Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Transportation Plan

There is universal agreement among voters and candidates alike that transportation is a perennial issue in Northern Virginia. Less universal is agreement on how to address these issues.

I offer some suggestions and express my intent to work towards accomplishing improvements to our transportation infrastructure, our economy, and our future.

Few things will improve without adequate funding. The major source of funding for our transportation needs is the gas tax. In Virginia, this is currently a fixed amount of "17.5 cents per gallon on gasoline and diesel, and 5 cents per gallon on aviation fuel" no matter the cost per gallon.

With Virginians' amount of driving decreasing, and the fuel efficiency of vehicles increasing, the effectiveness of a fixed gas tax is further suppressed.

As a percentage of the price of gas, every time the price of gas goes up, our gas tax effectively lowers itself. The unsustainability of this trend has been obvious.

Some have concluded this trend is irreversible. With leadership this can be made into a workable situation.

To say that Virginians driving less and fuel efficiency increasing will make the gas tax irrelevant makes about as much sense as saying the Internet would make the shipping industry irrelevant. If anything, the Internet has grown the shipping industry.

As families grow and multiply, so will our needs for individual and family transportation. Nonetheless, the political climate being what it is, alternatives have been explored.

One alternative is tolls on our highways. A use tax has merits and limited effectiveness and scope. While additional revenues of tens of millions of dollars are a step in the right direction, the need is for hundreds of millions of dollars for transportation. There are more effective ways of meeting this need. Faced with a choice between increased fuel taxes or tolls, the trucking industry chooses fuel taxes.

Another alternative is a use tax. How this would be implemented raises a lot of questions. When would your vehicle mileage be checked? Would it be when your vehicle is inspected? Would that make a vehicle inspection feel like a second car tax each year? Would that only apply to people who live in the state and not those who travel through? There are a lot of reasons that is an unattractive option.

Focusing on fixing the gas tax has benefits:
  • It's relatively anonymous.
  • Out of state travelers pay.
  • Our transportation needs would be funded.
  • Long-term infrastructure sustainability is ensured.
Switching to a gas tax based on a percentage of the price of gas, like our other sales taxes, would be most effective. (Indexing to inflation is more complicated than necessary; a simple percentage is sufficient.) This could even be done in a manner that makes for a flat transition, and yet plants the seeds to set our transportation funding on a sustainable course.

There are also ways to get more granular about how we approach the gas tax. For instance, as we charge a hospitality tax on hotels generally paid only by tourists and visitors, we could have a different rate for fuel stations within a certain distance of Interstate highways. There are ways to make this work.

Update: The corollary to this policy is how we handle our energy policy.

Projects to Fund
First, we have existing state roads that need maintenance. State roads must be a priority for Virginia.

To improve traffic on existing major roads, we should also ensure a consistent amount of lane coverage. A significant amount of congestion is generated by lane merging.

There is also ample opportunity for expanding our existing major road network. We could learn from other major cities when it comes to taking a regional approach to our transportation needs. We have one Beltway for our entire region. Boston has two beltways, and part of a third. Even St. Louis, Missouri, has a larger ring of major roads around itself than Washington, DC and Northern Virginia have.

Looking at a map of our region shows reasonable options for outer beltways could include turning 123 and 28 into part of one outer beltway, and the Prince William Parkway and 15 into another outer beltway. I would like to work with legislators from Maryland on completing the rings all the way around.

How do roads elsewhere help the inner 45th House District?
These ideas would help our situation in at least a couple ways. First, our city and county roads are seeing increasing amounts of traffic because of people bailing out from our failing highways. This creates especially dangerous situations for communities with street grids like Old Town, Alexandria.

Much of the traffic on our Beltway is actually pass-through traffic. I-95, as we all know, is the major artery along the East Coast. Giving that through traffic another option would help all of us.

Second, this would directly help our economy. When people ask me, what can the government do to help the economy, my answer is the government should do its job and fix transportation.

Our economy could be that much better off if we didn't spend our time stuck in traffic. Small business contractors only get five productive hours out of an eight-hour day because the rest of the time is spent on the road. I'm sure they would gladly pay a few cents more on the gallon to increase their number of billable hours.  We can make transportation work better.

The Future
As fundamental as transportation is to our economy, there are some of us who are looking forward to the day when driving does not require our full attention. Whether we are moving fast or slow, driverless vehicles hold the promise of individual driver relief.

The Economist recently reported, "In America states have been scrambling to pass laws covering driverless cars, which have been operating in a legal grey area as the technology runs ahead of legislation. It is clear that rules of the road are required in this difficult area, and not just for robots with wheels."

I propose the following rules for driverless vehicles in Virginia:
  1. There still must be a licensed driver in the driver's seat at all times.
  2. There must be single-step access to an override mode to take over control over the vehicle. That is, only one button or pedal, preferably not readily accessible to other passengers.
  3. Vehicles may not be left unattended to drive themselves such as to its own parking place. Imagine what would happen if the software crashes while it is on a congested downtown road!
There are many factors of implementation to consider. These are some starting points.

Public transit in the 45th district is already in good shape. Other parts of the state could use some help in this area, and for many this could take the form of helping private developers build systems and work across jurisdictional lines. This would provide the means for additional opportunities for economic development in the rest of the state.

There is an exciting future ahead for Virginia, and we can put that anticipation to effective use in Richmond.

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