Thursday, September 01, 2005

Angry About $3-per-Gallon Gasoline? Don't Blame the Oil Companies, Blame Our Transportation System

Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, $3-per-gallon gasoline has arrived in Virginia sooner than anyone anticipated. Only a year ago, I was beefing about $2-per-gallon gasoline and warning that "Virginians could be looking at $2.50-per gallon fuel in the not-too-distant future." At the time, I estimated, based on Department of Motor Vehicle statistics, that Virginians were spending about $10 billion annually on gasoline. Today, if this $3 price tag sticks, the number could rise to $15.1 billion a year (based on 2003 consumption figures).

Thanks to higher gas prices, Virginians are $5 billion poorer this year. As much as demogogues will blame everyone else -- OPEC, greedy oil companies, environmentalists, Hurricane Katrina, and George W. Bush, Halliburton and the war in Iraq -- we have brought much of this misery upon ourselves. As recently as 1982, Virginians consumed only 2.78 billion gallons of gasoline per year. By 2003, the number had risen to 5.04 billion. (See DMV stats.) Yes, some of that increase was due to population growth, but Virginians also are driving farther -- racking up roughly 70 percent more Vehicle Miles Driven per motorist.

Much -- not all, but much -- of that increased driving reflects changing commuting patterns and lifestyles built around our scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development -- a pattern of development subsidized and encouraged by a transportation policy that has channeled resources mainly into the construction of roads and highways. Even before Katrina, it was evident that the transportation system was imploding: The VTrans2025 study estimates that funding for Virginia's Business As Usual transportation policy will fall $108 billion short over the next 20 years -- an unaffordable gap.

Lawmakers are studying how to fund that immense shortfall. The fact of $3-per-gallon gasoline has registered upon their consciousness mainly as a political inconvenience: Virginians won't stand for another increase in the gas tax, so the politicians must find some other way of paying for all those roads and mass transit projects. (Former Gov. Gerald Baliles has floated an interesting proposal to raise $1 billion a year through Interstate tolls, as reported on this blog two days ago.)

I have yet to see an acknowledgement from anyone in power that our transportation system is broken. By VTrans2025's admission, we're facing a shortfall of $5.4 billion a year. And, on top of that, gasoline prices are costing Virginians another $5 billion a year -- an amount that will increase by another $1 billion with every 20-cent hike in the price of gasoline. Continued pursuit of our Business As Usual transportation policy is a sure-fire formula for empoverishing Virginia. Someone, please stop the madness!


At 9:57 AM, Blogger subpatre said...

Jim - as much as I'd like to agree with you --and I don't necessarily disagree-- making policy without data will end in disaster.

The gas shortage led to a 1980's price spike of about $2.30 per gallon (PDF) in real dollars. The big difference between 1980 and 2005 is personal income, which has tripled since that time.

Two implications come from this. On average, even $5 per gallon prices are affordable to most Americans; but the raised price will inflate all consumer goods. Some product prices are so dependent on transportation that they've doubled in the the past months.

The second question to ask is how much of our current prosperity is the result of increased transportation. This is critical data that is, as far as I can find, absolutely uncharted. Everyone knows the NoVa economic prosperity is very dependant on commuters, but how dependent is the question.

Saying that less driving and less petroleum usage is desirable is one thing; but blindly monkeying with the foundation of our economy is quite another.

At 1:15 PM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Subpatre, You are certainly right that the price hikes in gasoline aren't hurting us as badly today as they did back in the 1970s/80s. But they're still sucking $5 billion out of our pockets, and that ain't chump change.

As for your comment about "blindly monkeying with the foundation of our economy," I would argue that's what our legislators are currently doing. They're pouring billions of dollars into a transportation system -- and propose to pour billions more -- absolutely oblivious to the impact of their spending on the perpetuation of sprawl.

Lawmakers are largely blind to the vicious cycle: Sprawl feeds Vehicle Miles Driven; VMT drives transportation spending; and transportation stimulates more sprawl. Who are the monkeys -- the people who would perpetuate this system, or those who would change it?

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Steve Haner said...

