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The speaker says transportation projects should be rated on congestion relief, safety and economic development.
Tuesday, September 24, 2013
As the chief sponsor of legislation this year that will generate billions of dollars for transportation improvements and maintenance, House Speaker Bill Howell’s street creds are as broad as a six-lane interstate.
So when he spoke to the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce last week, his words were worth noting. Howell called for more careful attention to proposed road projects to ensure that they will relieve congestion, improve safety and encourage economic development.
The speaker acknowledged that those factors are already considered as state leaders craft long-term plans, but he said more sophisticated and consistent use of performance measures based on those criteria are needed.
“Transportation should no longer be about how much asphalt we pour or how much money we spend, but instead how much time we can save commuters, how many accidents we can prevent and how many jobs we can create,” Howell told Northern Virginia business leaders.
Residents of rural Virginia are justifiably anxious whenever discussions erupt about changing how road money is distributed out of fear they will be left wanting. But Howell’s inclusion of safety and economic development as key criteria offers hope that he isn’t trying to pit one region of the state against another. Although Howell is elected by constituents in one of 100 House districts, his job demands that he take a statewide perspective on issues confronting the commonwealth. He did exactly that this year when he pushed through new funding for roads, bridges, rail and transit, forging ahead even when necessary compromises mean he didn’t get everything exactly as he would have liked.
“Every Virginian in every part of the state has been impacted by our transportation challenges,” he told the chamber. “Whether it’s congestion in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, or a need for economic development in Southside and Southwest Virginia, we had to make a change . . . we had to tackle this. Or Virginia was going to fall behind.”
Thus far, his recommendations lack details to determine how they would affect this region. It’s also important that changes not be an excuse to continue a troubling trend in which money has been taken away from communities for maintenance and construction needs identified as local priorities. Localities are often more responsive to constituent needs than a state bureaucracy.
The more critical problem in transportation planning is the tendency of term-limited governors to push through pet projects, locking them in before a successor is sworn in. That practice has contributed to expensive and incoherent planning, and Howell is right to seek reforms aimed at spending tax dollars wisely to bring prosperity to the entire commonwealth.
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