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NOVA officials: Smart Scale funding changes would hurt multimodal projects

Tyrone Turner
Virginia’s Smart Scale program allocates state support to local transportation projects — including highways and roads, as well as transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure.

Read the original story on the DCist/WAMU website.

Some Northern Virginia elected leaders and transit advocates are expressing concern over plans to change Smart Scale, the commonwealth’s transportation funding program.

They said the proposals could make standalone bike and pedestrian projects less competitive for funding and could also hurt support for transit. Among other things, the proposed changes would limit the number of projects localities could submit, and favor highways and other road projects.

Under Smart Scale, which has been in place since 2016, local planning officials apply for state funding for local transportation infrastructure projects. The proposals are then scored on a range of criteria, including how they address congestion, accessibility, safety and efficient land-use. So far, the state has given out close to $7 billion in support through the program.

The state’s Commonwealth Transportation Board and the Office of Intermodal Planning and Investment have been evaluating a series of changes to the program this year, and the board plans to vote on the changes next week. They include reducing the number of projects each locality can apply for, changing the definition of “high priority projects” and reducing the weight given to land-use — where a transportation project is located — in the process.

“Up till now, Smart Scale has been fairly balanced. A lot of different kinds of modes [of transportation] have been able to be funded in this program. Transit has done very well,” said Mary Hughes Hynes, one of the Northern Virginia representatives on the Commonwealth Transportation Board in a presentation to the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission last month. “But in this scenario, all the transit projects are gone that were funded in June.”

Hynes and others point to an analysis conducted by the state showing how projects funded under the most recent round of Smart Scale would have fared under the new criteria.

About 75% of the bike and pedestrian infrastructure projects that got money this year wouldn’t have gotten funding under the new scheme. And the same would have been true of the three transit projects funded this year. On the Northern Virginia part of the list, those trends held true: More than half of the bike and pedestrian projects would have dropped out.

Instead, several road expansion projects would have been added.

That outcome was disappointing to the incoming Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax).

“When you have high density development, you have to have really robust cycling and pedestrian infrastructure along with it,” he said. “These changes just seem to sort of go backwards a couple decades in the way we think about transportation and land-use planning.”

In the absence of a dedicated stream of state funding for bike and pedestrian projects, and traffic-calming measures like roundabouts, Surovell said, Smart Scale is the main option for support.

“The changes that are being made are going to make those projects a lot less competitive,” he said.

“The problem is the cumulative impact of all these changes. It would, I think, definitely take the transportation program a step backwards,” agreed Trip Pollard, a senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center and an expert on transportation and land-use policies around the state.

Pollard acknowledges the current iteration of Smart Scale isn’t perfect, and it routinely undergoes tweaks after each round of the process. But he worries the proposed changes would upset the program's balance.

Moreover, Pollard said he’s concerned many basic parts of the proposed changes are still actively being debated, even as the board is set to vote Monday.

The Virginia Department of Transportation didn’t respond to a request for comment on the department’s decision to change the Smart Scale process.

Documents prepared for next week’s meeting argue changes are meant to make the scoring calculation more forward-looking on congestion and economic development measures, improve overall application quality and better define what counts as a “high priority” project.

Concerns over key changes

Northern Virginia officials’ concerns about the Smart Scale proposal center on a few key changes, including the limit on how many projects a locality can submit to the process every two years.

The Commonwealth Transportation Board staff proposal originally contemplated halving the number of projects large jurisdictions and transit groups could submit, from 10 down to five. (Large jurisdictions are defined as having more than 200,000 residents and regional transit groups representing 500,000 people are also eligible.) Pushback to that proposal this fall led to a scaled-back reduction, with larger jurisdictions allowed six applications.

Analysis by the state’s staff said the original change was aimed at reducing the number of applications not fully ready for consideration.

“There are definitely some changes that need to be made to the application process and the number of applications to try to limit the the burden on VDOT and other state agencies that have to be able to process the requests,” Surovell said.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, which advocates for transit in the region, argued in a letter to the board that even the existing 10-project cap is unfair to especially large jurisdictions because it lumps them into a category with others a fraction of their size.

Fairfax County representatives to the commission brought up the point in a discussion earlier this month, noting that the county, with more than a million residents, is more than five times the size of smaller localities meeting the 200,000-person “large jurisdiction” definition.

The commission’s letter ultimately requested the state keep the cap the same, instead of lowering it.

Another concern for Northern Virginia officials is the new definition of “high priority projects,” which makes proposals eligible for an additional pot of funding under Smart Scale. Previously, the definition didn’t specify what kinds of projects would qualify as “high priority.” Now, the state is considering adding parameters.

