September 22, 2013

WILLIAM J. HOWELL, the Republican speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates, wasn’t always a great advocate of politically doable solutions to the state’s massive shortfall in transportation funding. For years he favored cannibalizing schools and social services to rescue crumbling roads, a non-starter for Democrats.

Now that Richmond has finally tackled the funding problem — with a hefty tax increase pushed, crucially, by Mr. Howell — he has positioned himself as a champion of pragmatic thinking about traffic, which many Virginians regard as the state’s biggest problem. With billions of new dollars now in the pipeline, Mr. Howell, of Stafford, wants to be sure the state gets the biggest bang for its buck.

In a recent speech to the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Howell put transportation bureaucrats and local officials on notice that the General Assembly is determined that the new money be spent sensibly. Even with the new revenue, he said, rightly, “there will always be more road projects than there is money.”

He proposed harnessing new technology and insisting on strict, measurable criteria in selecting new road and transit projects that would pay dividends in easing traffic, promoting safety and spurring economic development. Those ideas may sound obvious, but they haven’t always been the guiding principles in a process in which local priorities have sometimes trumped regional ones that would benefit more people.

Mindful that Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads are among the most congested regions in the United States, Mr. Howell called for more use of congestion-pricing systems (like the Beltway’s new high-occupancy toll lanes, known as HOT lanes), as well as accident-clearing regional “SWAT” teams to unclog rush-hour traffic jams. And he urged a systematic effort, led by a state panel charged with brainstorming ideas, to develop high-tech pilot projects using real-time data to make life easier for commuters.

In Mr. Howell’s view, every transportation project proposal should be graded on a data-driven “priority model.” That’s a good idea, the effect of which could be, ideally, to minimize political meddling in choosing where money gets spent.

Critics in individual localities may attack Mr. Howell’s vision as a high-handed or top-down approach to transportation planning. But a systematic, rational process probably will lead to a higher payoff for more Virginia commuters. And that, in turn, will provide political cover for the lawmakers who courageously embraced a major tax increase this year for transportation.