Thanks Jim for firmly coming down and solving the chicken-egg dilemma. You blame the egg. If we hadn't built the roads they wouldn't be driving so much. You believe our transportation policy has suckered Virginians into buying giant SUV's, building McMansions in the suburburbs and driving their kids to the school bus stop and running the heaters even on a nice day -- not just the rainy ones.

Me -- I blame dirt cheap gas, gas that Subparte demonstrated got cheaper and cheaper compared to income growth. We've got change coming at us like a freight train now, and it will be interesting (and a bit frightening) to watch for the results. The economic pain of this sudden change is going to be real and deep.

In the TD a few days ago Hinckle blamed road builders for killing off the whipporwills -- and now you are going to blame them for $3 gas? There is a technical term for that -- demogogy. You can do better.

At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve Haner seems to understate or ignore the huge role that real estate developers play in most, if not all, of Virginia's problems. The issue is not "smart growth" versus "sprawl." The issue is that, in Virginia, a person can buy land for development and pass along the costs for public infrastructure to existing residents and businesses within a community. A certain well-known developer owns countless acres outside the Northern Virginia core. He wants taxpayers to build roads so that his land can be developed. Another almost-as-well-known developer owns fewer, but more costly, acres at Tysons Corner. He wants taxpayers and Dulles toll road users to build a Metrorail line so that his land can be redeveloped.
Why should taxpayers shell out one thin dime to build either the highways for Developer "A" or the subway for "Developer "B"? Let developers pay the full costs for all public infrastructure and they can build whatever they want, wherever they want, and whenever they want. Economically sound projects will be built and weak ones will not.

At 8:00 PM, Blogger Steve Haner said...

Anonymous: I've got big problems with proffers and impact fees, but talk to me about special taxing districts on some of those kinds of projects -- or the kind of port-and airport-related funding districts that Baliles is proposing -- and we may not be that far apart. The development coming along 288 could have been tapped just the way the development along 28 (and the Dulles Rail project) are paying a nice share of those costs.

What you and Jim ignore (and it especially galling with Jim) is the role our burstingly good economy is playing in this. It's hot as a pistol. People want houses, and they want shopping and amenities near the housing. They are coming whether we like it or not, and not building the roads or not expanding transit won't keep them away. I'm going to rename this "Road to Ruin" site to "Take Us Back, George III: We Don't Want Property Rights After All."

At 11:16 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

"Much -- not all, but much -- of that increased driving reflects changing commuting patterns and lifestyles built around our scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development..."

How much? that is the single question I keep asking and can't find an answer for that would support your position. The very best answer I have found is unsupported and comes from web sites of organizations that (apparently blindly) support your position. They estimate we might eventually achieve a 20% reduction in the otherwise projected increase. That won't be anywhere near enough to solve our currently existing problems.

A more likely answer is that a 10% increase in density results in a 0.7% decrease in traffic, and that pedestrian, transit, and bicycle frindly communities generate induced traffic in those areas, not reduced vehicular traffic.

A more likely answer is that there are many other factors that explain most of the incrase in VMT since 1982, not the least of which is exponentially better vehicles and including air conditioning.

For myself, I have lived in city, suburban, and rural areas,and my records show almost no increase in personal VMT. Could it be that much of the increase is really commercial VMT associated with our increased economy?

No one really knows, as far as I can tell.

Subpatre is right. We could very well reduce VMT and pay for it in reduced economic vitality. How is that better (or different) from a tax increase?

As far as proffers etc. the argument goes that homes costing less than $700,000 don't pay their own way. Based on that argument, my county has rejected plans to build several hundred $350,000 homes over the past five years. Those homes would now be valued at over $700,000, and the county is now losing money on every home they rejected.

Same goes for all the roads we "couldn't afford" to build. Now we are losing our shirt on them in the form of congestion costs.

Government needs to, and can afford to take a longer view on ROI, especially considering that WE KNOW we are going to have another 20 million people, and 2 million just in this area.

Besides, as Jim has already pointed out, many of the causes for increased VMT have played out. There is no reason to assume the $108 billion dollar figure is anywhere near correct. We have brought much of this misery on ourselves, by not setting the gas tax on dollars instead of gallons, and by allowing people with arguments like Jim's to back us into a corner by preventing us from building the roads we need at the time and then pointing at the backlog and saying, see, we can't afford it.


