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Va. transportation plan has many priorities, depending on who’s paying for what

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Dear Dr. Gridlock:

It seems most anytime someone inquires about why the Virginia Department of Transportation isn’t doing something, the response is there is not enough money.

I understand budgets are under strain everywhere, and projects have to be prioritized.

What I would like to find out is the criteria for prioritization of projects. I would assume public safety would be No. 1.

This being said, how does VDOT justify funding a 1,000-space parking garage for the new Potomac Nationals stadium?

Everyday I see roads full of potholes or roads with no shoulder. These are hazardous to drive on, to say the least. Then if a police or rescue vehicle needs to get by, this becomes dangerous for all involved. Without all public safety issues addressed, how can this spending be justified?

— Michael Keys,

Prince William County

Virginians apparently like to think they can do several things at once.

The commonwealth plans its transportation program much like Maryland and other states do, establishing long-range goals and short-term plans. Long-range goals remain expansive, but in recent years, shorter-term plans have gotten less ambitious, because governments at all levels are growing more reluctant to make big investments.

Virginia is updating its long-range transportation plan right now. The plan is called VTrans2035. Safety is, indeed, a top goal. So are preserving the people-moving systems the state already has and making it easier for both people and goods to get around.

Other state goals include coordinating transportation systems with development decisions and using the transportation network to support the economy.

Maybe there was a time when this was simpler, when setting goals for a transportation system was simply about how best to move people from Point A to Point B, but those days are long gone.

How those multiple goals become real — if they do become real — is tied to who’s willing to pay for what. The Virginia state government often looks to leverage public money by working out mutually beneficial investment deals with private entities.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board, the same panel that approves the statewide transportation plans, authorized the VDOT to put about $15 million into building a new parking garage just off Interstate 95 for carpoolers, bus riders and Potomac Nationals fans. The overall deal calls for the Potomac Nationals to finance the new stadium at Potomac Town Center and for the developer of the adjacent shopping and residential center to finance infrastructure.

State Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton, a former chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, had hoped to find a new site for the Potomac Nationals, and he had also been looking for more parking to accommodate slugs, the commuters who gather into carpools at sites along I-95 so they can drive north in the high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

“I need commuter spaces, and I get that,” he said of this proposed public-private partnership. The team gets parking space for its home games in the spring and summer.

If the overall deal goes ahead as proposed, the garage could be ready in 2014, in time for the opening of the 95 Express Lanes, the larger public-private partnership in the area that will replace the HOV lanes with high-occupancy toll lanes and includes several other park and ride facilities.

Linking public goals and private goals doesn’t make a deal good or bad. But watch out for this: Are we moving toward a time when governments can make big transportation improvements only when and where a private investor also sees an advantage?

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com.

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