May 17, 2013

In February, the Virginia General Assembly voted to significantly raise taxes for transportation. It didn’t do this to see the money wasted. That’s why you saw six leading Republican state legislators hold a news conference at the Manassas Civil War battlefield recently to protest the McDonnell administration’s proposal to spend more than $1 billion on the so-called North-South Corridor — better known as the Tri-County Parkway or “Western Bypass” — which many of us see as an unnecessary Outer Beltway.

Meanwhile, commuters sit in gridlock every day on Interstate 66 and other major Northern Virginia roads. The proposed North-South Corridor would harm these commuters by opening up rural land to development, feeding even more cars onto overloaded commuter roads such as I-66, Interstate 95 and Routes 50 and 7. Increasing taxes on Virginia taxpayers for a project that would make their commutes worse would be perverse.

Many local residents only recently learned about the renewed push for the project. The McDonnell administration scheduled the initial public hearings during the holidays. This is not a sign of commitment to public input.

There is a long history here: A similar project was on the table about 20 years ago until it was shut down by the General Assembly, and since that time most people believed that this thoroughly discredited road was dead. But the McDonnell administration revived it, rushing through a study that began and ended with the predetermined conclusion that a new highway between I-95 and Route 7 was needed. The Commonwealth Transportation Board, which has become something of a rubber stamp under state Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton (for asking probative questions and seeking cost-effective solutions, I was asked to leave the board by Connaughton in January), originally planned to vote to approve the project without any additional public hearings; on Wednesday it relented and agreed to delay the vote.

For 20 years, I was chairman of the 10th Congressional District Republicans and a member of the party’s state executive committee. I thought we were supposed to be the party of businesslike decisions and wise use of taxpayer funds. Instead, under Connaughton’s leadership, we are seeing transportation decisions based on rushed, “conclusion-first” studies; a lack of transparency; and failure to fully consider alternative, cost-effective investment strategies such as fixing the Route 28 and I-66 interchange and adding more mass transit in the I-66 corridor.

There are better ways to spend this money. Other cost-effective improvements that can be carried out include adding capacity and grade-separated interchanges to Route 28, making improvements to U.S. 50 and Route 7, and adding lanes to Route 606 around Dulles International Airport. Completing these projects would save time for tens of thousands of commuters who are the heart of our high-value knowledge economy.

By fast-tracking the north-south corridor and other dubious projects, however, Connaughton and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) would squander billions in taxpayer funds and make a mockery of Republican fiscal responsibility.

How else can you describe plans to spend $1.4 billion outside Hampton Roads building Route 460, which would run parallel to an existing four-lane highway that carries fewer cars than any number of arterial roads in Northern Virginia? Or to throw away $300 million on the Charlottesville Bypass, which will save drivers no time, while failing to fix U.S. 29? Are the new taxes on Virginians going to be used to fund these wasteful projects?

All of this leads me to the inescapable conclusion that the North-South Corridor is another case of Virginia’s tax dollars being used in a way that benefits special interests rather than to solve a transportation problem. In this case, the overriding goal appears to be to open up undeveloped sections of Loudoun and Prince William counties to more poorly planned residential development of the type that has fueled our traffic problems in the first place.

It is time for some leadership. As it did in the past, the General Assembly should adopt a budget amendment stopping this current Road to Nowhere project. Local officials should also act to protect their constituents.

The writer served on the Commonwealth Transportation Board from 2010 until January.

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