Prince William County is looking for help in fixing roads, but state transportation officials recently told local business leaders that they aren’t alone.
The Virginia Department of Transportation has received a record number of applications for funding through “Smart Scale,” a program that weighs projects based on factors that include safety, congestion mitigation and economic development.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board received 468 applications that total $7 billion in requested funding to support projects, including 47 applications in Northern Virginia, but the board has $850 million in available funds to dole out for the projects.
“Those are real needs,” said Robert Cary, VDOT chief deputy commissioner. “Those are needs that are vetted through county boards of supervisors. These are not just wish lists — hope we get something. These are golden-ticket asks. We know they’re necessary; we just can’t fund all of them.”
Cary joined Anthony Bedell, deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs with the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Prince William County Supervisor Marty Nohe, R-Coles, who is also chair of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, at an event Sept. 27 to discuss how transportation projects impact economic development.
About 75 people attended the event organized by the Prince William Chamber of Commerce at George Mason University’s Potomac Science Center in Woodbridge.
Nohe said people in Northern Virginia talk about traffic like the rest of the world talks about weather.
Public-private partnerships help fund transportation projects, such as construction of toll lanes outside The Beltway on Interstate 66, Cary said.
“That brings money that the state would not otherwise have available,” Cary said. “I-66 is a multibillion-dollar project that not only did we not really put much money in, we got a check for $579 million from the consortium that’s building that for the right to build it. Plus additional revenues over the life of that project that will go toward transit.”
Those transit payments allow the state to fund additional projects, Cary said. “You don’t necessarily have to pay the toll to benefit,” he said.
The toll lanes provide a reliable travel time, which may not be feasible for everyday use but are available when a driver needs them, Cary said.
“Even if you drive in the non-toll lanes, we are seeing about a 20 percent improvement in the travel because of the people paying to go in the [toll] lanes,” Cary said.
At a federal level, Bedell said that as part of President Donald Trump’s executive order issued in January 2017, the department has been eliminating two regulations for every new regulation issued.
“Luckily at the Department of Transportation, we’re operating at a 6-to-1 rate, because we are able to find regulations that go back and govern horse and buggy whips,” Bedell said.
Both Bedell and Cary said they are preparing for the future of transportation, including autonomous cars, electric cars and drones. One drone program involved moving blood and organ donations to hospitals, said Bedell.
“This is where all these things are going,” Bedell said. “We are trying to stay ahead of it. We don't want to get in the way, but we realize there has to be guidance and framework.”
Cary predicts more electric cars on the road will mean gas tax revenue could decrease.
“This is where [public-private partnerships] are important, to leverage money,” Cary said.
On a local level, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has asked county staff to create a list of transportation, park and library projects that could be funded through a possible bond referendum in 2019 or 2020. If the board moves forward with the bond, Nohe said he sees opportunity.
“It represents a change in the way we think about our transportation needs,” Nohe said. “Because rather than thinking about how we move people around the county or how we move people in and out of the county, we’ll be thinking about our transportation needs — with the concept for the first time of creating jobs in the county so people don’t have to leave the country as the top priority.”