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Priority plan raises worries

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A fledgling state effort to make transportation planning more effective and transparent has run into opposition from some Fredericksburg-area officials.

Some say Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s initiative to put money into projects that will clearly ease traffic congestion is a good idea, but others say it will take money away from projects already in the works.

Still other officials are taking a wait-and-see approach with the prioritization program promoted as a more objective way to approve state and federal funding for major transportation projects throughout Virginia.

In a nutshell, the program is supposed to allow each region’s transportation leaders to prioritize road, transit and rail projects using a set of “weighted” measures.

Those projects will then go to the Commonwealth Transportation Board and compete with others statewide for funding.

In deciding which projects to fund, the CTB will use its own weighted measures, focusing on such things as congestion mitigation, economic impact, accessibility, safety, environmental impact, as well as the coordination with local land-use planning.

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue recently laid out the program’s plans at a Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting.

He said the process is in the early stages, and that while the goal is to make transportation planning more transparent, state officials expect it to be challenging.

“We’re not going to get it right the first time,” said Donohue, who stressed during the presentation that VDOT wants local leaders to be involved in determining how the program will work.

But it hasn’t gotten off to a strong start in the Fredericksburg region.

Although the program won’t go into effect until 2016, it already has had a negative impact on Stafford County’s most important road project.

In a draft of the 2015–2020 six-year improvement plan approved earlier this summer, the CTB cut $30 million in funding from the estimated $184.5 million Courthouse Road interchange project.

After county officials pleaded to have the funding restored, the CTB changed course and returned all but $5 million to the project.

But since the State Route 630 project is not fully funded, it still could land on the chopping block, along with dozens of others statewide.

Stafford Supervisor Cord Sterling, a former CTB member, said he doesn’t like the way the CTB and the governor handled the Courthouse Road project.

Sterling said he had planned to seek full funding for the project again, which the law would allow, but the governor, a Democrat, replaced him, and several other CTB members, before he had a chance to do so.

Sterling, a Republican who was in his final year of eligibility on the CTB, was replaced by Hap Connors, a former Spotsylvania supervisor. Connors has said he wants to get the funds returned to the Stafford project. Efforts to reach him for comment about the issue were unsuccessful.

Sterling acknowledged that the program should make transportation decisions more transparent than in the past. However, he warned that it could waste money, primarily because it will pull dollars away from approved projects on which money already has been spent.

And, he added, some federal money from canceled projects could end up going to other states.

He said that if politics taint the process—which he thinks already may have happened—the prioritization program could be worse than the current planning process.

“But we’ll have to wait and see what they’re going to do. … How it’s implemented is the concern,” Sterling said. “I do have concerns as to the extent that this will be determined behind closed doors.”

Fellow Stafford Supervisor, Paul Milde, said it’s too early to know how the program will work.

“There’s not enough information to be worried or happy yet,” said Milde. Still, he’s keeping an eye on the impact on the Courthouse Road project.

Spotsylvania County supervisors David Ross and Paul Trampe said they want to learn more about the program before passing judgment.

“I want to see how it plays out,” Ross said.

Trampe appreciates that the state is including local officials in the process, but said there will be issues.

“I think they’re gonna have a lot of kinks to work out,” he said.

Al Harf, on the other hand, said, “There’s no hidden agenda here.”

“I do think it’s good government and a well-intentioned effort,” said Harf, executive director of the Potomac and Rappahannock Transportation Commission. He serves on numerous transportation boards around the region, including the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Still, he “understands the apprehensions” of local officials.

Fredericksburg City Councilman and FAMPO member Matt Kelly doesn’t like what he’s heard so far. He said he thinks the initiative will lead to the same bad bureaucratic planning driven by perception and not on improving transportation problems in the state.

Kelly expects that the program will end up funneling the bulk of the money to Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, arguably the most congested areas in the state.

He said that would be wasteful because projects in those areas are more expensive and have little impact.

“Frankly, they’ve already lost the battle” on transportation, he said.

Kelly said fixing congestion on Interstate 95 in the Fredericksburg area is something that would benefit the region and state as a whole.

He also said that road projects in this area will produce more “bang for the buck” than work in Northern Virginia or Hampton Roads.

Kelly said more money is going to be needed to make the prioritization program work, and a shortage of funding is a big problem already.

He said that he’s not just concerned about local improvements. While Kelly supports Stafford’s Courthouse Road interchange, if another project elsewhere in the state would ease congestion more, he “would be willing to look at it.”

That, Kelly said, should be the focus of any transportation planning—to do what benefits the statewide road network the most.

But he believes the old problem of localities looking out for themselves to the detriment of the overall transportation system will still exist under the prioritization program.

“The big problems will still remain,” he said. “It’ll still be Byzantine, archaic, wasteful and stupid.”

Scott Shenk: 540/374-5436

sshenk@freelancestar.com

 

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