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June 18, 2008

Citizens talk transportation at legislator's town hall meeting

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On June 16, 2008, Delegate David Toscano (D-57) held a transportation town hall meeting with Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation, Barbara Reese. Reese presented Governor Tim Kaine’s (D) plan for fixing the transportation funding shortfall, a plan which will be considered by the General Assembly at a special session on June 23, 2008. The rest of the meeting was dedicated to input from the crowd of about 50 who attended.

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Last year’s transportation funding plan (HB3202) established local taxing authorities in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads which were later declared unconstitutional by the Virginia Supreme Court because it granted taxing authority to unelected bodies.. Kaine’s new proposal would increase a number of taxes and fees statewide, including fees on auto sales, vehicle registrations, and sales of property. The bill would also increase sales tax in the Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads areas.


Deputy Secretary of Transportation Barbara Reese with Delegate David Toscano


Reese began her presentation by laying out the challenges facing the legislature and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT); a highway system that is mostly over 50 years old, bridges that average 47 years in age, and declining revenues for transportation resulting from, among other factors, the abolition of the abusive driver fees which were also authorized in HB3202.

Historically, a majority of transportation money has been spent on the construction of new roads, rather than on maintenance. The number of users on Virginia roads has increased by 80% in the past 20 years, putting an increased strain on the country’s third largest state operated roadway system. The amounts budgeted for both construction and maintenance have been steadily increasing since at least the 1980’s; however, according to VDOT projections the amount spent on maintenance will increase rapidly in the next 10 years, while the amount budgeted for construction will actually decrease. By the fiscal year 2019, VDOT is expecting to spend approximately 10 times as much on maintenance as on construction.

Reese explained that because of the funding shortfall, the Culpepper district (which includes Charlottesville-Albemarle) is losing $25 million a year from the construction budget, which includes not only new roadways but also new turn lanes, traffic signals, and other improvements to existing roads, to the maintenance budget. She said this will lead to a 44% decrease in allocations for the Charlottesville-Albemarle area, resulting in delays and cuts in projects such as Route 250 improvements and Hillsdale Drive.

The first priority of Gov. Kaine’s transportation plan is safety, according to Reese, and she cited a statistic she "had hoped never to see again,” a fatality count over 1,000 on Virginia highways last year. VDOT officials have observed that emergency response times are lengthening, and Reese acknowledged that the Charlottesville-Albemarle area has seen at least seven deaths in the past month.

Reese also stressed the importance of additional transportation options beyond automobiles, both to decrease congestion for those on the roads and to provide much needed access to jobs and health care for disadvantaged Virginia residents. To this end, Kaine’s plan establishes a Transportation Change Fund that would fund such initiatives as van pools in low income areas, increase funding for rail, and efforts to encourage more Virginians to work from home.

Reese also responded to criticism of tax hikes in the current economic climate, pointing to a number of statistics she claimed showed that Virginia has a relatively low tax burden compared to other states. She cited the following statistics to back up her assertion:

  • Virginia ranks 5th in average per capita income
  • Virginia has the 12th highest population in the nation
  • Virginia has the 18th lowest state and local tax burden in the country
  • Virginia ranks 39th on taxes as a percentage of personal income
  • Virginia ranks near the bottom when it comes to taxes dedicated to transportation

Reese concluded by pointing to a stack of her business cards, and encouraging local citizens to contact her with any questions or concerns. Her contact information is as follows:

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Barbara Reese
Barbara.reese@governor.virginia.gov
(804) 769-8032

Next, the town hall moved on to the citizen input portion.

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) stated that the Albemarle Board of Supervisors supported any plan that restored the needed funds to the region.

Harrison Rue, outgoing Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, urged VDOT to realize that the area will not be able to make any progress on transportation planning until the funding situation is resolved, and said “we’re not gridlocked, we’re funds-locked.”

Danielle Fitz-Hugh of the Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce said that improving the road conditions for those commuting to and from the city and county was vital to improving the quality of life.

Jeanette Janiczek, Charlottesville VDOT Program Manager advocated the creation of a local transit authority for the Charlottesville-Albemarle region.

