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Alborn: Residents Losing Faith in VDOT over Bi-County Parkway

Opinion

When I heard about Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean T. Connaughton’s uttering those words, I couldn’t believe it. When I heard it from multiple sources, I was shocked. I lost faith in Transportation Planning in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

“You guys would never make it on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors; we live for bushwhacking people,” Virginia Secretary of Transportation Sean T. Connaughton said, as quoted in GreaterGreater Washington.

Frankly, if the allegation that Connaughton actually made this statement in a public forum “for the record” (so to speak) is correct, I am surprised Governor Robert F. McDonnell didn’t fire Connaughton for making such a statement. It undermines residents’ trust in those appointed to be stewards of our lives and money, and discredits McDonnell’s entire administration.

Transportation planning is a math problem, and the math is complicated. The public must have full trust and confidence in the Virginia Department of Transportation before willingly giving up their lifestyle, their environment, and in some cases their homes, before signing up letting the bulldozers run a strip of asphalt through what used to be their home.

Right now, Prince William County residents don’t trust the math behind the proposed outer beltway project. That’s a problem.

For full disclosure, I was on the Prince William County 2013-2016 Strategic Planning Team. In the Strategic Plan we delivered, Transportation Strategy Number 5 was, “Take the leadership role to build the Va. 234 North Bypass (the “Road to Dulles”), a key connector road for the region, linking major economic development centers in Prince William County to Dulles International Airport.”

It was neither presented or discussed as a “cargo route to Dulles”. I believe that like the rest of the Planning Team (although I may only speak for myself), we considered the idea of a road that would help alleviate Northern Virginia’s traffic problem by giving commuters a new north-south route.

The assumption when agreeing to something like this is that the math will be honest, public input will be seriously considered, and community buy-in would be fundamental to moving forward to such a dramatic change to Prince William County, Virginia.

As a member of the Strategic Planning Team, I also stressed taking a systems view of Northern Virginia’s Transportation Problems. With today’s technology, Transportation Planning should include strategies to take people off the roads as part of the solution set.

Congressman Gerry Connolly, D-Fairfax, Prince William, and Frank Wolf, R-Loudoun, Prince William, led the successful passage of the President’s Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which mandates that Government Agencies extend telework to all qualifying employees.

Connolly, a leader in telework thought and legislation, is contemplating how to expand telework to the Government Contracting community. Connolly gets this “taking people off the roads” thing.

Back in the Strategic Plan, you will find telework in Transportation Strategies 7, which states we should “coordinate the county’s organizational initiatives on teleworking, flexible schedules, and other means of reducing commuter trips with the state legislative agenda.” Number eight states “support and endorse federal, state, regional and local telecommuting efforts.”

Our transportation planners continue to build roads because that’s what they do. They collaborate with the people who build those roads because those are the folks who are organized and equipped to lay the asphalt, and profit from it.

Perhaps its time to add some technology planners to the transportation planning mix, and redefine the problem we are trying to solve.

I would suggest that its time to stop thinking solely about moving people to the information that they need to do their job by laying more asphalt, and start incorporating strategies to move information to the people who need it wherever they may be.

This would mean bring a new set of technology players to the market. It would also mean new, high technology jobs, increased technology sales and services opportunity, and perhaps retrofitting Northern Virginia for the 21st Century instead of always defaulting to the way we use to do things.

Under the McDonnell Administration, trust and confidence in Northern Virginia transportation planning is gone. There have been too many mis-communications, mis-representations, questions, and confusing facts to allow this project to proceed in the current political and public climate. It’s locked into the “build more roads” mindset while dismissing technology opportunities to take people off the roads.

We need a reset. I strongly suggest McDonnell intercede quickly put a stop to any planning for the outer beltway under his administration. Anything that impacts Prince William County this much, literally changes its character and the lives of its residents forever, should seriously consider those in its path. By the way, everyone who ever uses or lives anywhere near Va. 234 between U.S. 1 and Dulles lives in its path.

We need a “different kind of” Secretary of Transportation, and a new way of defining just what problem we are trying to solve. It’s not about moving lots of folks around twice a day. It’s about connecting people with the information they need to do their job.

That doesn’t necessarily require a road, or a car, or the expenses associated with either. It does require a systems view of the problem, and a break from the “roads are always the answer” mindset.

Perhaps transportation Planning for major initiatives in Northern Virginia should simply be suspended until the next Governor is sworn in, and a new Virginia Secretary of Transportation is selected. Something that changes the lives of Prince William County residents so profoundly can wait a few months for a new set of eyes.

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