The reason lawmakers are blind to the visious cycle might be that no one has presented verifiable numeric evidence that it exists. Where are the numbers, Jim?

Sure, you can look on the web and there are dozens of sites and hundreds of people promoting positions similar to yours, almost verbatim, but there is not a number to be seen that supports the argument or the proposed solutions to "the problem".

We can blame this on "the developers" and demonize them, but who do they serve?


We can demonize the outsiders and newcomers, but someday we might want to move, and then they will be ...


We can claim the roads are for the developers, but the people who live in the houses and drive on the roads are...


We can claim we are trying to prevent all this for the common good, but the people who get hurt are...


We can blame Katrina, global warming, dysfunctional settlement patterns, lousy environmental stewardship, or any number of things for current conditions on the gulf, but regardless of what happened or what might have happened, the people who are going to pay for it is ....


If you think proffers, or tolls, or user fees are going to change that, then think again.

At 5:10 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Yikes! So many comments, so much confusion. Where do I begin?

Steve: I do not blame road builders for higher gas prices, nor do I ascribe to many of the statements that you pin on me. You know that you're engaging in hyperbole, and I know it, but other readers may not know it. My argument boils down to this: Our transportation policies have aided and abetted scattered, disconnected, low-density development, which, in turn, has increased vehicle miles driven, which, in turn makes Virginians far more vulnerable to gas price hikes.

As for why gas prices are rising, there are many reasons. One is constricted refinery capacity in the United States, and restrictions on oil drilling. Another is rising worldwide demand for oil (led by the United States, but increasingly by China). Another is instability in other oil-producing regions. Insofar as sprawl is a national phenomenon, it is clearly one factor driving U.S. demand. But there are other factors, as I have always maintained: among them, increasing affluence and the changing nature of work, which increases the premium on personal mobility and dampens the demand for carpooling and mass transit. Furthermore, I totally agree that cheap gasoline creates its own demand. When gas is cheap, people treat it wastefully. None of these factors, which I readily acknowlege, affect my argument in any way.

The interesting problem, Steve and Ray, that you have created for yourselves into is that you've become dogmatic defenders of sprawl -- not just the low-density nature of development, but the scattered, leap-frog and disconnected aspects of it. There are good examples of low/medium density development (like Reston) and bad examples (most everything else, excepting only a few planned communities). Reston offered a balanced, well integrated mix of residential, commercial, retail and amenities at a neighborhood level and a "town" level. But most development doesn't look like Reston. By reacting against those who would reform land use and transportation, you indiscriminately apologize for all forms of development, no matter how atrocious. You admit no possibility for reform; you simply try to debunk those who seek a better way.

Ray, You raise a semi-legitimate point about the lack of metrics. You're quite right, there is no way to "prove" many of my propositions because the metrics simply do not exist. Whether sprawl accounts for 20 percent of the increase in Vehicle Miles Driven per person or 80 percent, I cannot say. I would simply argue that it accounts for "a lot."

You seem to take an interesing position. If the metrics don't exist, Bacon's arguments can't be proven. If Bacon's arguments can't be proven, they're wrong -- but yours are right, even though you can't prove yours either. Furthermore, you argue, if land use reform won't solve ALL our transportation problems, it's not worth pursuing at all. By your own admission, dysfunctional land uses could well account for 20 percent. Is that not worth pursuing as part of a larger transportation solution? If you buy the VTrans2025 argument that Virginia is facing a $5 billion-a-year shortfall, wouldn't it be better to reform land use and, thus, have only a $4 billion-a-year shortfall? Is saving a billion dollars a year not worth something?

At 11:26 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

What I said was that the most optomistic numbers I could find were 20%, and they come from websites run by people who think as you do. More realistically, most experts who have looked at this claim there are many drivers for increased VMT and the likely gain from increased density is from very low to none.

Even if the reduction in the otherwise projected traffic increase is as high as 20%, that in no way translates to a 20% reduction in needed road expenditures, many of which are a result of deferred building. It only means that the need for truly new roads might eventually be that much less.