Former Charlottesville City Councilor Meredith Richards, Chairman of Charlottesville Citizens for Better Rail Alternatives, bemoaned the poor quality of rail service currently received by the area (the two Amtrak lines serving Charlottesville, Cardinal and Crescent, are on time 18% and 68% of the time respectively), and encouraged increased Amtrak funding.

Jeff Werner of the Piedmont Environmental Council urged VDOT to ensure that further funding of Amtrak doesn’t go to waste, paying for passenger trains to sit in line behind freight rail.

Stratton Salidis of Charlottesville compared the construction of the Meadowcreek Parkway to “one last drunken binge” by a recovering alcoholic, and recommended it be replaced with a Meadowcreek Bikeway.20070702-200x200-02

City resident Peter Kleeman argued that most of the wear and tear on the roads is the result of heavy trucking, and said that discussion with trucking and rail companies is vital to any significant transportation planning.

Donna Shaunesey of JAUNT pointed out that the elderly population of the Charlottesville area is set to double in the near future, necessitating better transportation infrastructure for those who are not able to drive.

Sam Freilich stated his support for the addition of more bike lanes in the area and the creation of a bus service to bring people to and from Crozet to Charlottesville.

Jeanne Chase of the Fry Springs neighborhood repeated her support for the Sunset-Fontaine connector to relieve traffic on Old Lynchburg Road.

UVA computer science professor John Pfaltz noted that there is more funding available for primary road construction than secondary road construction, and asked Reese if secondary roads designed to relieve traffic on primary roads could be considered for primary road funds. Reese stated that she would check into the matter.

Transportation journalist Randy Salzman advocated the construction of a foot bridge [over the Rivanna River] to connect the current and upcoming locations of the Martha Jefferson hospital, to prevent traffic congestion to the new location that would, in his opinion, lead to political pressure to construct a road bridge.  

Don Wells of the Senior Statesmen of Virginia argued that all of VDOT’s planning is essentially useless, because it doesn’t take into account a seismic shift that he sees on the near horizon; a collapse in the amount of oil available that will drive gasoline prices up to the extent that the vast majority of cars will be taken of the road, and thus make even the existing roadways largely obsolete.

Delegate Toscano closed by remarking that most of the input he had received prior to the meeting centered around the tax increases necessary to pay for the plan, while those at the town hall seemed more interested in the transportation strategies the state will be pursuing. He thanked everyone for their interest, and invited individuals to discuss any further questions with him and Deputy Secretary Reese. 

TIMELINE FOR PODCAST:

  • 0:00:28 Delegate David Toscano
  • 0:03:01 Barbara Reese, Virginia Deputy Secretary of Transportation
  • 0:35:19 Trip Pollard, a Senior Attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center (audio quality improves after this segment)
  • 0:40:50 Albemarle Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett)
  • 0:50:08 Harrison Rue, outgoing Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission
  • 0:55:28 Danielle Fitz-Hugh, Charlottesville Chamber of Commerce Vice President for Membership Programs
  • 0:57:25 Jeanette Janiczek, Charlottesville VDOT Program Manager
  • 0:59:51 Former Charlottesville City Councilor Meredith Richards, Chairman of Charlottesville Citizens for Better Rail Alternatives
  • 1:09:51 Jeff Werner, Charlottesville-Albemarle Land-Use Field Officer for the Peidmont Environmental Council
  • 1:17:46 Transportation activist Stratton Salidis
  • 1:21:32 Former City Council candidate Peter Kleeman
  • 1:28:26 Donna Shaunesey, Executive Director of JAUNT
  • 1:31:47 Transportation activist Sam Freilich
  • 1:35:17 Jeanne Chase of the Fry's Spring Neighborhood Associaton
  • 1:42:50 John Pfaltz, UVA Computer Science Professor
  • 1:44:58 Randy Salzman
  • 1:50:12 Don Wells of the Senior Statesmen of Virginia
  • 1:54:52 Question and Answer period

Ben Doernberg

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