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Near-record road deaths may compel Va. to spend 15% of highway safety dollars on walking and biking

In 2022, the number of road fatalities in the commonwealth broke 1,000 for the first time in 15 years, with people walking and biking comprising a disproportionate share of deaths. However, late last month House Republicans killed Roem’s proposal to dedicate 10% of Virginia’s budget surplus to safety improvements.

Virginia Mercury

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By Wyatt Gordon

Since last fall, crashes on Sudley Road have claimed the lives of Del. Danica Roem’s constituents just last week, in December and twice in September. Add in the two pedestrians recently run over and killed by drivers on adjacent roads in her Prince William County district, and it’s easy to understand why the Northern Virginia lawmaker chose transportation safety as one of her top legislative priorities this year.

In 2022, the number of road fatalities in the commonwealth broke 1,000 for the first time in 15 years, with people walking and biking comprising a disproportionate share of deaths. However, late last month House Republicans killed Roem’s proposal to dedicate 10% of Virginia’s budget surplus to safety improvements. With the danger on our roadways reaching near-record levels, why isn’t the General Assembly prioritizing transportation safety?

‘Dead people don’t benefit from tax breaks’

One of the more unexpected results of people staying home to avoid COVID was that empty roads allowed dangerous drivers to go wild, sending the sum of traffic deaths — and especially of pedestrians — sky high. After Virginia witnessed 968 people die on its roadways in 2021, Roem decided to go after additional safety dollars last year and introduced HB 546 that would have required that 10% of any General Fund surplus be invested in roadway safety. Since Virginia is a rather fiscally frugal state, the proposal would have resulted in millions more dollars each year going to improve transportation infrastructure.

Instead of passing Roem’s proposal, the General Assembly actually cut $135 million from the Commonwealth Transportation Fund when it eliminated the grocery tax last year. A minimum $437 million plan from Gov. Youngkin to suspend the gas tax for several months, which would have caused an even larger hit to transportation funding, was also defeated in 2022. The focus on giveaways over increased investments in safety only angered Roem further.

“Dead people don’t benefit from tax breaks,” she said. “How dare anyone claim we have a transportation surplus, when I’ve got constituents getting hurt and killed on roadways where we know for a fact that the infrastructure is the reason that those crashes are caused in the first place, we have a plan to do something about it and we’re not funding it because we get told we don’t have the money?”

After spending the last year in conversation with Virginia Department of Transportation Commissioner Stephen C. Birch, Roem modeled HB 2379 — her 2023 version of her transportation safety funding proposal — on two existing mechanisms that transfer a portion of any General Fund surplus to the state’s rainy day fund and a water quality fund. Despite her efforts and a lack of opposition, late last month the bill was killed on a party-line vote in a House transportation subcommittee.

“I’m trying to find a way to fund transportation without cutting other programs or raising taxes by using a budget surplus to keep our constituents alive,” Roem said. “What less offensive way is there to make the case that we are chronically, severely underfunding transportation to our constituents’ detriment and deaths? We have lost over the last four years more than 3,500 people on Virginia roadways. Since I’ve been in office how many thousands of people have died?”

A federal fix?

Official calculations from the Department of Motor Vehicles are still underway; however, at least 1,010 people died on Virginia roads last year. The final count of traffic fatalities should be confirmed in the coming weeks, but right now “it appears that pedestrian deaths may exceed 15% of total traffic deaths in 2022,” according to Marshall Herman, VDOT’s director of communications.

If that statistic is confirmed, Virginia will be required to spend at least 15% of its Highway Safety Improvement Program dollars on bike and pedestrian projects going forward in order to comply with the Vulnerable Road User Special Rule introduced via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, or else return that funding to the federal government.

The new rule is a huge shift from the previous system under which states would submit non-binding fatality reduction targets that a third of states didn’t even try to comply with. But the $15.6 billion over five years dedicated to road safety is not nearly enough to make a difference, according to advocates like Beth Osborne of Transportation for America, a national transportation reform group.

“Highway Safety Improvement dollars constitute just 6% of overall federal transportation funding, which makes it a minority of the funding VDOT receives,” she said. “That’s change behind the cushions. Even if VDOT says they are going to dedicate those dollars to vulnerable users and spends it on things unlikely to improve the safety of vulnerable users, that probably would pass muster anyway. The Secretary of Transportation can rethink transportation all he or she wants, but the law is the law, and it doesn’t give him much discretion over how highway funding is used.”

Even a 2021 memo issued by the Federal Highway Administration encouraging states to focus Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act funding on safety improvements and road and bridge maintenance resulted in congressional controversy that continues to simmer after several senators got involved last spring.

“The notion that safety and state of repair would be prioritized was the most offensive thing in the world,” Osborne said. “Now you can’t even cross your fingers and wish super hard that people would fill potholes and make things safer. The Biden administration took a very weak step forward and got their heads cut off. Safety is not anybody’s priority and especially not in Congress.”

Can we fix it?

Unfortunately, Virginia is not alone in its transportation safety crisis. In 2021, 42,915 Americans died due to traffic violence, marking a 16-year high. Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has yet to release its 2022 totals, an additional 31,785 Americans died on the country’s roads in just the first nine months of the year, a 0.2% decline over 2021.

Initial totals from the DMV, however, show a worsening situation in the commonwealth, where road fatalities actually increased 4.1% over 2021. Of the 1,010 people taken by traffic violence in Virginia in 2022, 182 were walking or biking when they were killed, a 19.4% increase over the previous year. Out of the 171 pedestrians killed, 60.2% of the total were aged 51 or older according to data from the DMV’s Traffic Records Electronic Data System.

To Brantley Tyndall, president of the Virginia Bicycling Federation, such shocking statistics are red flags, warning that our transportation networks have a problem.

“That is a sign that our infrastructure system needs to change,” he said. “It wasn’t these people’s first time around the block. These people were walking where they have walked their entire lives, and they were killed because traffic is moving faster and drivers are that much less cognizant, whether they are impaired, distracted, or who knows.”

Virginia’s ban on holding a phone while driving was supposed to help reverse the tragic trend toward greater traffic violence, but the “hands free” policy didn’t take effect until July of 2020 — “a rough time to have rolled out a new law,” according to Janet Brooking, the executive director of Drive Smart Virginia. A recent letter from the Virginia Criminal Sentencing Commission revealed 21,553 charges of violating that law in 2021 alone, but it’s impossible to say what impact the policy may have had in preventing road death totals from being even higher.

What definitely saves lives, experts say, is infrastructure. One of the most promising policy changes to this effect in recent years is a Washington bill that requires the state department of transportation to “incorporate the principles of complete streets with facilities that provide street access with all users in mind, including pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation users” for state transportation projects costing $500,000 or more.

Perhaps in recognition of the worsening road fatality crisis, last summer the Commonwealth Transportation Board voted to appropriate $672.4 million through fiscal year 2028 to accelerate road safety improvements across Virginia. In January, the CTB also allocated $24.47 million to help fix Route 28 in Prince William County — the issue that propelled Roem to run for her delegate seat in 2018.

Such small steps in the right direction haven’t convinced Roem to drop her dream of expanded transportation safety funding. Indeed, she is committed to introducing a version of this policy before the General Assembly every year until it passes.

“We still have hundreds of millions of dollars of unmet needs just in my district,” she said. “Just because we have some fixes coming in, do not think for a moment that the system is better. It shouldn’t take fatalities for us to make our roadways safer for vehicular traffic, bicyclists and pedestrians.”

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