Let's say that $108 Billion over 20 years is only half of that, so instead of $5 billion a year we are looking at 2.5B. Of that amount half of it is for deferred projects we should already have paid for, so we are looking at 1.2B in new projects and you might, if your numbers are correct save 20% of that over 20 years, but at what cost?

We agree you can't promote more dense development by fiat. There is no reason for people to voluntarily live in places they perceive as more expensive and less desirable. It is going to take big incentives to make people want to live in places that are currently more expensive, dirty, noisy, unsafe, and small. Your 0.25B savings will vanish in a heartbeat.

If the most optomistic conceivable numbers won't fly, then it doesn't matter whether the most pessimistic numbers are right or wrong.

I'm not defending sprawl. I think it is as ugly as the next person. However, I don't believe that sprawl is responsible for much if any of our increase in VMT, nor do I believe that increasing density will reduce VMT. There are no numbers that support either idea.

I see nothing wrong with preferring infill to greenfield development, but that is not going to either save open space or solve our traffic problems. Remember, when Reston was built people laughed because it was so far in the boonies.

I think nattering about the scattered leapfrog aspects of development is symptomatic of wanting to control other peoples decisions in favor of what you percieve as the correct social ROI. Even if I prefer infill to greenfield development, if the guy who owns the infill wants to hold out for a better price or more new urbanist development opportunity, and the guy who owns the greenfield needs to get out and retire, then who am I to say they should not be able to do that?

I don't have the metrics to argue otherwise. That is why making policy without good solid data will end in disaster. It might end in a disaster anyway, but at least with metrics you have plausible deniability.

That is why I don't need the metrics to point out that your idea is unsupportable, even though I like the idea.

At some point those who choose to live in Jepip have made a rational decision based on the trade offs between transportation costs and living expenses. The metrics they based their decision on might change, but that doesn't mean the decision they made was wrong, just that it turned out badly. Well, we think people should be accountable for their own expenses. No one is stopping them from building a solar house in town and investing their money in oil stocks.

I'm not willing to stand up for a policy that proposes to protect them from their own folly, especially if that policy has no basis in fact. What if my policy is wrong? Would I rather have them vulnerable to their own bad decisions or do I want to take responsibility for them in case my decision is bad?

If people want to ride mass transit and pay for it, that is OK with me, but I don't forsee many people lining up to pay $21 bucks for a VRE ticket. I don't see many people lining up to pay extra for a home near VRE so they can have the privilege of paying more to travel slower, and less comfortably. No one is stopping anyone from carpooling.

The only reason for increasing density is to create a de facto subsidy for mass transit. That idea is based on the warm fuzzy feeling that auto use is necessarily bad. It might well be, but we don;t have the metrics to decide which is worse, and certainly not to make policy.

The very best we can do is to rely on a sort of Delphi process where each person makes his decisons based on his observation of how other decisions have turned out. That way we have millions of minds focused on one goal: what do I think is best?

I think we call that Delphi process a free market.

At 9:01 PM, Blogger no display name said...

Ray -- good points. The real problem is counties that are so anti-housing that they require completely unrealistic densities. This makes land more scarce, drives up the cost of housing, and conributes to sprawl. Just look at places like Loudon County and the crazy densities they have approved. Higher densities would allow the free market to set the pace of development. Developers will build not mroe than the market demands, but they will meet market demand. If the demand in a given county is for 1000 new homes, would it not be better if they were built on 300 acres than 5000 acres? You can put the homes on 1/4 acre lots and have spece for roads etc. Even throw in 50 acres of open space. Thats 350 acres, whereas five acre lots like some counties want would take 5000 acres for the homes plus whatever for streets.

At 12:45 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

The most atrocious forms of development we have are caused by laws intended to prevent development, primarily by making it prohibitively expensive. As EMR has pointed out no one wants a home built anywhere near them that costs less than theirs.

Instead of preventing development or allowing development we might actually want to live with, these rules have changed the game so that only developers can play. We are playing into the hands of developers by trying to prevent development, and they are laughing all the way to the bank.

I'm not opposed to higher density. But I don't think it should be either mandated or prohibited.