“You can’t plan one without the other. You don’t put a big wide interstate right next to high density [areas]. You have to take that into account.”
Trip Pollard, senior attorney at the Southern Environmental Law Center

The list of favored projects in the new definition includes several highway-oriented categories — new capacity highway, managed lanes, new or improved interchanges. There are also some for transit, including several freight and passenger rail categories, as well as “high capacity / fixed guideway transit,” meaning dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit and light rail.

The NVTC letter requests the Commonwealth Transportation Board more broadly define bus rapid transit as not necessarily needing dedicated lanes. Northern Virginia BRT proposals don’t always envision dedicated lanes.

Local officials have also pushed for a more explicit emphasis on corridor-wide transportation improvements, which include transit, bike and pedestrian infrastructure in addition to roads.

Pollard is concerned the changes in the high priority definition could de-emphasize projects that improve existing corridors — a key concern in Northern Virginia, where reimagining suburban sprawl into denser, more walkable places is an enormous undertaking.

“We’ve moved pretty well in recent years to thinking broadly about corridor improvements rather than just — if a corridor starts to have some congestion or safety problems — trying to build a very extensive bypass of those problems, which then clogs up,” Pollard said.

“The roads were built and designed 30, 40, 50, 60 years ago to be so car-centric,” said Fairfax County Supervisor Dahlia Palchik, who also chairs the NVTC. “We’re working really hard to have that mix, especially in my district, having the corridor between Merrifield and Tysons be more and more multimodal.”

Palchik said that requires a lot of funding — and a constant negotiation with VDOT, which manages most of the roads in the county.

Pollard said he expected the high priority definition to broaden some in the final version of the changes next week, but said the question would be just how much.

The proposed Smart Scale changes also get rid of efficient land-use as a standalone category in the calculation of a project’s score, essentially lessening the weight of a measure Northern Virginia localities have traditionally done well on because of the region’s density. State staff said the land-use factor ends up weighing too heavily in calculating a project’s level of public benefit.

Pollard said the existing land-use category isn’t without its issues, but doesn’t support the current proposal to deprioritize it. Surovell agreed.

“You can’t plan one without the other,” he said. “You don’t put a big wide interstate right next to high density [areas]. You have to take that into account.”

Pollard said the real question is how the board will choose to reallocate Northern Virginia’s land-use points — which currently account for about 20% of a local project’s score — to other categories. Those include congestion, accessibility (a measure of connectivity to other modes of transportation and jobs), environmental quality and economic development.

Not everyone in Northern Virginia sees the changes as a serious problem for the region.

The Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, a local nonprofit focused on congestion relief, supported the proposal in public comment before the Commonwealth Transportation Board. Alliance President Jason Sanford argued that bike, pedestrian and transit projects can draw on other sources of funding, and that Smart Scale should focus on funding big projects to expand the transportation system’s overall capacity.

Palchik saw at least some aspects of the Smart Scale proposal as beneficial to Fairfax, particularly state staff’s attempt to reprioritize larger projects over smaller ones.

What’s next?

The board is set to vote on changing Smart Scale next week — and assuming some version of the changes pass, Pollard is worried localities will need to seek alternatives for funding transit, bike and pedestrian projects.

“There certainly are alternative ways to fund certain projects, but, you know, all pots of money are limited,” he said. “And if you close off largely cleaner, more equitable forms of transportation from Smart Scale and this important pot of state money, it will almost certainly reduce the total number of these projects that get funded.”

Surovell said he worries about the political precedent significant changes to Smart Scale would set. The program, he said, was originally meant to make state transportation funding less variable from one governor’s administration to the next.

“Transportation projects typically take a decade or two to plan, and they typically take about 10 years to design, fund and construct,” he said. “You can’t be monkeying around with the formula every four years or else it becomes impossible to make the kinds of investments necessary to have a robust economy built on solid infrastructure network.”

While the changes, if approved, may be a blow to some of Northern Virginia’s priorities, Hynes said local transportation planners can adapt.

“One of the things I will say about Smart Scale is as the rules change, your staffs are very smart, and they try to figure out what projects will do well,” she told the NVTC. “And so, if this is what’s adopted, people will adjust.”

Palchik, in Fairfax, said the county already prioritizes submitting larger projects like bus rapid transit to Smart Scale, rather than smaller standalone bike and pedestrian plans.

“My hope is that when the Commonwealth Transportation Board votes on its final recommendations, that we do continue to see the ability to fund some of these larger corridor projects that include multimodal use through Smart Scale,” she said.

Margaret Barthel is the Northern Virginia Reporter at WAMU/DCist.