Building the right transportation projects

Published 12:01 pm Saturday, June 14, 2014

by Aubrey Layne

Sixty-seven hours is a long time. Long enough to take a vacation away from traffic.

If you live in Northern Virginia, chances are you spend 67 hours or more a year in your car in bumper-to-bumper traffic, according to the latest mobility report by the Texas Transportation Institute.

In Hampton Roads, time lost to congestion is more than 40 hours annually, and in Richmond it is 29 hours. What would it take to get some of that time back? That question dominates conversations from the kitchen table to the floor of the General Assembly. At the center of debate is how to improve transportation to keep people and commerce moving.

Improving Virginia’s transportation system is really about making people’s lives better by easing congestion and driving the economy. Improving safety and protecting the environment are just as critical.

With these basic priorities in mind, wouldn’t it make sense to invest limited public dollars in transportation improvements that yield the greatest benefits? Fortunately Governor Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly thought so.

A new law this year requires transportation projects to be selected based on an objective prioritization process. The purpose of this new process is to invest public funding wisely and prudently by selecting projects that produce the maximum benefits for each dollar spent.

When McAuliffe appointed me as transportation secretary, he did not give me a list of top construction projects to deliver. Instead, he instructed me, as chairman of the Commonwealth Transportation Board, to invest in the right projects.

My staff and I have worked with state legislators to implement significant reforms for the programming of transportation funds. The effort resulted in House Bill 2, which directs the Commonwealth Transportation Board to develop and implement a statewide prioritization process for transportation projects.

There is no pre-judging of projects. Project funding will be determined through a fair and unbiased process fueled by local input and needs that is consistent with statewide logistical and transportation goals.

The process follows three key principles:

Select the right projects

Priorities will be based on an objective, quantifiable analysis that considers the following factors relative to the cost of the project: congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality. Projects that reduce congestion will rise to the top in traffic-clogged regions in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. For rural and other regions, transportation priorities will be based more on stimulating the economy and job growth.

Candidate projects will be screened to determine whether they address a critical need for major transportation corridors that have statewide impacts, regional networks or improvements to promote urban development. Analysis of the screened projects will further refine which projects get funded. Beginning July 1, 2016, the CTB will use the prioritization process to select projects. These projects will be in the Six-Year Improvement Program, which allocates state and federal dollars to transportation improvements.

Engage the public

The CTB will work with localities — including metropolitan planning organizations and transit and transportation authorities — to set weights for key factors like reducing congestion and creating economic opportunities. This will help determine the most critical needs for project screening.

Ensure transparency

The process will be open for public review, and residents will have opportunities to provide input on selected projects.

Prioritization will consider projects currently in the SYIP, as well as projects not in the program.

Projects fully funded as of June this year that have completed environmental review may be exempt from this process. Other exemptions include pavement and bridge rehabilitation projects, revenue-sharing projects and some secondary road improvements.

The current SYIP, to be voted on in June by the CTB, has been analyzed to identify those projects that will be required to go through prioritization. Further refinements will be made as we go through the prioritization process.

The statewide prioritization process will help to determine the most critical transportation needs through a fair and clear-cut process that gives citizens a better understanding of the benefits they will receive for their transportation dollars.

Prioritization will also protect the most precious of resources — our time and Virginia’s ability to keep the economy and jobs moving.

AUBREY L. LAYNE JR. is the Secretary of Transportation for the commonwealth of Virginia.