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Transportation reform up for discussion

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RICHMOND—If you’re in Northern Virginia, traffic congestion is probably your biggest road problem. If you’re in Southwest Virginia, congestion isn’t even on the radar screen, but economic development and safety is.

Virginia’s different transportation districts would weigh those priorities differently to decide on road projects under legislation House Republicans are pushing in the House of Delegates.

During a Monday news conference, House Speaker Bill Howell, R–Stafford, said a focus on prioritizing road projects comes after last year’s transportation funding reform bill put more money into transportation.

“Now that we have this new funding we need to be sure we spend it in the most effective, most efficient way,” Howell said.

A number of lawmakers—including Del. Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania—had proposed legislation this session that would have dictated how the Commonwealth Transportation Board prioritizes road projects.

But many of those bills, like Cole’s, set a single statewide standard for prioritizing road projects.

The bill from Del. Chris Stolle, R–Virginia Beach, that Howell and the Republicans are backing lets each transportation district set its road priorities differently, rather than declaring statewide that congestion, say, is the top priority in determining which project should go forward.

“It will ensure that we pick the right projects and we build the best ones,” Stolle said.

He said his bill recognizes that different regions of the state have different needs.

While VDOT and the CTB already have priorities for road projects, Stolle said his bill creates a weighted measuring system. Each district may put a different weight on each criteria, but overall, he said, it provides more transparent ways to measure how a road project is prioritized.

Stolle’s bill is part of more than a half-dozen bills House Republican leaders have endorsed as part of an effort to use more technology in road planning and ease congestion.

Others involve setting statewide technology goals, updating the state’s smart travel program, creating an Innovation and Technology Fund to pay for pilot programs of high-tech infrastructure improvements, and requiring the CTB to use the same road prioritization concepts, like congestion relief and safety enhancement, when setting the state’s six-year plan for roads.

Other road project prioritization bills, like Cole’s, are quietly failing in this session.

So are bills that would change the makeup of the CTB by giving more seats to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.

Lawmakers from those regions have long complained that their areas suffered the most congestion and had the greatest needs.

“They didn’t think they had a strong enough voice in the decision-making process,” Howell said.

But, he said, last year’s transportation bill lets both of those regions levy and collect additional taxes for road projects.

With that ability, Howell said, “you don’t need those extra people on the transportation board.”

Also dead for this year are bills that would roll back the tax increases from last year’s big transportation bill.

Del. Ben Cline, R–Rockbridge, proposed one, but it didn’t get past a subcommittee.

However, legislation to repeal only the hybrid vehicle fee that was contained in last year’s bill has flown easily through both houses.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245

cdavis@freelancestar.com

 

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