Oil Is A Burning Thing
Officials throughout southeastern Virginia are apparently shocked – shocked! – that public anger at the increasing privatization and tolling of nearly all routes connecting Norfolk and Virginia Beach to the rest of the region appears to be coming to a head.
Such anger is, as I see it, unsurprising. (The only thing that really surprises me here are toll rates that end in seven or seventeen cents, which is merely peculiar to those with credit cards or EZ Pass, but could amount to an exasperating inefficiency for commuters who do not.) But one thing much less surprising is the inevitability of this outcome. Frankly, Virginians are starting to see the chickens coming home to roost.
To some extent, the possibility of using toll revenue for de facto congestion pricing is not entirely inappropriate, if highly inequitable in the absence of good transit alternatives. But it should be apparent from this that VDOT is not only still fixated on road projects at the expense of transit, but unclear on which of these projects are actual priorities. Some – the Southeastern Parkway immediately comes to mind – are of dubious utility at best (in that particular case, serving few apparent transportation needs while enabling real estate speculation at the expense of Oceana Naval Air Station and its mission).
The growing sticker shock at the expense of various projects not only speaks to urban Virginian’s missteps in rejecting a 1% gas tax levy, but also to Richmond’s inability to come to terms with changes in transportation dynamics that are already underway. This appeared to be implicitly understood by many voters in rejecting those levies, given that over 95% of the billions of dollars to be raised in those proposals went to trophy road projects addressing priorities that are decades out of date.
But it appears to be slowly dawning on state officials how incredibly unserious Virginia’s approach to transportation has become, particularly in Bob McDonnell’s administration:
“I don’t think that the citizens of Virginia are ready yet to do what’s needed to solve the problem, and that’s raise revenue,” said Republican Del. Thomas Rust, whose Fairfax district is plagued by gridlock. “The citizens understand all that, but at the end of the day they say don’t you dare raise my taxes.”
Gov. Bob McDonnell had proposed privatizing the state’s liquor stores to generate funding for transportation, but Senate Democrats and even some in his own party have said that idea will never pass. McDonnell also had hoped to rely on drilling for oil and gas off Virginia’s coast to fund road and rail projects, but President Barack Obama recently announced a seven-year delay on such activity due to the BP oil spill.
With those seemingly off the table, Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple and some transportation officials said the gas tax was the best hope for new revenues.
In a perfect world, these growing rifts and dawning realizations would frighten some officials into thinking about whether the Oceana sprawlway and “Third Crossing” are actually worth it, and lead them to possibly consider a more sustainable and equitable transportation policy for the entire region.
If southeastern Virginians had better transit options – not even necessarily rail to begin with, just high-capacity, frequent bus and ferry service to start – starting in the denser nodes of the region and working from that foundation, they would be getting somewhere, faster and more reliably. Instead, VDOT continues a policy of planning more roads that do nothing to improve core capacity, exacerbate existing capacity problems, and threaten major elements of the regional environment and economic base.