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It’s The Land Use, Dummies

By Greg L | 21 March 2013 | Loudoun County, Fairfax County, Virginia Politics, Prince William County | 7 Comments

We’ve talked a lot about transportation during the past decade at the state and local level, and we’ve poured a huge amount of borrowed money and tax increases into funding transportation.  Is any of that going to actually solve anything?

The Jefferson Policy Journal agrees with me that it won’t in a new article appearing this evening, making a rather interesting observation that this whole exercise is just impossible to economically sustain.  Federal debt, mostly, is used to build transportation projects that then get handed over to states and localities to maintain and the states and localities are increasingly unable to afford those costs.  The anticipated economic benefits of these projects largely fail to materialize and the whole investment becomes a money-losing proposition.

That wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, Marohn contends, if the infrastructure investments had generated significant economic value. But they didn’t. The revenue collected did not come close to covering the cost of maintaining the infrastructure. In the suburban development pattern, he writes, “the amount of tax revenue obtained per increment of liability assumed … is ridiculously low. Over a life cycle, a city frequently receives just a dime or two of revenue for each dollar of liability.”

The all-too-common solution: Double down on more growth! Goosing growth brings in another round of tax revenue and kicks the liability can down the road. Over the past two decades, localities and developers have gone “all in,” fueling the suburban growth machine by acquiring a staggering amount of debt. It’s a Ponzi scheme, and that scheme is unraveling.

Here’s an example: Metro wasn’t built with local dollars, and hardly any of it was built with state funds.  It was federal money — federal debt, actually — that built Metro.  All of the operations and maintenance costs fall on the localities however, and that financial burden has been exploding, sucking up every transportation dollar available in Fairfax County and making it impossible for that county to do any local transportation infrastructure improvements at all.  All the transportation projects in Fairfax County now are either state or federally funded, because Fairfax County can’t afford them anymore.

Land use planning has been so horrible in Northern Virginia that the transportation corridors are utterly overwhelmed.  Our response hasn’t been to address the driver of the problem — land use — but to pour more money down the transportation funding rathole without any regard to congestion relief, safety, or return on investment.  We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars right now on the “Coalfields Expressway” and Route 460 in Hampton Roads, and the combined traffic volume on those roads is less than what the heavily congested Route 28 in Fairfax County has to carry.  We’re spending billions on extending Metro to Dulles Airport with the insane idea that that project will somehow relieve congestion.

No, the result of those projects will be to burden taxpayers with fiscally unbearable maintenance and operational costs that will make it impossible to actually address congestion and traffic safety in the future, while doing absolutely nothing to relieve congestion and improve safety.  We aren’t addressing the problems, but making bad decisions that will make the problems we are suffering from now even worse.

There is an answer however, and if we have the intellectual courage to confront it we might just find a way out of this mess.

Marohn also has done a better job than I have of outlining the answer. I have hammered away at the idea that we should ranking transportation spending by Return on Investment, as measured by congestion amelioration, safety and (real, not pseudo) economic development. But Marohn suggests that the yardstick should be how much value-creation transportation improvements add to (or, in many cases, detract from) property values.

If we start making smarter decisions about transportation improvements, forcing decisions to be based on objective criteria as the Jefferson Policy Institute is arguing, that will probably help quite a lot.  It’s certainly better than the idiotic decision-making system we use now, which doesn’t promise to fix anything at all.  Even if we band-aid the problem better than we have been, we still haven’t addressed the underlying problem causing the congestion we find so intolerable. 

The biggest driver on traffic congestion is land use.  We set up massive employment centers and then place low density residential housing far away from those centers.  The roads and other transportation systems that connect these are supposed to bring people to and from their jobs, which by any objective measure has been an utter failure.  Until people and where they work are much closer, there’s no way to make such a system work without trying to extract from either the employers or the employees the financial support actually needed to cover the capital and maintenance costs for the transportation systems they depend on.  Doing so would be extraordinarily difficult from both practical and political perspectives, so the answer to this point has been to impose costs on everyone across the board to address a system that can’t possible pay for itself, and those costs are soaring.

