Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) took to the airwaves this week to warn of a potential transportation “nightmare” that will accompany the relocation of more than 20,000 new BRAC-related jobs to Ft. Belvoir in Northern Virginia.
Speaking on a DC area radio station, Warner warned that the area’s already overburdened highway network is ill-equipped to handle such a sudden influx of motorists due to begin arriving for work at Ft. Belvoir in 2011.
With other BRAC-affected communities faciing similar challenges, Warner and fellow Virginia Sen. James Webb (D) are jointly sponsoring a $450,000 federal appropriation for a Transportation Research Board study that will address transportation shortfalls in these areas, and the limited funding to address them.
The study appears to complement a Government Accountability Office report on BRAC transportation impacts issued in September, which put the cost of near-term improvements at approximately $2 billion.
In the case of Northern Virginia, the first question the study should ask is, “what took you so long?”
After all, the latest round of BRAC recommendations were issued almost five years ago—plenty of time for state and local leaders to recognize the obvious shortcomings of the region’s congested roads to handle such a massive influx of new motorists.
To be sure, completion of the $676 million reconstruction of the I-95/395/495 “Mixing Bowl” interchange in 2007 has helped ease the flow of local and through traffic through the area. And BRAC’s potential effect on Ft. Belvoir was the main reason why Virginia allocated the largest share of its stimulus funds to complete the nearby Fairfax County Parkway.
But as a 24-year resident of Northern Virginia, I can assure our elected leaders that this looming nightmare has been in progress for a good while. (My observation wouldn't cost them a dime, although nearly half a million dollars sure would help with this year’s holiday shopping).
Of course, addressing transportation issues the right way does require thoughtful analysis, not simply throwing money at them. It’s just that another study—no matter how well-intentioned it may be—isn’t going sweeten any dreams of having all the needed infrastructure in place and ready to go in about 20 months.
Nor will it make commuting on those post-BRAC workdays at Ft. Belvoir any less frustrating than it is now. The congestion, and there will be plenty of it, is going to be a fact of life for a good while, study or no study.
Perhaps more telling about Warner’s comments is that he hit on many of the themes likely to be echoed early and often once Congress finally takes up the TEA reauthorization debate.
Putting the need in both security and economic terms, Warner noted that without upgrades to transportation infrastructure, Northern Virginia—and indeed the federal government—stands to “lose some of the best part of our workforce” rather than deal with the quality of life and transportation challenges.
The Senator also acknowledged that while it may be reasonable to look to the federal government, specifically the Dept. of Defense, for funding help with BRAC-related transportation improvements, the gas-tax based infrastructure system “is basically bankrupt.”
Warner also cited several potential remedies that may be new to some—“smart tolling,” vehicle miles traveled transponders, flexible work schedules, and alternative fuel vehicles—but not so new to the construction industry.
Sen. Warner is certainly neither the first nor the last elected official to voice these concerns, and they are indeed valid. But they also sound hauntingly familiar to anyone who has followed the saga of transportation funding in the U.S.
The next iteration of TEA almost has to be a pivotal piece of legislation given the competing 21st Century challenges of budgets, environmental protection, fuel resources, economic development, and so forth.
Yet rhetoric like this is any indication, the impending debate may not break much in the way of new ground, but instead, follow a road already well traveled.
Only now, that road has become a lot more crowded.