Va. transportation officials to consider SMART SCALE cap for smaller urban and suburban areas

Commonwealth Transportation Board to act on changes in December

By: - November 1, 2023 12:02 am
Image of bike and rider painted on bike lane

A bicycling lane in Virginia. (Photo by Capital News Service)

After criticism over parts of a proposal to overhaul the state’s transportation funding system, Virginia officials are considering creating a middle-tier application cap for transportation projects in more suburban or smaller urban areas, including several cities in Hampton Roads, Roanoke and Alexandria.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board will take up the recommendation, among other suggestions that could alter how funding is distributed to localities and planning organizations, next month.

During a virtual town hall on Tuesday, local and regional officials continued to air concerns about the proposal to lower application caps across the board.

“If the issue is you have too many applications, then improving the process would be a better solution than arbitrarily cutting the number of projects in half,” said Laura Dent, chair of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Virginia to conduct in-depth review of SMART SCALE process

The Commonwealth Transportation Board began considering changes to the SMART SCALE transportation funding system in March, when staffers with the Virginia Department of Transportation told the board smaller projects have been twice as likely to get funded as larger projects. 

Virginia began using SMART SCALE in 2017 to determine “the right” transportation projects to prioritize, based on which projects benefit taxpayers the most. The state has regularly reviewed the system, which has awarded nearly $7 billion for transportation projects, since it began.

The board is now considering a variety of changes to the system, including expanding the definition of “high-priority projects,” or projects that have a regional or statewide significance, and reducing the weight given to land use in applications. 

One especially controversial change would limit the number of funding applications local and regional agencies could make biennially based on population.

Under the September proposal, localities with fewer than 200,000 people and metropolitan planning organizations, planning district commissions or transit agencies that represent fewer than 500,000 people would only be able to submit two applications for funding per cycle, half of the previous cap. The cap would also fall from 10 to five for localities with more than 200,000 people and planning and transit groups representing more than 500,000 people.

That plan sparked concerns from many local governments, which argued the new two-tier cap approach would make it difficult for certain suburban and small urban areas to get funding for transportation projects. They contended the state was forcing those areas into two application buckets they didn’t belong in.

“We still think it’s important to reduce the limit, but acknowledge there could be a middle ground that’s helpful for us to see how this goes in this round and keep an open mind in the future rounds of adjusting if necessary,” said Brooke Jackson, program manager for SMART SCALE, at the board’s Oct. 17 work session.

Consequently, this October, transportation officials proposed a third cap that would fall between the other two. Staff said 14 out of 254 potential applicants would be impacted: the cities of Roanoke, Newport News, Hampton, and Alexandria; the counties of Stafford, Spotsylvania, Hanover and Albermarle; the Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization; and transit groups Jaunt, RADAR in the Greater Roanoke Valley, the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority, Potomac & Rappahannock Transportation Commission and Loudoun County Transit and Commuter Services. Brunswick was inadvertently included in the materials to the board.

Under the October proposal, localities with 100,000 to 200,000 people and planning and transit groups that represent between 250,000 and 500,000 people could submit four applications every two years.

Localities with fewer than 100,000 people and planning and transit groups that represent fewer than 250,000 people could submit three. 

And localities with a population size of over 200,000 and planning and transit groups representing more than 500,000 people could submit six.

While some regional and local planners voiced support for the new middle-tier cap, many have continued to express concern that lowering caps overall could prevent towns from applying for funding because they will have to partner with a county government or regional planning organization that potentially has already met its application limit.

“I think this third tier is a good idea, but I would just point out that we’ve got localities who are so far over 200,000 where we’re just saying, ‘You get six and deal with your towns,’ and that to me does not sound like a reasonable approach,” said Commonwealth Transportation Board member Mary Hughes Hynes, who represents Northern Virginia, at the Oct. 17 work session.

During Tuesday’s virtual town hall, Meagan Landis of the Prince William County Department of Transportation told the board “there is no supporting data that limiting applications will equate to higher-quality applications.” 

“We assert that a significant number of applications not meeting readiness requirements are indicative of the program requirements being misaligned with the timeline of the funding and that limiting applications will unintentionally result in counties being less willing or less able to assist small towns and submitting projects and create additional obstacles to small jurisdictions, advancing projects,” she said.

Some speakers urged officials to suspend any application caps until the state rolls out other policy changes in the next round of funding.

Others, however, said they believe the changes will create a more efficient process for evaluating project applications. 

If an application is incomplete, “it should not be considered until it satisfies the questions that need to be [answered] for a project to be completed for consideration,” said Roanoke County Supervisor Phil North. Those projects, he added, “clog the VDOT pipeline of consideration.”

Other changes, such as expansion of the high-priority project designation, also received praise Tuesday. 

Jason Stanford, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said the proposals will overall “reduce the inherent small project bias, increase the focus on the benefits of a project rather than its location, and focus limited high-priority project funds on major projects.” 

“We already have dedicated funding for different transportation priorities including safety, biped, transit and transportation technology,” he said. “SMART SCALE is the one program that is focused on expanding the capacity of our transportation network, and our priority for that funding should be the regional and state capacity improvements that move the most people per dollar. The current proposed changes overall will do exactly that.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Brunswick County was one of the 15 entities out of 254 potential applicants that the proposed third cap would impact. Brunswick was inadvertently included in materials presented to the board.


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Nathaniel Cline
Nathaniel Cline

Nathaniel is an award-winning journalist who's been covering news across the country since 2007, including politics at The Loudoun Times-Mirror and The Northern Neck News in Virginia as well as sports for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He has also hosted podcasts, worked as a television analyst for Spectrum Sports, and appeared as a panelist for conferences and educational programs. A graduate of Bowie State University, Nathaniel grew up in Hawaii and the United Kingdom as a military brat. Five things he must have before leaving home: his cellphone, Black Panther water bottle, hand sanitizer, wedding ring and Philadelphia Eagles keychain.