Until we start decentralizing employment centers — moving jobs to where people live, or people to where the jobs are, our transportation systems will never work and will become ever more fiscally unsustainable.

That won’t be an easy to shift to make, especially given that land use decisions are a local matter, and it is not likely that Fairfax and Alexandria are going to suddenly come to the realization that life for people in Prince William County and beyond would be better if they gave up a big chunk of their commercial tax base and sent it west and south.  They’re utterly beholden to this problem, and their budgets depend on the tax revenues these clusters of employers provide.  If the Commonwealth is largely unable to fix this, who can?

The leadership of the localities that suffer the worst from the problem have to step up here.

In the General Assembly the delegations of these localities have to squeeze off the spigot of transportation dollars for new infrastructure that contributes to the problem.  Allow the pain to employers to become so great those employers might consider relocating to where their workforce resides.  Instead of caving into the unending demands of the Chamber of Commerce that citizens bear the unsustainable economic costs of their decisions to locate inside the beltway, make it clear they own the problems they have created.  You absolutely wanted your whole workforce located near the District of Columbia?  Welcome to the traffic nightmare you are contributing to.  It was your conscious decision to do that, so don’t whine to us about it.

At the county level, a firm and unmistakable decision has to be made to abandon the bedroom community land use model as a planning goal.  No, nada, zero residential rezonings without concurrent commercial development that provides employment space for less than twice the number of jobs needed to support that new residential development — and retail doesn’t count.  Build the places for people to work where they aren’t sitting in traffic for two hours each way.  Lure employers with inexpensive but financially self-supporting municipal gigabit fibre deployments that connect directly to local datacenters if Verizon and Comcast continue to act like a pain in the butt about rolling out affordable high speed, high capacity systems.  Don’t offer tax breaks, but make sure the kinds of businesses you want to attract have the facilities they need in order to profit and grow and a workforce ready to make that happen.

Our future doesn’t lie in throwing good money after bad the way we have been with transportation in Virginia.  No matter how efficient we are at completing projects, the dollars are still wasted more often than not because the projects we’re doing don’t make financial sense.  Until we implement sustainable land use policies and start directing transportation dollars towards what actually has a prayer of solving problems, we are never going to be rid of gridlock.

The opinions expressed here are solely the views of the author, and not representative of the position of any organization, political party, doughnut shop, knitting guild, or waste recycling facility, but may be correctly attributed to the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. If anything in the above article has offended you, please click here to receive an immediate apology.

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  1. Doug Brown said on 21 Mar 2013 at 10:28 pm:
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    “We’re spending billions on extending Metro to Dulles Airport with the insane idea that that project will somehow relieve congestion.”

    You mean to tell me that Frank Wolf is wrong?

  2. D.J. McGuire said on 22 Mar 2013 at 4:35 am:
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    This won’t happen until localities have to bear the cost of their decisions. Unless secondary roads are downloaded to local responsibility, this upstream unfounded mandate will continue to bite Virginia in the butt.

  3. Doug Brown said on 22 Mar 2013 at 6:57 am:
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    One pays deerly for passing the buck down the road.

  4. Brian L. said on 22 Mar 2013 at 2:42 pm:
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    Would much rather see us decentralize road building completely—All transportation decisions should be made at the County level, with guidance from Richmond only on inter-county projects and crossings. In the Colonial days, this meant that the General Assembly would order two Counties to raise taxes to build a bridge between themselves; Otherwise, all roads were LOCAL. There’s no reason why this policy couldn’t work again today…

  5. mcs said on 22 Mar 2013 at 10:45 pm:
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    If Manassas/Manasass Park/PWC would actually connect there roads together it would go along way to improving transportation on the main roads


  6. Greg L said on 22 Mar 2013 at 11:16 pm:
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    Yeah, I just hate it when you drive up to the city limit and the road suddenly stops. Very annoying.

  7. Anonymous said on 4 Apr 2013 at 7:01 pm:
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    Dude, your fighting old big money in Virginia. who do you think owns all that open land on the fringes of suburbia? The old money speculators who purchased it 20-30 years ago. They want a return on investment.

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