Surely we can't afford to subsidise higher density. If You think sprawl is expensive, try subsidising density. Of course the other option is creating density by some forn of coercion.

I don't think we should fabricate out of thin air a bogus plan to reduce automobile use ( a value judgement positive) by artificially creating (we don't know how) a de facto subsidy in the form of higher density for mass transit (or private highway) interests, sold under the unproven premise that it will save us money, reduce congestion, give us more travel options (which we apparently don't want), improve our health, lower our taxes, and generally solve all our problems. This is snake oil elixer of the first order.

Furthermore, if the real underlying motive for such a plan is to preserve open space, then the best thing you can say about it ( aside from it won't work) is that it is dishonest.

In this weeks local paper was a story about a man who wanted to find a home in the county for his son and daughter-in-law. This county is only 2% developed, has thousands of acres under conservation easement, and tens of thousands of acres of undeveloped land. Yet the powers that be have so restricted lot availability that they are not to be had for under $300,000.

If you have a lot, the other building restrictions are so onerous that building is effectively prohibited, yet PEC says this has nothing to do with the price of housing.

The man in the story finally elected to put a second home on his lot: a "by right" allowance under his circumstances. Under the rules that home is restricted to 2000 sq. ft., modest by any standards and smaller than your average Habitat home. But there was a hitch. Under the rules the home may only be occupied by three family members. The man's son had a child, and twins on the way.

The solution was for the man to move into the smaller home and let his son have the main house. Here we have a rule, that is forcing a man out of his own home.

That plan was in the works until the neighbors complained, at which point the county put the man's application on hold until public hearings can be held.

Meanwhile, the twins are on the way.

If I was that man's neighbors I would be mortified to have that story published. I'd be ashamed to think that my neighbors knew I wanted to prevent another neighbor from providing a home for his son's family.

The story, frankly, made me want to throw up.

I'm in the same boat. My mom needs a retirement home, which I could easily provide. I've got the space and the money to put up a one level home where she could be close by. I'd even be willing to put up a modular and move it after she passes away.

But there is no point in even asking the fatheads that run this county because they have a one track mind when it comes to preventing housing or minimizing density if they can't prevent it, unless it is in the service districts which have no land and no services.

My mom is effectively trapped on the ground floor of my sisters town home, because she can't navigate stairs. That is one of the problems with quarter acre lots in our aging society.

We don't have the foggiest idea of the pain our rules cause: my mom lives in New Hampshire. How do you suppose she fits into the county land use plan?

Once, I wanted to add a room to the tenant house on the farm to use as an office, before we moved to "the big house". The county told me it would count as a bedroom and I would have to add on to the septic field in order to build it.

"What", I said, "we are still only two people, we are not going to poop any more."

No dice.

So I went to see about adding on to the septic field. The water and sewer authority told me I couldn't add on to my septic field because the ground didn't drain well enough. Now, I've got 170 acres, surely I can find some place that will drain, but the answer was an unequivocable, NO. Don't even bother hiring a soil scientist, I was told.

The tenant house is almost two hundred years old. Where do they think all that poop went?

The tenant house also had a pond, that had silted in over the years, and I wanted to dig it out. When I went to the appropriate agency for a permit, guess what? I can't put in a pond because my soil drains too fast.

These regulations are supposedly put in place to save the county money: for the public benefit.

Then we wonder why housing prices are through the roof and developers build only what we hate. Well, it turns out we have a system that promotes urban sprawl, suburban sprawl, and rural sprawl, primarily because you can't do anything most anywhere, particularly if you are in a homeowner's association, because your neighbors might object.

Forgive me for not being politically correct, and for not being more caring about the common good, or the public benefit, but I don't give a flying fig, primarily because my neighbors can't agree on what that the public good is, unless it affects them directly - NIMBY.

The one thing we hate more than sprawl is density, even if it is miniscule.

So we eventually come back around to that tired old circular argument: if we build roads it induces sprawl, sprawl causes more driving, and more driving means we need more roads, and roads are going to bankrupt us, even though we use roads primarily to make money.

It turns out that researchers have tried to examine the effect of housing patterns on road use. This is a very difficult problem, because you have to subtract out every other confounding factor that might be related to housing patterns, like economic standing.

