Is Raising the Gas Tax the Solution?

Yes and no.

There is a fairly complex proposal in the Virginia General assembly to raise the gas tax and offset that increase through other changes in taxes and fees.  The Bacon’s Rebellion blog does a good job of summarizing the proposal.  They also point out a fundamental flaw with it:

The underlying assumption is that there is nothing wrong with Virginia’s transportation policies that more money won’t fix.

I dispute that assumption. I maintain that transportation policy is fundamentally broken. And while, yes, we probably do need to spend more money on transportation to increase mobility and access, raising taxes without changing how that money is spent is a fool’s errand. No amount of tax increases will help Virginia build a transportation system for the 21st century if the money goes to the wrong projects.

I think this is right.  As far as it goes, I have no issue with raising the gas tax – it is the closest thing we have to funding our transportation system by those who use it most, and does a better job of collecting revenue from out-of-state drivers than other methods.  But, as is hinted in element of the gas-tax hike that would levy fees on electric and hybrid vehicles, it has a fundamental flaw that as vehicles become more efficient – an indisputable good – it actually reduces funding even as traffic and congestion increases.  Other proposals to get around this, such as the Vehicle Miles Traveled tax, are problematic in other ways.

In other words, raising the gas tax is fine, but it probably doesn’t address the core problem – as James Bacon points out, it might even exacerbate it if land use decisions, developer responsibility, and other issues aren’t addressed first.

From our perspective, transportation should first be addressed through maximizing the efficiency of the existing system whenever possible, through transportation demand management principles, intelligent transportation systems, or other methods.  Every dollar that is wisely invested in something other than new construction is a dollar that won’t bear the interest of future maintenance costs, and doesn’t eat up land that might be productive in ways other than road building.

After that comes better land use decisions.  Whether policies that encourage density and transit oriented development, to making developers take more responsibility over the transportation systems that feed the sprawl they create, to designing better streets and road systems that can more flexibly respond to changes in vehicle choice (for example, the dense neighborhoods in many counties that don’t connect well to commercial centers or basic services, that lack sidewalks, yet can look like any urban neighborhood), the connection between transportation and land use needs to be better understood and better implemented if spending on transportation is truly going to be an investment in the future rather than simply maintaining an outdated status quo.

Evan’s Spring Plan an Example of Land Use Supporting Smart Transportation

via Virginia Department of Transportation

The upcoming improvements to the Valley View interchange on 581 holds the potential for a whole slew of changes in the vicinity.  The Roanoke Times points out that one of the most important changes is how the new traffic pattern will impact the nearby Evan’s Spring area:

But the project’s greater impact will be in years to come as the full interchange primes for development 150 untouched acres on the opposite side of I-581.

Without a plan, that fallow land could turn into Valley View: The Sequel — ring roads looping together acres upon acres of parking lots and linking chain stores to restaurants and hotels. This, thankfully, is not the vision held by city planners, nearby neighborhood leaders or the land’s current property owners.

In urban areas like the City of Roanoke, providing facilities for bicycles, pedestrians, and even buses – pull-offs at bus stops, for example – is mainly a matter of retrofitting existing roads, or eking out three feet of bike late or striped shoulder here and there.  It’s also a matter of getting people to rethink the use of their streets and the connectivity of a neighborhood – a commuter driving a certain way to work who is interested in biking may need some help reconsidering their route, as they may not be aware that streets they never drive down and are unfamiliar with are actually more suitable for a bike trip.

What can happen in the Evan’s Spring area is a good example of how smart land use decisions can set the right foundation for sustainable transportation choices, making it easier and more obvious that there are multiple ways to move within a neighborhood, or traveling between the neighborhood and the rest of the city.  In particular, the plan’s apparent focus on creating a village center is an important part of building a sustainable transportation infrastructure – all the bike lanes and sidewalks in the world aren’t helpful if you have to travel significantly out of the neighborhood to access basic services.

We applaud the City and the neighbors in the area for their vision, and hope that it is developed as planned.  Meanwhile, if you are a neighbor of Evan’s Spring, we encourage you to get involved.  Talk to city planners regularly and attend public meetings.  We also encourage you to call on RIDE Solutions staff if there’s anything we can do to help!


