Virginia's Transportation Infrastructure Needs Federal Help Virginia's Transportation Infrastructure Needs Federal Help

Warner says Biden administration will deliver a substantial infrastructure package.

ARLINGTON – Virginia’s transportation industry needs federal support. Several Northern Virginia officials made that argument Friday as they met with Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA).

Warner met with the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission, along with several other regional stakeholders. Th group discussed both WMATA, the Washington, D.C.-area Metro system, and the region’s transportation grid as a whole.

“The greatest non-funny joke line on Capitol Hill has been when the previous administration every few weeks said, ‘This is Infrastructure Week,’ and then nothing happened,” Warner told the group.

That state of perpetual disappointment will come to an end under President Biden, the senator promised.

“There will be a substantial infrastructure package put forward,” he said. 

Warner proposed lots of potential ideas for the upcoming legislation, including repairing roads and bridges; improving water and sewer systems and expanding access to affordable broadband. 

He pointed to the $350 billion allocated to state and local governments in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Act. That money needs to be carefully targeted, Warner added.

“Nothing would look worse than if states took this money and used it for a tax cut or put it in a rainy-day fund when we have a dire emergency,” Warner said. 

Warner also solicited input from the panel on what would be most helpful to them.

Relief Funds Can Help ‘Fulfill Visions’

Virginia Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine asked for flexibility. 

The state’s transportation industry dealt with its share of issues during the pandemic, she said. Its top priorities, Valentine added, have been the health and safety of employees, as well as trying to minimize layoffs. Where industry leaders have struggled, she said, is maintaining existing project timelines. 

“Our gaps are coming in – we have a lot of negotiations taking place with highways, rail, transit, and we’re not able to complete that,” Valentine said. 

She cited the effort to bring Amtrak service to Southwest Virginia as one example. “It’s getting the train to Virginia Tech, Blacksburg and Christiansburg,” Valentine said. “Norfolk Southern is at the table, but doesn’t have the resources to get it done,” she explained, referring to the private owners of the rails that could support passenger service. 

So, Valentine concluded, the best use of COVID relief funds would be “helping to fulfill the visions that we’ve all been working on.” 

Warner agreed, saying he would focus on “making sure the funds don’t come with such restrictions that even if it’s not directly related to COVID, if you had to delay a series of projects. You can slot this in and we don’t lose ground.” 

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Warner Offers Help For WMATA

According to WMATA Chief Executive Officer Paul J. Wiedefeld, ridership is down 90% since the start of the pandemic. That’s bad news for the Washington, D.C.-area Metro system, because 80% of its funding comes from rail passenger.

In early January, Congress passed a $900 billion stimulus package. More than $600 million went to WMATA to help the transit system avoid service reductions and staff layoffs. Metro also received $767 million from the $2 trillion CARES Act. 

Wiedefeld said the funding relieved some stress from WMATA’s transit workers, who are facing both the fear of contracting COVID-19 and potentially losing their jobs during the pandemic.

However, that doesn’t solve the system’s long-term problems. Warner believes a bill he filed earlier on Friday can help there. The proposal will codify a $150 million annual federal contribution to Metro for the next 10 years. It also offers an extra $50 million in funding, as long as Metro meets certain maintenance and safety standards.

In justifying the bill, Warner asked and answered this rhetorical question: Why should Congress pay for Northern Virginia’s transit system? “In many ways, Metro is the federal government’s transportation system,” Warner told the panel.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the senator said, 40% of the federal workforce relied on Metro to get to work.

“If we didn’t have Metro, the federal government couldn’t function, or it would cost even more. So we really need to do this,” Warner concluded.

Transit is Changing 

Long-term, Wiedefeld is confident most Metro riders will return. However, a survey from the Greater Washington Partnership was clear that they won’t return until the threat of coronavirus is virtually eliminated.

“People will come back. But they’re not coming back until they feel this thing is in the rearview mirror,” Wiedefeld said.

He said that’s why vaccine rollout is important to the transit industry. But he added that the pandemic has offered the industry a rare opportunity to innovate, too.

“It’s an opportunity to reinvent transit. It’s about equity, environmental quality and economic development,” he said. “As we start to change our travel behaviors, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Bob Schneider, the executive director of OmniRide, was also on the panel Friday. He said the Prince William-based public transportation agency, which offers bus service, ride shares, and more, is concerned about shifting consumer preferences because of increased telework opportunities.

“We’re very fearful about commuter confidence,” Schneider said. “We’re working with (the Virginia Department of Rail & Public Transportation) to provide some incentives for these commuters to get back to using transit, and I think it’s critical that we be proactive.”

Forecasts estimate the Capitol region will grow by 1.3 million people in the next 20 years. During that time, it’ll also add about 1 million jobs. Therefore, even if some workers do shift to telework, the net demand for public transit will not decrease drastically, so investing in the infrastructure is important.

Ashley Spinks Dugan is a freelance reporter for Dogwood. You can reach her at info@vadogwood.com.