McDonnell's Victory and Virginia's Traffic 3

Federal money isn't worth the red tape.

Northern Virginia's roads are a gridlocked mess that urgently require drastic measures; that, more than rejection of Mr. Obama, led to Bob McDonnell's recent triumphant election as Virginia's governor.  He has a plan of attack, which is more than his opponent could say.

Unfortunately, the underlying problems are not so easily solved by the obvious measures.  In the previous articles in this series, we talked about how the trouble wasn't a lack of roads but a lack of planning as to how they should be laid - a failure of government to do its proper job.  Then we discussed how that could go on for decades: the responsibility for roads fell to an inappropriately high level of government which was too big and far removed to be responsive to local needs or aware of problems on the ground.

It's not bad enough that roads are mostly the responsibility of the state.  No, in the U.S. we've developed the awful habit of looking to the federal government for help with any major infrastructure project, with the result that nothing gets done at great expense.

He Who Has The Gold, Makes The Rules

Across the Potomac in Maryland lies a sterling example.  The Inter-County Connector is a new major highway that will soon circle the northeast quadrant just beyond Washington, D.C., outside the famous Beltway.  The idea is to provide a shorter route from western Maryland to Baltimore and Annapolis, thus relieving the Beltway and other local roads of a major portion of the traffic.

The need for the ICC was apparent in the 1960s and planning began.  Alas, those were the early years of the environmentalist movement and the now-familiar suspects went to court.

A half-century on, the last appeal has finally been quashed and the ICC is under construction at long last.  Can we even imagine the cost of the delay?  What could have been done for tens of millions will now cost hundreds of billions, and that's not including the value of a lifetime of traffic delays while Maryland commuters were waiting for a new highway.

Why do we put up with this?  It's the law!  Well, it's the law if you want any Federal dollars, anyway.

It's only natural that the Federal government should have some say over what its money is spent on, and if you want the money you have to follow their rules.  More and more, a new question is arising: is it possible that following Federal rules costs more than the money the Feds provide?

We've previously quoted the Wall Street Journal on this subject, but the tale bears repeating:

A friend of mine is a New Hampshire "selectman," one of those municipal offices Tocqueville found so admirable. In 2003, a state highway inspector rode through and condemned one of the town's bridges, on a dirt road that serves maybe a dozen houses.

That's the bad news. The good news was the 80/20 state/town funding plan, under which, if you applied to Concord for a new bridge, the state would pay 80 percent of the cost, the town 20. So they did. The state estimated the cost at $320,000, so the town's share would be $64,000. Great. So the town threw up a temporary bridge just down river from the condemned one, and waited for the state to get going. Six years later, the temporary bridge has worn out, and the latest revised estimate is $655,000, such that the town's share would be $131,000.

That's the bad news. The good news is that, under the "stimulus" bill, they can put in for the 60/40 federal/state bridge funding plan, under which the feds pay 60 percent, and the state pays 40, and thus the town would be on the hook for 20 percent of the 40 percent, if you follow. If they applied for the program now, the bridge might be built by, oh, 2015, 2020, and it'll only be $1.2 million, or $4 million, or $12 million, or whatever the estimate'll be by then.

But who knows? By 2015, there might be some 70/30 UN/federal bridge plan, under which the UN pays 70 percent, and the feds pay 30, and thus the town would only be liable for 20 percent of the state's 40 percent of the feds' 30 percent. And the estimate for the bridge will be a mere $2.7 billion.

While the Select Board was pondering this, another bridge was condemned. The state's estimate was $415,000, and, given that the previous bridge had been on the to-do list for six years, they weren't ready to pencil this second one in on the schedule just yet. So instead the town put in a new bridge from a local contractor. Cost: $30,000. Don't worry; it's all up to code-and a lot safer than the worn-out temporary bridge still waiting for the 80/20/60/40/70/30 deal to kick in. As my friend said at the meeting: "Screw the state. Let's do it ourselves."  [emphasis added]

If Bob McDonnell wants to truly solve Virginia's road problems, there is only one way to do it:

Screw the Feds with their endless hearings, environmental appeals, and countless audiences for Luddite NIMBYs; let the state solve its problems its own way.

