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September 22, 2010

Virginia’s top transportation official addresses business community

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By Sean Tubbs
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Wednesday, September 22, 2010

20100921-Connaughton
Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton

The man in charge of Virginia’s transportation agencies told area business leaders Tuesday that addressing congestion on U.S. 29 is a key state priority.

“We view [U.S. 29] as a critical corridor for central Virginia,” said Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton. “We’ll hopefully be able to start to have a better dialogue on how we solve some of these transportation problems.”

Connaughton’s comments were addressed to the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce, a group that has long advocated for a western bypass of U.S. around Albemarle County’s urban ring.

Listen using player above or download the podcast: Download 20100921-Connaughton

While the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has spent $47 million to design and buy property for a western bypass route, elected officials on Charlottesville’s Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) have never approved funding for construction. To actually build the 6.2 mile road would cost an estimated $230 million, according to VDOT spokesman Lou Hatter.

The project has stalled due to uncertainty about where the money would come from.
Officials in Lynchburg and Danville have long argued that the state should force the construction of the road against the will of the MPO. 

“We have to get a consensus of the parties involved, particularly the governments,” Connaughton said. The secretary had scheduled an August meeting  between elected officials in both the Charlottesville and Lynchburg, but it was canceled. Connaughton said the meeting will be rescheduled, but not until after the fall.

The secretary himself has not taken a position on whether the bypass should be built.

“I understand the position of supporters and I understand some of the concerns of the opponents,” Connaughton said in an interview. “The thing for us is to find a way to address some of the concerns that have been raised while making the transportation enhancements that you need.”

Connaughton saved most of his time to address structural changes to the way the Virginia Department of Transportation plans and manages projects.

For instance, a report due in December will offer recommendations on how to decouple state road planning from federal planning requirements in order to reduce delays introduced by additional oversight.

“When you have a road that has had federal money applied to it, it becomes a federal process,” Connaughton said. “And when you have a federal process, it drives up the costs and delays projects.”

He said federal projects tend to get funded first, leaving no funding for maintenance for secondary roads.

“We’re not putting maintenance money into them because none of those roads qualify as federal roads,” Connaughton said. “Our program is being driven by our dollars, and not where the needs are.”

Connaughton said the administration will seek to find new revenue sources to pay for projects. These could include state royalties from off-shore drilling, as well as money from Governor McDonnell’s plan to privatize ABC stores. One option, however, is clearly off the table.

“The governor has made it quite clear he doesn’t support a gas tax increase,” Connaughton said. “The number of cars registered in the state has actually increased in the last five years, and vehicle miles traveled has increased, yet our gas tax revenues are actually declining.”

Albemarle Supervisor Dennis Rooker pointed out that Albemarle will receive $330,000 in secondary road funds next year, down from $5.5 million in 2005. The allocation for next year is projected to decline further, potentially to zero.

Connaughton responded that VDOT needs to review the way it classifies roads.

“Right now, we classify roads by an administrative system that was developed in the 1930’s,” Connaughton said. “Secondary roads are everything from some of the rural roads… to the Fairfax County Parkway, a six-to-eight lane road that’s congested… We really want to go back and take a look at how the formula drives us to do things that aren’t very smart and also starves some areas of the state of money.”

He said 51% of all the state’s transportation money is spent in Northern Virginia, and reminded the audience of large projects such as the Springfield “mixing bowl,” the Wilson Bridge over the Potomac as well as Metro.

In his presentation, Connaughton said the state would invest in the airport runway expansion project at the Charlottesville Airport, and would also put more money in intercity rail.  He singled out the new service from Lynchburg to D.C. as a successful project he would like to replicate across the state.

“It’s one of the few services in the county that are actually making a profit because the usage on that train is about 100% more than we estimated,” Connaughton said. He said he wants to continue extending service to Roanoke and Bristol.


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