Thursday, February 22, 2007

Talking About Transportation by Mona John Williams

The mid-sized audience paid close attention as Scott Kasprowicz, Virginia’s deputy secretary of transportation, described the current state of the commonwealth’s transportation program at RCDC’s second general meeting for 2007, on Wednesday, February 21, at Broadway High School. What was notable about the audience became evident once the questions started—these were informed, involved community members who had come prepared to dig a little into what has become one of the state’s most difficult issues.

Kasprowicz did not hesitate to characterize the current situation as problematic. He held up a bar chart that summarized driving-related growth during the past 18 years. While growth in population was 24%, the number of drivers increased by 34%. But increase in miles driven was an impressive 56%. “We are driving more,” Kasprowicz said. This large increase in miles driven relates directly to the Virginia Department of Transportation’s single biggest expense, which is for road maintenance.

New development is increasing VDOT’s road maintenance responsibilities at a steady rate of 200 miles per year. The department, in response, is intensifying its scrutiny of developers’ plans and proffers in the light of future road maintenance requirements. An effort is being made, for example, to encourage connectivity among subdivision roads, and to discourage formerly popular cul-de-sacs.

Governor Kaine’s transportation policy, Kasprowicz said, emphasizes accountability, stricter land use requirements and sustainable funding. VDOT is now completing 90% of highway projects on-time and on-budget, and a Transportation Accountability Commission is developing standards to help citizens evaluate progress. The Governor has asked the General Assembly to allow local jurisdictions to deny rezoning requests that would overload road systems. And he has proposed tax reforms and new and increased fees to provide a dedicated revenue stream for transportation funding.

Kasprowicz mentioned the transportation funding debate currently occupying the General Assembly, whose current session is due to end on Saturday, February 24. Central to the argument is the question whether or not to tap the General Fund, normally used for education and other basic services, for $250 million in transportation revenues.

Questions from the audience were focused on local concerns, pitched at varying levels of technicality, and plentiful. A sample:

· How does Virginia’s gas tax compare with other states’? It is low.
· Why not look into providing incentives to get passenger buses rolling again on I-81? That is being looked at, but is not high priority due to limited funds.
· What is the size of the road maintenance funding backlog that has accumulated? In the billions.
· When did Virginia stop being a pay-as-you-go state? During a previous administration.
· What is the outlook for subcontracting as a way to trim VDOT’s budget? Good. But certain emergency-related services will have to be reserved to the department.

This meeting was billed as a Town Hall Meeting, and it had that kind of a feel. The energy level was high, and the information being exchanged was important to everyone in the room. Party positions didn’t come up, just individual and community concerns. So it was easy to think of this meeting as the best sort of community service—an opportunity to meet with the neighbors, find out what’s going on, and offer one’s own ideas or other personal contribution in the continuing effort to improve life for us all. This is what RCDC tries to be about, and on Wednesday night, it seemed to have succeeded.

4 comments:

finnegan said...

Thanks for covering this, Mona.

One question I have is: how does the transportation issue (mainly a NoVa and Hampton Roads problem) affect us here in the Valley?

Everyone (myself included) loves to gripe about trucks on 81, but nothing in any plan I've seen Republican or Democrat-backed proposes to do much of anything about that.

I suffer from typical American apathy: it's hard for me to care since I feel like it doesn't affect me very much. If I lived in NoVa, that would be a different story.

Mona John Williams said...

finnegan--

Kasprowicz did mention NoVa and Hampton Roads initiatives that were being considered, while there appear to be no Shenandoah Valley initiatives under consideration. But that doesn't mean they are the only ones with problems!

One of the benefits of meetings like the one we had last night is that our problems can get a little more publicity. There was discussion of I-81, and I mentioned one comment regarding it in my story. Of course, this is only one step on the long and difficult road to action by the General Assembly. But meetings, speaking up, and letters to newspapers and representatives are steps we can take now, and they could well make a difference.

Liz said...

Great meeting! I had no idea that a town meeting could be so non-partisan. The information was well presented by the deputy secretary and I was also impressed by the level of discussion.
This was the first democrat meeting I have ever been to and I now look forward to the next one.

bmh said...

This morning we find that there is still conflict concerning the resolution of the transportation issue. The choice apparently is to "borrow and spend" or "tax and spend." Pay me now, or pay me later. Take responsibility now, or pass for now and let our children and grandchildren pay.

Let's hope the Governor hangs in there an forces the House Republicans to finally prove they are fiscally responsible and actually pay for what they want this time!