Screw the state Department of Transportation, let the local counties have the money and take responsibility for their secondary roads, leaving the state to push through only the major highways that affect everybody.

Screw the county Department of Transportation, let each little community have taxing authority and responsibility for the local roads and alleys.

With clear accountability all round, clear delineation of power and authority, and the ability to independently raise revenues as decided democratically by each place, we might, just possibly, get things solved.  After all, even the Europeans have realized that you can't run everything from the center: in the very same year that the Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to Barack Obama for, well, saying nice-sounding things, the far more practical Nobel Prize for Economics was granted to political scientist Elinor Ostrom for proving that small, local government works better than big centralized monolithic government.

One of Gov.-elect McDonnell's campaign consultants has a clear understanding of why he won:

What the campaign keyed in on very early is that most voters aren't ideological. In a time of crisis, they first and foremost want problems solved -- and specifically, the problems created by too much government meddling and taxes to go away... Essentially, whatever the issue was, Bob McDonnell wanted you [to know] he had the proverbial "app for that" -- a set of practical solutions not overtly branded as left, center, or right. [emphasis added]

Most voters are not political junkies.  Most voters just want to be able to get ahead - or, in the case of traffic, to get where they're going without dying of old age first.

They don't so much care how that goal gets accomplished, as long as it does get accomplished without bankrupting them come tax time.  And that is precisely what McDonnell promised - and he'd better deliver.

Otherwise, four years from now, Virginia will be in the same place, and the Washington Post will be right there to say "We told you so!  You should have voted for the Tax-and-Spend Democrat, to give the government all the money it needs to solve all your problems."

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments
So what's a frustrated traffic engineer to do? Bring back the railroad which ran out to Dulles airport? Double-deck I66 and rte 50? Assume infinite money for the moment, with all the NIMBYs out there, what could be done? Ignore tunneling a new highway from 495 to rte 81, money will never be quite THAT infinite. Failing that, what does any governor do?
December 5, 2009 7:45 PM
From the traffic-engineering point of view, I personally think that there are a couple of technically-feasible projects which would make a massive macro-level difference.

First, there needs to be a way for New York-to-Florida through traffic to get where they are going WITHOUT going through the Washington DC area. There are two ways to do this that are very geographically possible: upgrade the main north-south route on the Delmarva Peninsula to a full interstate highway, connecting the Chesapeake Bay Bridge with the New Jersey Turnpike and entirely avoiding DC, Baltimore, and Philly; or, upgrading Rt. 301 in MD and VA to a full interstate highway, thus at least providing a total bypass of DC. Both of these would also be a shorter route than the current 95, thus truckers and long-haul drivers would naturally choose it.

Second, there needs to be another Potomac bridge north of DC. Ideally, extend the new Inter-County Connector west, across the river, and then south to plug into Rt 28 just east of Dulles airport which has already been upgraded to a proper highway.

Third, there needs to be a more efficient way to get to DC and/or Tysons Corner from the western suburbs. I don't think you can really do this with roads though, there's no place to put them and it's too late. The Dulles metro would help a little; extending the Orange Line to Manassas would help too; extending the VRE to Culpeper, electrifying it, and running high-speed intensive commuter service like the New Jersey Transit might make a big difference. Total transit time has to be faster and more reliable than driving or you'll never get more than a relative handful of commuters to choose it.

These are big projects that the state should take on, and the only way they could concentrate on handling major infrastructure of this magnitude is to take away the responsibility for local roads. That's where a governor can make a difference, in changing not just political programs, but the actual political structure. A well-thought-out devolution is one of the only things that can actually improve government services.
December 5, 2009 7:59 PM
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