VDOT Invites Comments on Land Development Regulations

VDOT is seeking public input on proposed revisions to its land use regulations.  These regulations involve, among other things, whether or not VDOT will take over maintenance of secondary street system created by developers as part of subdivisions.  In the past, VDOT regularly adopted these roads into the state system, but recent changes encouraged VDOT to do this only when the new street systems included connectivity to surrounding neighborhoods and activity centers, and discouraged them from taking on systems that included cul-de-sacs.  Here is the information from their website:

During the 2011 session, the Virginia General Assembly passed Senate Bill 1462, which became Chapter 870 of the 2011 Acts of Assembly, directing the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) to solicit and consider public comment in the development of revisions to the Secondary Street Acceptance Requirements (SSAR) and the Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) regulations which are implemented by VDOT.

VDOT will use multiple methods to collect public input in conjunction with this effort.  A general notice has been published in The Virginia Register of Regulations and posted on the Virginia Regulatory Town Hall to solicit public comments related to these regulations.  VDOT will accept Town Hall comments through May 31, 2011.   The Virginia Regulatory Town Hall will also electronically send this notice to anyone who has registered to receive notices concerning transportation issues.

VDOT will also contact individuals who have submitted comments in the past regarding these land development regulations.  Anyone wishing to submit comments on these regulations may use this electronic template or mail comments to the following address by May 31, 2011:  VDOT Transportation and Mobility Planning Division, ATTN:   Land Development Regulation Comments, 1401 East Broad Street, Richmond, VA    23219

VDOT will also conduct at least one public hearing to receive input on the proposed  revisions.  This hearing will be held after the Town Hall input process and will be announced on the Town Hall site and this website.  Using this approach, VDOT and the CTB will offer two separate periods to submit feedback on these regulations.

VDOT and the CTB would like to thank people submitting comments for their time and effort to assist in the revision of these regulations.

Taking Up Space

First, a disclaimer:  I offer the following information because I think it’s a sign of the growing bicycle culture in the valley and the different kinds of events and spectacles that culture is generating.  Regardless of whether or not I agree with an event, it’s worth taking note that there are some pretty interesting things happening now.  In general, I don’t support efforts – from bicyclists or drivers – whose purpose is to create conflict between the two groups; there is a place for that sometimes, but I am wary of too much aggression on either side.  The event discussed in the post below has some potential to cause conflict and aggravation, but I am going to defer judgment here and assume that the Car Less Brit will approach this, as he has approached everything so far, with a sense of fun and adventure, and that all the other participants will do likewise.

There.  Got my official duty over with.  Now to the fun stuff.

The Car Less Brit has got something cooking – Manif Spaciale, a demonstration of sorts (not quite a protest) involving applying large, light rectangular frames to bicycles so that they take up the same footprint as a motor vehicle.  The event was started by a group from Montreal to illustrate the impact of motor vehicles simply from a size perspective.  From Car Less Brit blog post on the subject:

The immense space that each car uses – to transport an average of 1.3 people every working day – has led to the mass destruction of buildings, countryside, and green spaces into parking lots and roads throughout North American cities.

To graphically illustrate the huge waste of space of the car and the negligible space taken up by the bicycle, we used wood frames to convert our bicycles into the approximate size of cars and cycled in unison down the main street of Montreal.

The Car Less Brit will be bringing a little bit of that flavor to Roanoke.  If you’re interested in getting involved, you can get more information on his Facebook event page.

This demonstration really gets to one of the core principles of transportation demand management – efficient use of space and resources.  Once you see the bikes riding down the street with their bulky frames in place, you’ll get a sense of how much sheer space we use to move a single person around; consider how that drives decisions about road widths, where roads go, how much space is needed to move traffic, and what else we could do with that space, and you’ll get an idea of one of the major impacts of single-occupant vehicles and why agencies like RIDE Solutions work so hard to get people into high-occupant modes:  We could be doing something much more productive (like parks and more greenspace in our cities, for example) than just paving it.

The Clean Air Campaign in Atlanta has a fantastic illustration of the principle of concentrating on moving people, not cars.