Friday, October 28, 2005

New Proposal for the Dulles Toll Road

A group billing itself as "Dulles Express" has submitted a proposal under Virginia's Public-Private Partnership Act to buy the Dulles Toll Road. This proposal would provide a $5.7 billion benefit to the Commonwealth, the group asserts.

Said lead investor Franklin L. Haney: “We have the only plan on the table right now to add capacity to this critical transportation artery. Additional lanes, coupled with the investment in rail and other roads, and a guarantee of the long-term maintenance of the Dulles Toll Road, will bring desperately needed enhancements to the transportation network serving the Dulles corridor through a balanced, multimodal approach.”

From the press release:
The most significant aspect of the Dulles Express proposal is the addition of two new “Toll Express” lanes in both directions of the Dulles Toll Road to ease growing congestion. These new lanes will be financed by private equity and/or at-risk capital, thus shifting risk from government to the private sector in the spirit of the PPTA.

The team’s plan also provides: $267 million for the state’s share of the first phase of the extension of Metrorail to Dulles; up to $450 million for the second phase of Metrorail extension; and hundreds of millions to be used for improvements to the Dulles Toll Road and other transportation projects in the region. In addition, the team will assume all maintenance and operations costs for the expanded Dulles Toll Road and the Dulles Airport Access Road. The estimated cost of these items over the 50 year concession term is nearly $5.7 billion, funds that will not have to be expended by the Commonwealth if it chooses the Dulles Express team.
For more information, click here.

Transportation Transformation

I'm back from the 54th Virginia Transportation Conference in Roanoke, where I spent the better part of the day, participating briefly as a speaker but most listening to what others had to say. The conference was designed to push the boundaries of conventional thinking about transportation. The theme: "Investing in Mobility and Accessibility."

To my mind, the most noteworthy comments were those of Secretary of Transportation Pierce Homer. While noting the tightening constraints on transportation capacity, Homer argued that Virginia should nevertheless make maintenance its top priority -- "take care of what we have." Also, he said, Virginia should change its emphasis from increasing transportation capacity to managing demand through such means as telecommuting, ride sharing and congestion pricing.

Has Virginia, Homer asked, fully explored all the transportation options? Like shifting freight to rail? Or slug lines? "The public," he said, "is not convinced that we have looked at alternatives to traditional transportation solutions."

I had to leave before Gov. Mark R. Warner addressed the conference at the very end of the day. It would have been interesting to see if he built on Homer's remarks. (The only reporter I saw there was Road to Ruin's own Bob Burke.) Several speakers spoke of the need to increase taxes to add more road and rail capacity, but none of the tax talk came from the Warner administration. Gov. Warner is on the way out, but it still matters what he thinks. The budget he submits this December for consideration by the 2006 session of the General Assembly will provide the starting point for debate.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Chichester's view: at least $1 billion a year

Sen. John Chichester's position is clear - the state needs new revenue to fund at least $1 billion a year in transportation spending, and that money won't come from the general fund. The Fredericksburg paper covered his comments to the Fredericksburg Regional Chamber of Commerce about the transportation funding issue:

'"Transportation needs its own sources of reliable and sustainable revenue, and it's time for action," Chichester said, adding that he envisions such revenue actions to put "a fair proportion" of cost to those who use the system.

He did not address specific ways to get more money into transportation, although he later said any combination of gas taxes, sales taxes, tolls or other taxes on vehicle-related items would be options.

"All of these user fees are all there. And no one wants to pay any of them," he said. "We need to be upfront about that and stop looking for a curtain to hide behind."

Chichester and Sen. Edd Houck, who was in the audience, don't expect the next governor to play a leading role in proposing major funding strategies. Both also said the private sector needs to step up the pressure on General Assembly members, because that's where any new spending initiatives will have to come from.

The Shucet Solution: Hold Rural Areas Harmless

Proposal number seven in Philip Shucet's letter to the Senate task force on transportation: Hold rural areas harmless from the loss of current funds. This recommendation should be viewed against the background of proposals frequently heard among Northern Virginia candidates for the House of Delegates that the Northern Virginia sub-region pays a lot of taxes but is not getting its "fair share" of the money back for local transportation projects. Many say they would fight to reallocate state transportation funding formulas which benefit RoVa at the expense of NoVa.

If additional funds become available, Shucet says, it "may be reasonable" to direct a larger share to urban areas. But it is imperative to hold rural areas harmless from any possible loss of current funds. Sixty percent of pavement deficiencies on secondary roads, 70 percent of primary road deficiencies and 50 percent of Interstate system deficiencies are in rural districts. Furthermore, rural districts account for 85 percent of all deficient bridges on secondary systems, 77 percent on the primary system, and 55 percent on the Interstate system.

Says Shucet: "If we are to grow Virginia, we have to protect the economy of our rural areas. Safe and efficient transportation go hand-in-hand with new jobs and opportunities."

The Shucet Solution: Use More Design-Build Contracts

In our ongoing series of posts on Philip Shucet's recommendations for transportation reform, we come to the sixth in his letter to the Senate transportation task force: Use more design-build. At present, if I understand correctly, the Virginia Department of Transportation performs all of the design work for road and highway projects (except in rare instances in which the project is funded by a public-private partnership).

