Northern Virginia transportation officials painted an uncertain picture of what the region’s mobility tendencies will look like in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, but reasserted their commitment to a number of big-ticket projects whose fates could be complicated by falling state and local revenues.
The Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce held its annual State of Transportation meeting Wednesday via Zoom, with the heads of the Virginia Department of Transportation, Northern Virginia Transportation Authority and Northern Virginia Transportation Commission on a panel to discuss the region’s transportation infrastructure.
The biggest project discussed was the $3.7 million agreement Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced in December to construct a second Long Bridge over the Potomac limited to just passenger trains to speed up and expand commuter service.
Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said VDOT’s partners in the project, including Amtrak and Virginia Railway Express, remained committed to the 10-year project despite the broader uncertainty and a much different revenue picture than existed in late 2019. At the same time, Sens. Mark Warner and Time Kaine are continuing to move the ball forward on Capitol Hill, introducing the Long Bridge Act of 2020 on Wednesday. The legislation would authorize the National Park Service to transfer the land needed for the new commuter rail and pedestrian bridge to Virginia. According to Valentine, the entire Congressional delegation from Virginia, as well as Maryland and D.C., were supportive.
Valentine conceded that the revenue shortfalls would pose a challenge in financing the project in the first few years, but that once the state had fully put the pandemic behind it, the project would be just as vital as before.
“We know that revenues are more challenging in the early years and perhaps more accessible as time goes on and our economy recovers more fully,” Valentine told moderator Clayton Medford, the chamber’s vice president of government relations. “Our partners are very committed to the project over the decade and so we are taking great comfort from that. … We believe that this project, in part, is a generational project. This is a long-term commitment to rail, passenger and commuter rail, as well as freight rail.”
Elsewhere, Valentine also reasserted the state’s commitment to another agreement it announced in late 2019, the $1 billion pact with Maryland to replace the American Legion Bridge on Interstate 495, which would expand the eight-lane bridge on one of the most congested highway stretches in the country to 12 lanes.
The transportation secretary said that the two states currently had tech teams working on the project and that both sides were collaborating on a transit study of the corridor between Tyson’s Corner and Bethesda. For the entirety of the chamber’s discussion, “multi-modal” was Valentine’s buzzword. She spoke eagerly about the ways the state was looking to fit transit alternatives into road projects, like VDOT had done with Interstate 66.
“How do we build transit solutions and technology into this project?” Valentine said the state was asking.
By some metrics, Virginia’s highway traffic is up to around 90% of what it was prior to the pandemic, Valentine said. But according to NVTA Executive Director Monica Backmon, bus and rail ridership would likely take much longer to return to pre-COVID levels.
She said that as the authority was updating its six-year plan, which was formally announced last month and included $78 million for the widening of Route 1 in Dumfries, NVTA was also contracting with the infrastructure firm AECOM to model what transportation trends might look like in the short and long term.
For the authority directly, revenue shortfalls were projected to cause a $240 million reduction in what the NVTA could fund from fiscal year 2020 to 2023, Backmon said. But when it came to choices commuters make now and in the future, Backmon said the forecast confirmed what transportation officials were already seeing in the data, that transit rides would lag far behind car trips. WMATA, for example, had seen an 88% reduction in ridership from the fourth quarter of 2019, though Kate Mattice, the NVTC executive director, said that local and regional bus ridership hadn’t fallen quite as dramatically.
Backmon said the drop in revenues for the authority would only make project funding more competitive.
“With limited resources, we have to make some difficult decisions. The needs always outweigh the funding,” she said.
Mattice, who’s group pushes for expanded transit access across the region, said transit would be key in the state’s economic recovery. No matter how much it tried, the region would never be able to keep up with population growth through roadway expansion, she said.
And, with lots of people out of work, transit provided a lifeline for those hit hardest by the economic collapse.
“Transit does provide access to folks who do not have a car,” she said.
In fact, Mattice argued, transit ridership around the region was surging in the months leading up to the pandemic. For obvious reasons, people left public transit starting in March and operators turned their focus to moving essential workers. But Mattice pointed to evidence recently published in The New York Times and in a European study, that as long as subways and busses aren’t overcrowded and riders are all wearing masks, the risk of spread on public transit was relatively low.
Both Mattice and Valentine said the financial picture for localities and the transit agencies they help fund was bleak, but they said that when the pandemic was over, transit would remain crucial to alleviating congestion and getting cars off the road. Valentine pointed to 66 -- inside and outside the beltway -- in both the way work was able to be expedited with low traffic volumes in April and May, and in terms of how the region needed to be thinking about moving people. Major construction has installed toll roads and prioritized public transit and carpooling to speed travel times on the interstate.
“It was named the worst damn freeway in America. It was congested … I think seven-and-a-half hours a day,” Valentine said. “For decades we could not figure out how to address that, and so again it was one of those situations where we couldn’t build our way out, you couldn’t build enough lanes to address it, so you had to transform it.”