Northern Virginia Doesn’t Need New Highways

Observing the Virginia election campaign from afar, I thought that one potential upside to the fact that Bob McDonnell’s lack of a real plan to finance proposed road construction in Northern Virginia might have the beneficial consequence of making sure that the road construction doesn’t happen. I mean, I hate to knock a pro-tax editorial since lord knows I love taxes, but this kind of sentiment from the Washington Post editorial board doesn’t seem to me to be correct:

Mr. McDonnell’s challenge will be to translate his promises into results, specifically on the state’s most critical challenge: reinvigorating a sclerotic, aging transportation network. Virginia last raised new revenue for transportation almost a quarter century ago; little wonder that it is running out of cash to build roads. We remain skeptical of the flimsy filigree he passed off as a transportation plan, which rejects any fresh taxes to pay for new roads. But by dint of his victory he has earned the right to show it will work. We’d be delighted if he proves us wrong.

The postmortems on the campaign of State Sen. R. Creigh Deeds, the losing Democratic candidate, will identify his campaign’s missteps, misjudgments and missed opportunities. Inevitably, one of those will be his at-first tepid, and later unequivocal support for raising taxes to build roads. This will reinforce the conventional wisdom that it is impossible to win an election in Virginia, and elsewhere, on a platform that includes higher taxes.


Things like building more NoVa roads or expanding I-66 won’t solve Virginia’s traffic congestion problems. Right now the limited road capacity is operating as a constraint on further sprawl. Building more road capacity will encourage more sprawling development. But the reason Northern Virginia’s roads are crowded is that there’s a lot of stuff in-and-around Northern Virginia, there are limited non-road options for getting around Northern Virginia, and the roads are largely free. If you want less congestion over the long run, you need to tackle these issues head on. That means things like improving Virginia Rail Express so commuter rail is a more reasonable option for people; it means building the Metro Silver Line and — crucially — actually doing the increased density and urbanization in Tyson’s Corner; it means building Columbia Pike Streetcar; it means getting Virginia to support building a separated blue line through Downtown DC.


That would cost money and so, yes, taxes would be necessary. But higher taxes to build more roads isn’t what Northern Virginia needs. And ultimately like all jurisdictions plagued with traffic problems around the world, there’s ultimately a need to recognize that congestion pricing is the only really stable way to ensure a reasonable flow of traffic.

McDonnell’s pseudo-plan is not going to work but the alternative the Post is pushing wouldn’t work either.