Not much fairer, after all

Published 6:45 pm Saturday, January 23, 2016

Calling the plan a “huge step forward,” city officials this week celebrated a proposed program of transportation funding that ranks nearly 300 potential projects around the state for possible funding under 2014’s House Bill 2.

The General Assembly that year answered a call from then-Gov. Bob McDonnell for a commitment to a fairer and more methodical approach to highway improvements around Virginia by setting up new transportation funding streams and then designing a new process for determining the priority for completing those projects.

Under the program set in place, the Commonwealth Transportation Board is required to consider five factors when setting those priorities: congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality.


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Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne presented the first prioritized list of projects under that scheme this week, and officials here said they were pleased with the results.

But a closer look at what Layne has proposed reveals that what Suffolk will get out of the $1.5 billion in new projects is somewhat less than inspiring, considering what the city will not receive.

Three Suffolk projects are among the 22 Layne has recommended from Hampton Roads. Those three projects include a $600,000 park-and-ride lot on Godwin Boulevard; $40 million for a project to widen Holland Road, a project to which Suffolk already has committed $17 million in local dollars; and $15 million toward improvements at the intersection of Bridge Road and Shoulders Hill Road, a project for which the city already has paid design costs.

While we consider the park-and-ride lot project to be questionable, both of the others are extremely important to Suffolk, which is why the city had begun moving ahead on them even without a promise of the commonwealth’s support. It was, frankly, easy for the transportation department to get behind such projects, since Suffolk already has laid much of the groundwork for them.

What’s apparently harder for state officials to see is how failing to support the two bridges on Suffolk’s list — a new King’s Highway Bridge and a second Godwin Bridge span — hurts the community and affects congestion, economic development, accessibility and safety for those in Suffolk.

The $75-million King’s Highway Bridge ranked 254th out of 287 projects around the state. The second Godwin Bridge span, a $74.7-million project, ranked 278th on Layne’s list of recommendations. In other words, only nine other recommended projects have less value to the commonwealth than the new Godwin Bridge span, according to the transportation secretary.

Clearly Layne hasn’t been stuck in merging traffic on Route 17 when there’s an accident that has closed the northbound lanes of I-664 at the Monitor Merrimac Bridge Tunnel or the northbound lanes of the James River Bridge. In those all-too-common scenarios, Bridge Road becomes a stop-and-go nightmare that can add hours to the commute, paralyze local commerce and limit the responsiveness of fire and rescue to emergencies in communities along the route.

Officials said few bridges made the cut this time around, and they noted that the process is not yet complete, with the Commonwealth Transportation Board still set to meet and consider the recommendations. But the placement of Suffolk’s bridges near the very bottom of that list gives local residents little reason to hope they’ll move up into the money positions after CTB consideration.

Based on this year’s experience, it might be that Suffolk must find a way to begin paying for those new bridges itself in order for the state to take notice. So much for a fairer approach to transportation funding.