Thursday, February 29, 2024

Virginia Transportation Board Votes Against Proposal to Lower Application Cap for SMART SCALE Projects

Widening work on I-64 between Williamsburg and Norfolk in 2010. (VDOT photo by Trevor Wrayton)

RICHMOND — The Commonwealth Transportation Board on Monday voted by a slim margin against a proposal to lower the application caps for state transportation funds.

The Virginia Department of Transportation-backed proposal would have cut the number of applications that localities and planning organizations could submit every two years by around half in an effort to reduce the number of incomplete applications the state must review.

“I think it’s important to be able to lift up a wide variety of projects,” said board member Raymond Smoot, who represents part of Southwest Virginia. “If they don’t prevail, then they don’t prevail, but at least they had the opportunity to be considered.”

The decision was one of several made by the board Monday as part of its update of SMART SCALE, the transportation funding system used by Virginia since 2017. That system, which aims to help officials determine what transportation projects should be prioritized, has awarded nearly $7 billion since its inception. Reviews have occurred after each of the last four rounds of funding.

The board largely agreed with recommendations from the Virginia Department of Transportation on the need to expand the state’s definition of “high-priority” projects to help prioritize larger projects over smaller ones, such as bicycle and pedestrian improvements. VDOT has said that under the prior system, smaller projects have been twice as likely to get funded.

Members also supported VDOT recommendations, with some amendments, to require governments or planning groups applying for funds to calculate traffic congestion for seven years in the future and to adjust the weight given in calculations to safety, congestion and accessibility.

However, the board bucked the agency’s wishes not only on the application caps, but also on a recommendation to use the land use factor as a way to enhance a project’s score. Instead, the body voted to remove land use entirely from the list of project considerations.

Board member Mark Merrill expressed concern that giving more weight to land use in decisions could dramatically increase a project’s chances of getting funding under SMART SCALE even if other projects had much higher scores otherwise.

Secretary of Transportation Shep Miller III warned that getting rid of the land use factor could violate state law, which requires the Commonwealth Transportation Board to consider the impact of transportation corridors on the environment and land use. He also said the law governing the statewide prioritization process directs the board to consider at a minimum “congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality.”

Board member Frederick Stant, who represents the Hampton Roads area, said he disagreed with Miller that land use consideration is required by the statute, continuing, “As far as I’m concerned, it should be voted out.”

Miller called the vote “a bad decision” but said “the board gets to make decisions like that.”

“We’ve flown in the face, in my view, of the law,” he said. “We’ve flown in the face of the administration, we’ve flown in the face of consultants, and we’ve flown in the face of the staff that are paid to work on this every day.”

Application caps remain unchanged

Most notably for many local governments, the board voted against making changes to the existing application caps.

Currently, more rural localities with a population size of under 200,000 and metropolitan planning organizations, planning district commissions or transit agencies representing fewer than 500,000 people can submit four applications. The cap for more urban localities with a population size of over 200,000 and planning groups and transit agencies representing more than 500,000 people is at 10.

VDOT had recommended cutting those limits by half due to the high number of incomplete applications staff said they regularly received and had to spend time reviewing. The agency also recommended creating a third cap to accommodate more suburban and smaller urban areas that didn’t fit neatly into the rural or urban categories.

However, transportation leaders across the state said limiting applications further would negatively impact towns seeking state funding for improvement projects because it would require them to partner with local government or planning districts which face application limitations as well.

The board nearly accepted both recommendations on a 6-6 tie that was broken by Miller’s vote in favor of lowering the caps. However, in the last 10 minutes of the meeting, board member Wayne Coleman asked to change his vote, leading to a 7-5 rejection of the proposals.

On Monday, Miller argued that the new caps were needed to avoid wasting time and resources at both the local and state levels. VDOT data shows that in the last funding round, 90% of 420 applications still needed more work at the pre-application deadline, and 50% were not ready at the full application deadline.

“Nobody wants not to have opportunities to get a good project in and get it funded. That’s what we’re here for,” Miller said. “What we’re just trying to say, for goodness sake, give us some relief. We’re drowning in applications that aren’t ready to go.”

However, some board members argued lowering the caps will not resolve the issue.

“I’m all in favor and happy to help, if they want it, with staff in telling our localities, ‘You’re not doing your job,’”said at-large board member Thomas Lawson. “90 and 50? That’s horrible. We got to stop that, [but] changing the number, you’re still gonna have 90-50.”

A draft of a new guide to the funding system will be posted on the SMART SCALE homepage this month, with the final version expected in January.

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