There isn’t a shortage of transportation projects across Northern Virginia, but funding is in short supply, as local and state leaders see an increase in federal aid as the only way to make a real dent.
The leaders were speaking at a forum on transportation needs hosted by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Aug. 7.
Ed Mortimer, VP Transportation and Infrastructure with the U.S. Chamber, said the federal government needs to do more to support unfinished projects on the state and local level.
He outlined a systemic four-part plan to bolster U.S. infrastructure – start funding, call for more private investment, regulate certainty in the permitting process and develop the workforce.
“We are in the position (where) we don’t have more money,” said panelist Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority. “We have an open call for projects right now, but the reality is that’s for Fiscal Year 24 and 25. If you need more money on previously funded projects, I really don’t have it.”
Following President Donald Trump’s promise for a $2 trillion investment in U.S. Infrastructure, the America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) would include $287 billion in highway spending from the Highway Trust Fund over five years.
Mortimer says that this would be an excitable bill across party lines if passed, noting the recent unanimous approval out of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
The proposed bill has a ways to go in the legislature, but Mortimer believes the most controversy will come in the debate over a fuel tax increase. While recognizing the financial burden for low-income households, Mortimer defended an increase as a consumer-based, predictable and efficient option to increase revenue at a steady rate.
Modern transportation can only be supported if the country modernizes the mechanisms that help pay for that, he said. Statistically speaking, Mortimer estimates $400 billion could be raised in a 10-year period.
Optimistic about seeing the bill come before the Senate in October, Mortimer encourages the community to act now or the 2020 Election year will derail progress and cost more down the line.
Shannon Valentine, panelist and Virginia Secretary of Transportation, is in favor of higher gas tax and pointed to Virginia’s relatively low tax rate when compared to the rest of the nation as financial padding that the state can afford to pull.
“In this last round, $7 billion of requests for $850 million to put it in perspective for what we are able to accomplish,” Valentine said. “What does it take for Virginia to just get to the average?
“You know we are always performing with under average revenue, but what could we do if we could just get there?”
Valentine said that this year’s main projects include the I-81 corridor, the auxiliary lane on Interstate 95 from Occoquan to the Prince William Parkway, and 495 NEXT, the last two and a half miles of I-495 going to American Legion Bridge.
Along with funding, Mortimer advocates for more private investment as an agent for greater mobility options. Toll roads, HOV-3 lanes, Metro stations, airports, Uber and other driving services must all be considered as well as trends of the younger generation.
Mike Stewart, VP and Airport Manager at Washington Dulles International Airport, wanted to remind the public that airports are hubs for commercial business.
Unlike many other transportation systems, airports are non-tax payer funded. Aviation revenue is mainly comprised of fees and rents that they charge the airlines. Stewart says this bill could exponentially bring down cost for airport providers.
“Under the leadership of Jack Potter we set up an Office of Revenue and since that time we increased aviation revenue by S105 million,” Stewart said. “Every dollar that we’ve raised that way is a dollar that the airlines don’t have to pay. Anyway we can bring that cost down brings more service to the airport.”
Less attention was given to the two remaining points, permit process and workforce development.
Mortimer briefly discussed regulating the permit process to entice more investment from businessmen and women as well as to cauterize hemorrhaging resources. He then addressed the need for workforce development, with a regional unemployment rate of 3.7 percent.
The event ended with a reference to phase one of The Dulles Metrorail Project, which opened a little over five years ago in July 2014. According to the panel, the completion of the Silver Line is Northern Virginia’s top priority.
“We need to use our assets smarter,” Mortimer said. “How do we use what we have using intelligence, innovation and technology?
The region is a little bit ahead of that curve, he said, but we can't take that for granted.