Shucet recommends that the General Assembly remove the restriction in state law that prohibits the outsourcing of project design, and "allow the market to drive the decision." Letting the same company design and build a project would:
  • Shift accountability to a single source, the contractor, "removing any doubt regarding accountability for errors and omissions."
  • Reduce project delivery times by allowing contractors and engineers to work in parallel.
  • Reduce project costs by eliminating the development of full engineering drawings before going to construction.
  • Reduce the government's cost to administer construction projects.

Design-build won't work in every situation, Shucet says, but for the right projects, "it provides a means to hit the ground running with an accelerated program."

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Smart Traffic Centers profiles the Smart Traffic Center that watches over the downtown areas of I-95 and I-64, using cameras to pinpoint the site of accidents etc and send crews there to clear them.
Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have such centers as well. The fellow who runs this center says even when all they can do is give drivers an idea of how long the backup is, that's better than no information at all. Here's what the center does:

'The Smart Traffic Center is an exercise in efficiency. It uses mounted traffic cameras to pan and zoom in or out on accidents and disturbances. These images are then displayed on four 50-inch plasma screens and half a dozen computer monitors throughout the center, giving the traffic team remote controlled, full video coverage from south of the James River to Bryan Park.

Don't underestimate the help that pinpointing the exact location of an accident can give. When passersby call in wrecks to 911, they can often be vague in detail or even mistaken, Alexander said. That's where the Smart Traffic operators come in: they seek out the accident and supply emergency services with accurate, never-fail locations and details that can save precious minutes and 911 resources. All incidents are also tracked, color-coded and prioritized on software uniquely designed for VDOT.'

The Shucet Solution: Complete Our Highway Network

The fifth of Philip Shucet's written recommendations to the state senate task force studying transportation policy is to complete the state's highway network, including a number of mega-projects:

  • Another Potomac River crossing and north-south alternative for Interstate 95 in Northern Virginia
  • A third crossing in Hampton Roads
  • The Coalfields Expressway
  • Four-laning of U.S. 58 to Interstate 77
  • A U.S. 29 bypass around Charlottesville
  • Improvements to Interstate 81 such as truck-climbing lanes
  • Improvements to Interstate 64 between Richmond and Hampton Roads
  • Repair of all structurally deficient bridges across the Commonwealth
"I understand the sentiment that we cannot pave our way out of congestion," Shucet writes by way of preface. "But a few facts are still inescapable." Nearly all goods reach their final destination by truck; 91 percent of all workers go to work in a car. "Virginia needs to complete and improve its most essential roadways."

And how would he pay for all of this? "I believe Governor Baliles' plan to use Virginia's Interstate system as a statewide source of revenue dedicated to specific projects merits strong consideration as a means of funding and building priority corridor projects across the Commonwealth."

It's important to understand what Shucet is saying here: Yes, he is advocating raising $1 billion a year in new toll revenues for major new road projects. But all of these projects would improve mobility between metropolitan areas, not within them. Their function is economic development, not congestion mitigation.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The Shucet Solution: Improve Safety

In the last 12 months there were 154,000 crashes on Virginia roads. Many of them involved injuries and fatalities, which makes improved traffic safety a worthy goal in itself. But traffic accidents also contribute to traffic congestion. Even when wrecked cars are pulled to the side of the road, rubber neckers slow down to gawk and traffic can back up for miles.

In a letter to the Senate task force studying transportation, former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet suggested that one way to improve traffic congestion is to invest in more enforcement and safety patrol officers. Wrote Shucet:

“Egged on by the frustration of congestion, people are driving too fast, following too closely, and changing lanes too carelessly. Traffic flows at its smoothest when moving at posted speeds. It may be prudent to invest a portion of new transportation funds in additional officers to enforce traffic laws, and added safety service patrols to clear incidents rapidly when they occur.”

Investing in brighter signs and pavement markings could help prevent accidents, he added. The material exists to improve the reflectivity, or brightness, of highway signs. Likewise, the material exists to make pavement markings more visible, even in wet weather.

Although Shucet did not note it in his letter, his proposal resembles a plank in Jerry Kilgore’s transportation platform. The Republican nominee for governor recommends increasing fines for traffic violators on the grounds that their reckless behavior could result in accidents that create gridlock. Levying fines on traffic violators could provide a revenue stream to pay for the hiring of extra state police and incident-management teams

The Shucet Solution: Smart Signal Systems

There is no silver bullet for solving traffic congestion in Virginia, but there is a multiplicity of smaller, narrow-bore solutions which, applied together, can make a difference. That’s the thrust of former Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet’s letter to the state Senate task force studying transportation.

One of those narrow-bore solutions is to invest in smart signal systems. These “smart” traffic lights, which use traffic sensors to detect the speed of traffic and the size of back-ups at traffic lights, can adjust the signal timing dynamically to move traffic at optimum efficiency. This is a particularly attractive way to increase capacity of streets and thoroughfares in urbanized areas where it is too expensive to widen roads.

As Shucet observes: “Poorly timed traffic signals result in unnecessary stop-and-go traffic on city streets, waste money spent on fuel and contribute to urban air pollution. Yet, those very same signals when operated as part of a well-timed coordinated system can save time and money.” As an example, he cites a 1998 project that used more than 15,000 vehicle detectors to coordinate the timing of traffic lights in Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William Counties. The first, three-year phase of the project saved motorists $24 million in fuel consumption alone.

“You may want to investigate this technology further,” Shucet wrote to the Senate task force. The state could consider establishing a program, perhaps on a matching basis, “that encourages or requires municipalities to invest in coordinated signal systems across geographic boundaries.”