Federal and state laws on transportation funding could change
By Sean Tubbs
Tuesday, January 31, 2012
Legislation currently pending before the General Assembly could have a far-ranging impact on how Virginia decides what road and transit projects should be built.
“We think it has the potential to broadly change the way transportation planning and programming and funding [takes] place in Virginia,” said Stephen Williams, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission.
The two bills, HB 1248 and SB 639, lay out Gov. Bob McDonnell’s transportation priorities for 2012.
State law already requires localities to include a transportation section in their comprehensive plans. The new legislation would require those plans to be approved by the Virginia Department of Transportation to make sure they are “consistent” with the Commonwealth Transportation Board’s state plans.
“The department could withhold federal or state funds until the local government came into consistency,” Williams said.
Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said that could be problematic.
“There’s no definition in the statute of what that means and it leaves it up to VDOT to assess what is consistent,” Pollard said.
Neil Williamson of the Free Enterprise Forum said his interpretation is that the legislation would give VDOT powers it is already exercising because transportation planning is a function of the state.
“I believe it gives VDOT the power more explicitly, but that power has existed implicitly in the [statewide transportation improvement plan] at least for those localities which are in MPO areas,” Williamson said.
Currently, the Charlottesville-Albemarle MPO develops its own list of transportation improvements, which is then coordinated with the statewide plan. Williamson said the legislation further clarifies the process.
“Localities have no recourse to disobey state transportation guidelines, but localities are well represented at the table when decisions are made,” Williamson said.
The legislation would add several new sources of funding, including the ability for VDOT to create transportation improvement districts to fund specific projects.
“For any transportation project costing in excess of $20 million, the CTB [could] designate a Transportation Improvement District that is a five-mile radius around the project,” read a preliminary analysis by MPO staff. “Within that radius, 25 percent of any growth of state tax revenues is transferred to the Transportation District Improvement Fund.”
The bill also would also raise additional revenues by allowing the CTB to sell naming rights for highway and bridges to pay for maintenance.
It would also create a new Virginia Toll Road Authority that would be charged with developing new highways through public-private partnerships. The authority could also have existing roads and facilities transferred to it for operations and maintenance.
The bill does not directly address the concept of transferring responsibility for secondary roads to localities, but does call for a study of the topic to be conducted by Secretary of Transportation Sean Connaughton by the end of the year.
Pollard said he believes the legislation raises too many questions and deserves further study before being adopted.
“This is one of the most significant bills in the entire session,” Pollard said. “We’ll see how this all evolves and changes but there’s an awful lot to this.”
House and Senate committees are currently weighing the fiscal impacts of the bill.
Meanwhile, Williams is also concerned that congressional reauthorization of federal transportation funding contains language that would eliminate MPOs that serve smaller communities like Charlottesville and Albemarle County.
Currently, federal law requires MPO areas to be designated for urban areas with a population 50,000 or greater.
“The provision that’s proposed in the new legislation is to make the minimum criteria 200,000,” Williams said. Existing MPOs slated for elimination would have to argue their case to the federal government in order to continue operations.
“There would have to be a formal review process in which it was demonstrated to the Federal Highway Administration and VDOT that the MPO was meeting the requirements,” Williams said.
Williams said if the bill passes as written, localities would lose an important voice in transportation planning.
City Councilor Kristin Szakos, the new chair of the MPO, requested that Secretary Sean Connaughton be asked to defend the continued existence of smaller MPOs.
“I think it would be a good idea for the Virginia Department of Transportation to send a letter as well weighing in on this because coordination is really important to the way we do business,” Szakos said.