3 Questions with Jason Stanford, Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance
Post written by Grafton deButts, VP of Membership & Government Affairs. Learn more about the Chamber’s Public Policy initiative by clicking here. Join us at our upcoming PolicyMaker Series event, The State of Loudoun’s Towns, on March 13, 2019. Register Here
At the February 5th Public Policy Meeting, our committee had the opportunity to hear from local transportation leader, Jason Stanford, Executive Director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance. Jason is a local political and transportation expert whose mission is to find and attract transportation funding for Northern Virginia. At this meeting he shared with the committee the inner workings behind one of Virginia’s transportation funding sources, Smart Scale, and how Loudoun faired in the process this year. I sat down with Jason for a short recap conversation that we could share with the entire chamber membership.
3 Questions with Jason Stanford
1) What is “Smart Scale” and how much money did Loudoun receive?
Smart Scale is the process that the Commonwealth uses to compare, prioritize, and fund transportation capacity expansion projects throughout Virginia. Each project is requested by a locality. That project then receives a score based on the project’s benefit as measured by five factors – congestion mitigation, safety, accessibility, environmental impact and economic development. In addition, projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have a sixth category, land use, which awards additional points based on population density, job density, and walkability to nonwork destinations.
This process takes place every two years and represents an update to Virginia’s Six Year Improvement Program. Projects funded in this round would receive funding in the last two years of the six-year plan or fiscal years 2024 and 2025. There is an estimated $780 million available for funding in this round. Based on the Smart Scale scores released in early January, staff recommended around $200 million for projects in Northern Virginia.
Of that $200 million, Loudoun County would only receive $1.3 million for one project: Route 50 Corridor Improvements. In contrast, $130 million would go to Arlington and Alexandria while $50 million would be put towards Route 1 Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) in Fairfax County.
These recommendations are not set in stone. and the Commonwealth Transportation Board is not required to fund the project with the highest score. In fact, Route 1 BRT in Fairfax County was still recommended for funding over two other projects – one in Alexandria and one in Herndon – that had higher Smart Scale scores.
2) Considering Loudoun is one of the larger counties in Virginia, why did we receive so little?
There are a few factors in the way that Smart Scale scores are calculated that a negative effect on Loudoun County projects. First, each project submitted for scoring is measured against the highest scoring project in each evaluation category. This year the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel (HRBT) received the highest score for congestion mitigation (100), but because the raw numbers for person throughput and hours of delay – the two objective metrics use to calculate the score – were so high, the next highest score for congestion mitigation was comparably given a score of 12. As a result, even though congestion mitigation is supposed to have the greatest weight of any category in Northern Virginia, the second highest project only received 5.4 total benefit points (out of a possible 45). The total benefit score is the sum of a project’s scores in each category. For comparison, the HRBT had a total benefit score of 74 while the next highest total benefit score in Virginia was 29.
The second major issue is that we divide the total benefit score, which falls between 0 and 100, by the amount of money requested for the project. In theory, this provides each project with a fair cost-benefit analysis. Unfortunately, because some projects are asking for over $200 million while others are asking for only $200 thousand, a project with a small benefit and small cost typically scores better than a project with a large benefit and a large cost.
Finally, Northern Virginia projects have an additional land use category that accounts for 20% of a project’s score and is calculated using population density, job density, and walkability to nonwork destinations. This category essentially boosts the scores of projects in dense urban walkable areas. As a result, most of the requests from Loudoun County do not score well in this category. Land Use has an even higher impact on the final score of projects in Northern Virginia when factors like congestion mitigation have such a small impact due to an outlier like the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel
3a) What is the biggest flaw that you see in the current system?
The goal of Smart Scale is to prioritize funding for the most important projects in Virginia. Unfortunately, the projects with the highest benefits tend to also be the projects with the highest cost. While it might sound good to divide the benefit score by the cost of the project, it’s important to remember that the benefit score is already distilled and weighted through a number of factors. Just looking at the last round of Smart Scale, of the 440 projects submitted, only one scored higher than 29 on the 0-100 scale used to compare a project’s benefit. That means the other 439 fell between 0 and 29 on that scale. With the benefits of a project divided and weighted so many times over, there starts to be little to differentiate each project other than their costs. For Loudoun County, that means projects like the Shellhorn Road extension and Route 7 improvements between Route 9 and the Dulles Greenway will always struggle to make the list due to their high price tag.
3b) What solutions would you recommend to fix it?
Without a doubt, Smart Scale is a significant improvement over the old system of funding a project based on who’s in the Governor’s mansion or in control of the General Assembly. However, we’ve now gone through three rounds of this process and there are clearly some improvements that need to be considered.
First, we should remove outliers before measuring a category. A project like the HRBT could receive a perfect score for congestion mitigation, while still using the second highest scoring project as the baseline for the Smart Scale category.
In addition, we need to reevaluate the benefit of having a Land Use category. This factor is more indicative of geography and development than transportation. Congestion mitigation, environmental impact, accessibility, and economic development all demonstrate the tremendous benefit of projects like the West End Transitway in Alexandria, which scores highly without the land use category. Smart Scale should measure the impact of the project, not just where it is located.
We should also fund the projects with the highest benefit score. Projects with the highest benefit score produce the largest benefit. Rather than funding small projects that score well due to low costs, the Commonwealth should be focused on projects that will have the biggest impact. We also need sustainable transportation funding to ensure highly scored projects receive funding.
Finally, we need to talk to our Commonwealth Transportation Board Members – Mary Hynes and Scott Kasprowicz (a Loudoun County resident). Smart Scale is a guide for policymakers that gives them a more objective view of a project’s impact. However, the Commonwealth Transportation Board is not required to choose the highest scoring projects. In fact, the staff recommendation for Northern Virginia skips two higher scoring projects in favor of Route 1 BRT.
Thank you to the Loudoun Chamber for the opportunity to discuss this important issue. The Alliance is proud to partner with the Loudoun Chamber for over 30 years to advocate for transportation improvements in Northern Virginia that increase economic prosperity and improve our quality of life. Working together, I know we will succeed in building a 21stCentury Transportation Network to meet the growing needs of our region.