January 26, 2011. Joint Press Release


For immediate release:

Jan. 26, 2011

Contact Information:

Stewart Schwartz, Coalition for Smarter Growth
-- 703-599-6437 (c)

Chris Miller, Piedmont Environmental Council
-- 703-507-5790 (c)

J.R. Tolbert, Sierra Club
-- 804-225-9113 (w)

Press Release:

Too Much Borrowing and Debt Targeted to a Project List Which Promises More Gridlock, Not Less

After extensive review of Governor McDonnell’s proposals for transportation, leading conservation and smart growth groups announced opposition to both the financing and spending sides of the Governor’s plan.

“The plan is anything but conservative on two counts.  It involves too much borrowing and debt reminiscent of what got our households and nation into trouble over the last decade, and it will not address the underlying origins of our traffic congestion,” said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

“Once we’ve borrowed to the hilt, the money is gone.  With the nation broke, we need to invest our scarce resources more wisely.  That means smarter growth for Virginia and fixing existing infrastructure first.  The Governor’s plan fails to do this,” said Schwartz.

We’ve Seen this Before:  “We shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of the past by borrowing and spending our future federal gas tax revenues,” said Roger Diedrich, Transportation Chair for the Sierra Club.  Governor Gilmore’s ‘FRANS’ or ‘indirect GARVEES’ have taken years to pay back and forced cuts to dozens of projects across the state.  Maryland Governor O’Malley’s GARVEES for just one highway project have caused cuts to projects and maintenance across that state.  With federal gas tax revenues on the decline and Congress reluctant to increase spending, the GARVEES could consume an ever larger share of declining future revenues, once again crowding-out spending on a range of future transportation needs.

A Bad Mortgage:  “Both the federal GARVEES and the additional state debt are like a bad home equity loan, taken out for a spending spree, when our roof needs fixing,” said Chris Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council.  “The state has a $3.5 billion backlog in structurally deficient bridges, deficient pavement, aging Metro and other transit systems, yet the plan focuses on a building spree of new projects.  Many of these projects would reignite the land speculation that got us into trouble in the first place.”

A Blank Check for Special Deals:  The Governor’s project list is, in his administration’s own words, “illustrative” meaning that the he will have total discretion to allocate an additional $4 billion in tax payer funded borrowing.  “The General Assembly shouldn’t write a blank check to the Governor and Secretary of Transportation.  As part of the package, they would have unprecedented power and resources to subsidize some of the world’s largest infrastructure corporations, using a massive $1.5 billion fund for Public-Private Transportation Act (PPTA) projects and a Governor controlled infrastructure bank that would make subsidized 2-3% loans to these corporations,” said Diedrich.  PPTA projects are negotiated largely in secret by Virginia Governors and their transportation secretaries, distort or avoid effective alternatives analysis, and result in granting exclusive rights to 75 years of toll revenues.  “The original goal of the PPTA was to generate private capital, yet the combination of state funds, state loans and grants, and drivers’ toll payments, could mean a complete free ride for these companies,” said Diedrich.  Major companies doing business in Virginia include Transurban of Australia, CINTRA of Spain and Fluor of the U.S.

Buying the Wrong Projects:  “The problems with the Governor’s plan are magnified by his focus on projects that would offer little benefit and would make us more energy dependent and less competitive,” said Schwartz.   “Amid rhetoric dominated by highways, the Governor has frequently said his top project is a PPTA for Route 460.  Yet, this proposed highway would serve very little traffic, be redundant to an existing highway in need of safety upgrades, and not impact the severe traffic within Hampton Roads and along I-64.”

Route 460 is proposed as a new 50-mile interstate level highway between Suffolk and Petersburg and would require about $800 million in state funds and a federal bond program for a $2 billion private toll road.  Other proposed PPTA highway priorities are expected to include the $4.7 billion Coalfields Expressway in the farthest reaches of southwest Virginia and an area of little traffic demand, and 95/395 HOT lanes, despite local protests over the failure to study the impacts and a range of alternatives for this corridor.   Only 11.5% of the Governor’s ‘illustrative project list’ would go to transit, despite state law that requires a minimum of 14.7% of the Transportation Trust Fund to go to transit.

More Sustainable Solutions:  “We join Governor McDonnell and our other elected officials in a commitment to invest in transportation.  But we need the right funding model and a more effective transportation plan,” said Schwartz.  “Our investments must start with an increased focus on repair and replacement of our aging roads, bridges, and transit systems.  Then we must invest in a smart growth and energy efficient approach that reduces the amount we have to drive and the energy we consume.  A program focused on big highway projects like Route 460 or the Coalfields Expressway neither targets the areas of greatest transportation problems nor addresses the land use, transit and local street networks that we need.”

A more sustainable transportation plan for Virginia starts with revitalization of our cities, towns and older suburbs, it focuses on transit, freight rail and passenger rail, and it focuses on improved and better connected local road infrastructure that also supports walking and bicycling.  “We’ve learned that we can’t build our way out of congestion with highways and that we need to focus on reducing the amount we have to drive while increasing the number of energy efficient options,” said Diedrich.

“We stand ready to work with both political parties, civic groups and the business community on a more sustainable transportation funding approach, but not without a common commitment to smart growth and energy efficient transportation investments,” said Miller.