Amazon gives Virginia the opportunity to build a 21st century transportation network

January 8, 2019 5:01 am

Interstate 95 winds past Main Street Station in Richmond. (Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

With the recent announcement that Amazon is bringing 25,000-plus high-paying jobs to Crystal City in Northern Virginia, I believe now is the perfect opportunity to move the commonwealth’s transportation system into the 21st century.

Now is a great time to move away from the “more roads” transportation plan to an “all-of-the-above” plan.

The reasons: A) driving is expensive and B) Generations Y and Z just aren’t that into cars.

Let’s face it, there just isn’t enough money to pave our way out of congestion. By my calculation, using data on the increase in the average vehicle mile traveled per lane mile on Virginia highways, it would cost nearly $200 billion just to turn back Virginia’s traffic clock to 1990! And, this would be in addition to our current transportation spending.

Having put a vast majority of our transportation tax-dollars over the previous decades into one basket means that over time our return on investment has continually decreased while the burden of just trying to maintain our current network has become more and more expensive.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, Americans (through federal, state, and local tax dollars) spend about six cents per passenger mile annually to build and maintain our roadways. Throw in the fact that AAA estimates that it costs an average of 67 cents per passenger mile in above-the-pavement costs (gas, oil, insurance, tires, financing, etc.) to own and operate an automobile, and Virginians are spending more than $61 billion annually for the privilege of driving.

That’s about $10,393 per licensed driver, which doesn’t even take into account the costs associated with wasted time, tolls, lost economic opportunities and increased pollution.

The good news is that my fellow millennials (and GenZ) don’t particularly enjoy driving. Because if they begin to mimic previous generations’ driving habits it could be devastating to our transportation budget, infrastructure capacity and our economic competitiveness.

More than 26 percent of Virginia’s driving-eligible millennials don’t even have a driver’s license, and if they drove at the same rate as our baby boomers, traffic in the state would increase 9 percent instantly.  That’s the equivalent of an additional 650,000 automobiles on Virginia’s roadways. But, it’s not only that they have fewer driver’s licenses.

Millennials are also driving fewer miles per capita than previous generations, which is in-line with a recent American Public Transportation Association report finding that nearly two-thirds of transit users have a driver’s license!

A recent study by Arity (a spinoff of Allstate Insurance) found that 59 percent of millennials would rather do something more productive than driving, and a survey done by the University of Michigan a few years ago found that 69 percent of millennials and younger Generation Xers say they do not drive because they prefer to walk, bike, ride transit or rideshare.

Saying we’re going to continue to stay competitive in the global economy by installing payphones on every corner instead of 5G cell towers doesn’t make much sense. Neither does paving more and more roads for a workforce that prefers to multitask while commuting.

In 2017, 70 percent of every federal, state and local dollar spent on surface transportation went to building and maintaining our roadways. In Virginia’s own six-year transportation improvement plan, 82 percent of every transportation dollar goes towards roadways, with transit receiving about 13 percent of transportation funding and rail projects getting a little bit over four percent.

Thanks to the strong bi-partisan leadership of every governor since Tim Kaine, we’ve made decent strides in getting more “multi-modal.”

The real opportunity for making significant changes over the next few years is three-fold.

First, we need to increase rail and transit’s percentage of transportation funding to a minimum of 40 percent. Next, we need to make sure that every major road project includes either a transit/rail alternative or a transit/rail component as part of the project. Finally, every regional transportation program — whether it’s in NoVA, Hampton Roads, Richmond or the Valley — must allow for funding to be invested in multi-modal projects.

Virginians have already proven that if you build reliable alternatives to the car, they will use them.

Just look at our major regional transit projects over the last several years. The Tide, Virginia’s first light rail line, reached 10 million total riders earlier this year; the Pulse, Richmond’s Bus Rapid Transit line is beating ridership expectations by nearly 50 percent; and Virginia Railway Express, Northern Virginia’s commuter rail service, has seen its ridership grow by double digits this year.

The commonwealth has also begun to make solid investments to improve our intercity passenger rail network, which has resulted in over six million Virginians having better rail service. These investments have also increased service by 19 percent and led to ridership growing 70 percent over the last decade.

Let’s take this opportunity to move our transportation system into the next century.

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Danny Plaugher
Danny Plaugher

Danny Plaugher is executive director of Virginians for High Speed Rail. He serves on the board of RVA Rapid Transit, the Capital Region Collaborative’s Transportation Working Group and the Virginia Conservation Network’s Land Use and Transportation Committee. He can be emailed at [email protected].