"Transportation" is larger than moving cars and trucks, and VDOT is not the Virginia Department of Highways anymore. In theory at least, the state is flexible in examining the ways to move people and freight. However, to see the state's priorities.... follow the money and see what we spend on roads vs. everything else. Highways, after all, are the heritage of the organization:
The Virginia General Assembly established the first State Highway Commission in 1906. The original mission of the Commission was, "to maintain, operate, and construct the primary system of highways around the Commonwealth. The first 4,000 miles of Virginia's first highway system was established in 1918. In order to facilitate the allocation of new federal highway funds the General Assembly designated 8 construction districts; those districts remain in place today with one addition, the Northern Virginia District added in 1983.
The official state agency, the Department of Highways, was established in 1927. By this time the citizens of the Commonwealth had rejected a bond referendum for road construction and instead on the advice of Governor E. Lee Trinkle instituted a "pay as you go" policy that relied on a 3 cent per gallon tax on gasoline for road construction.
The 1932 Byrd Road Act established a unified State Secondary Road System. This permitted each county to give the responsibility for its secondary roads to the Highway Commission. At the time four counties chose to keep this responsibility including, Warwick, Nottoway, Arlington and Henrico, currently only two remain, Arlington and Henrico. One economist estimated that the Byrd Road Act would reduce rural taxes by $2,895,102 annually, which was certainly Byrd's aim.
In 1956, Congress authorized the development of a 42,500-mile national interstate system with the first section in Virginia designated for Emporia, the I-95 bypass. To fund the system the federal fuel tax was increased to 3 cents per gallon and the Federal Highway Trust Fund was created. Just a few years later, the findings of a General Assembly highway commission resulted in the authorization of the State's arterial network. This system of four-lane divided highways, in conjunction with the interstate system, would connect, "every city within the Commonwealth of 5,000 people or more and nearly every town having a population of 3,500 5,000."
In 1974 the General Assembly changed the name of the Highway Department to the Virginia Department of Highways and Transportation. It also changed the Highway Commission to the Virginia Highway and Transportation Commission and added two at-large members, one urban and one rural, increasing the membership from 9 to 11.
The addition of the Northern Virginia construction district in 1984 also created an extra member on the Highway and Transportation Commission. The Commission's name was changed again in 1985 by the General Assembly to become the Virginia Highway and Transportation Board.
As a result of the 1986 Commission on Transportation in the 21st Century, the General Assembly created the Transportation Trust Fund along with a series of innovative financing tools, they also changed the name of the Department to the Virginia Department of Transportation and added three at-large members to the newly named Commonwealth Transportation Board. At least two of the at-large members were to be from urban areas and at least two from the rural areas.
In 1990 the Board gained one additional member with the designation of the Secretary of Transportation as the Chairman by the General Assembly. New federal funds were authorized in both 1991 and 1998 with new and innovative financing tools and greater emphasis on planning, public participation, environmental impacts, and multi-modality. Following these new trends, the General Assembly passed the Public Private Transportation Act in 1995 that expanded the role of the private markets in transportation building in the Commonwealth.
Today, VDOT is a large organization, requiring lots of equipment and employees to maintain the third-largest number of road miles among the states - even though 35 states are larger than Virginia. Concentrating resources in the state organization, rather than fragmenting equipment and personnel across 95 county governments, provides greater flexibility for tackling individual problems in different areas. The tradeoff is that Southwest Virginia residents can complain that too much funding is going to Hampton Roads or Northern Virginia projects, while those wealthier regions complain that they are subsidizing development in rural areas with urban-derived income taxes. The usual political response is to increase funding for everyone, to mute the complaints for awhile.
VDOT does not make its construction decisions in a vacuum. The most important planning and project activity is the adoption of the Virginia Transportation Development Plan. Formerly known as the "Six-Year Improvement Program" ("Six Year Plan" was the short version... but you'll also see SYIP in the acronym-filled material about highways in Virginia), it determines what investments will be committed to highways, public transportation, airports and ports. The 2000 plan proposes spending $10 billion in transportation infrastructure, up from $7 billion in the previous Virginia Transportation Development Plan.
The General Assembly assumed new responsibilities in the Virginia Transportation Act of 2000. In that law, the legislators took away much of the discretion of the 1,100 individual projects approved by the Commonwealth Transportation Board, and established a Priority Transportation Fund to ensure certain projects in each of the 9 VDOT districts were funded.
The Commonwealth Transportation Board is appointed by the governor, and had been able to shift funding from planned projects without legislative oversight. Some highway improvements in the "Six Year Plan" languished for 10 or more years without receiving any funding, frustrating both advocates and opponents of specific projects and creating a perception that VDOT officials were saying one thing and doing another.
In Virginia, a huge increase of funding from the Virginia Transportation Act of 2000 triggered an anti-sprawl movement of environmentalists and civic activists complaining that too many transportation projects would ruin the quality of life and creating high-cost social burdens. Partly in response, proposed regional taxes to finance transportation projects in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads were rejected in special votes in November, 2002.
Business leaders, opinion makers such as the Washington Post, and politicians crafted an alternative five years later. The General Assembly passed House Bill 3202 (HB3202) in 2007. That law empowered the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA) and the Hampton Roads Transportation Authority (HRTA) to issue bonds based on new taxes that would be approved by local jurisdictions.
In an especially artful political maneuver, HB3202 allowed the City Councils/Boards of County Supervisors belonging to those two authorities to approve the new taxes, without a vote of the general public. This delegation of taxing authority eliminated the chance of a repeat of the 2002 defeat by the voters of bonds for regional transportation projects. A clue to the success of the maneuver: jurisdictions in Central Virginia near Richmond asked for an equivalent authority a year later, in the 2008 General Assembly.