SMART Scale was designed to take the politics out of transportation funding and replace it with an objective, outcome-based, cost-benefit system that prioritizes projects according to a weighted set of factors, including improvements to safety, congestion reduction, accessibility, land use, economic development and the environment. But it isn’t working properly for the Fredericksburg region.
A recent analysis for the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce by Chris Garcia, associate professor of business at the University of Mary Washington, found that Smart Scale has been applying its written formula in a fair and consistent manner. So there’s no dark conspiracy as to why this region has consistently gotten shortchanged.
The problem is not in the execution, but in the assumptions baked into Smart Scale’s formula. Which is why the $132 million Northern Rappahannock River Crossing over Interstate 95—one of most critical projects not only for the region, but also for the state—didn’t score high enough to qualify for Smart Scale funding. Twice.
Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads have been given permission by the General Assembly to set up a local transportation funding authority that uses regional sales and fuel taxes to help pay for local road and transit improvements. Northern Virginia’s sales tax is expected to raise $1.6 billion by fiscal year 2023. These dollars can be leveraged to increase their Smart Scale scores.
Jurisdictions lacking such taxing authority, including the Fredericksburg region, are automatically at a disadvantage. The practical effect, according to Garcia, is that “the top few [transportation districts] have scores orders of magnitude higher than most of the rest” of the state. And higher scores mean more state money.
State officials acknowledge that the Fredericksburg District, with $4 billion in mostly unfunded primary and secondary road projects, is unique in the commonwealth because its traffic volume is comparable to that in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, but it doesn’t have the ability to raise local transportation funds.
One possible solution to create a slightly more level playing field is to ask the General Assembly to allow area localities to form a regional transportation authority, which could raise $35 million a year for road improvements in Fredericksburg, Stafford and Spotsylvania, and another $5 million in King George and Caroline counties, by imposing a regional $0.7 sales tax surcharge. The money could then be used as leverage to raise the region’s Smart Scale scores.
Local officials say that Fredericksburg could also be moved from District A, which includes Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, to District B, which includes Richmond and environs. Garcia has calculated that the region’s average Smart Scale score would increase slightly under that scenario, but warned that some projects would also score lower.
The Fredericksburg Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is currently in “initial discussions” about moving to the Richmond District, but has not yet taken a formal position on the matter, according to FAMPO Administrator Paul Agnello. Moving into District B wouldn’t cost anything and would make it easier to get slightly more state transportation dollars for Fredericksburg, he told The Free Lance–Star.
However, that would still not solve the underlying problem that transportation projects without a significant amount of local funding don’t score well under the current Smart Scale system. And a regional transportation authority may not be supported by all the jurisdictions that would benefit, he added. However, doing nothing all but ensures that large projects in the region won’t score well.
And as the state money available for new construction continues to shrink (from $1.4 billion during the first round of Smart Scale to an estimated $800 million in the fourth round next year), competition for the dwindling funds will increase. Without a way to leverage local projects, the region will likely not do well—even though the need is as urgent here as anywhere in the commonwealth.
Allowing the Fredericksburg region to set up its own transportation funding authority, move into a more favorable district—or preferably both—is the least state officials can do to address decades of transportation neglect.
But those are not the only available options. With thousands of aging bridges to replace and over half of Virginia’s roads in either poor (10 percent) or fair condition (44 percent), the General Assembly simply must devote a larger percentage of state revenue to transportation. And Smart Scale’s assumptions should be changed to account for the fact that the fastest growing region in the commonwealth doesn’t neatly fit into any of its existing categories.