of choke points at bridges and tunnels. And guess what: bridges and tunnels are expensive.

Do I think that $9B is a lot. Sure. Do I think that Hampton Roads is the port of the future -- one already surpassing Baltimore -- and needs the transportation to not only further our own success but the Commonwealth's -- absolutely. Do I think all the transportation projects suggested are necessary -- perhaps not. We do need to develop a rail system.

Anyway, problems abound down here Jim. Just sit on I-64 from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. to go 30 miles and you'll know what I mean. Is this worth $9B to somebody from NOVA, maybe not...but I think you may want to look harder at the future of the Commonwealth before you discount the investment.

 

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