One fascinating finding is that there is a high correlation between VMT and number of children in the family. Two year olds don't drive, but they still need to go places. Families with children are less likely to live in town, so if you believe that reducing driving is a good thing by itself, all you have to do is make cities more child friendly.

That ought to be a piece of cake and dirt cheap compared to building roads.

Another study was examining the idea that building roads increases VMT. Lo and behold, that turns out to be true. Big surprise: isn't that why we build roads? These investigators used a technique to model shifting the time the road was built fore and aft in time. What they found was that they could not determine whether the roads induced new traffic or whether the planners had accurately predicted the need for new roads.

They then took the hypothesis that roads cause more travel and tested it in urban areas ( how this was done is statisically beyond me). What they found was that reduced VMT in urban areas was associated primarily with insufficient space for roads. It was not a case that people had sufficient options locally to reduce travel, but that the cost was so high that they did without.

This can't be good for the economy or people's happiness. But, if you are willing to make the value judgement that conspicuous consumption, particularly in the case of cars is bad, then maybe you are willing to impose some policies or taxes to enforce your views.

I don't think we know enough about the social ROI to make such a judgement.

Finally, in spite of everything else, it turns out that the VMT per square mile is much higher in urban areas, which is why the price of travel there is so high. When ytou consider VMT per caqpita, and where the VMT occurs, the argument that scattered development causes VMT to rise falls flat on its face.

I've got maps of VMT by area for several cities, but I don't know how to publish them here. They are real eye openers.

One author went so far as to collect travel diaries from hundreds of citizens and relate them to their living choices. "Surprisingly the travel effects of any urban feature on driving habits at the margin are all but unknown." and "In addition to asserting that development patterns and densities affect how far, how often, and by what means people travel,urban disigners frequently argue that the legibility and sahpe of urban street patterns play a key role. ...Remarkably there is little theoretical and empirical support for these claims." " An analysis of travel diaries and land use in San Diego provides little role for land use in explaining travel behavior and no evidence that street network pattern affects short or long...distance travel behavior."

These quotes are from a paper entitled "Does Neighborhood design influence travle? Behavioral Analysis of Travel Diaries and GIS Data" The authors are from the dpeartment of Urban Planning and Economics at University of California, and the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University.

Despite such evidence, many urban areas are explicitly implementing land use and transportaton policies with the stated goals of reducing driving, congestion, sprawl, and improving air quality.

I'll say it again. I'm philosophically in favor of the value judgements behind these policies, but absent any evidence the policies will work, or if they work, that they will be cost effective, I cannot bring myself to intellectually support the policies.

At 12:56 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

In the interest of honesty, let me introduce a small disclaimer.

In the course of researching these arguments I did find evidence that supported the idea of induced travel. My considered opinion is that at least some of the evidence came from people who were not entirely neutral.

The figures ranged from induced travel form 10% to 100%. The most recent, best documented, and apparently least prejudiced ranged from 10% to 30%. Their conclusion was that new roadways then represented a net benefit on account of increased opportunityand mobility.

Even if you accept the arguments from those with a dog in the fight, the best you can say is that we don't yet know the answer, whith regard to this particular, which is a small part of the larger picture.

At 1:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ray Hyde - If we had a free market, your suggestion that we look into the mirror would be quite apt. But, at least in Fairfax County, we don't have a free market. Rather, we have taxpayer subsidized real estate development market. Developers and building owners don't pay their own marketing expenses as they do in most areas of the U.S. Fairfax County taxpayers fork over at least $6.8 M annually to fund the Economic Development Authority (EDA). The EDA's annual rent is more than $600 K for plush offices. The EDA's director tossed the County's program auditor out of the EDA's offices when the auditor had the nerve to request access to EDA records. The director told the auditor that the EDA was a private entity and, thus, exempt from County controls.
Fairfax County reluctantly admitted that taxpayers will have subsidized land development service and zoning fees by almost $33 million from fiscal 2003 through fiscal 2006. That's just about enough money to build two elementary schools in Fairfax County.
Developers and builders, which regularly pay per-house proffers of approximately $14,000 for schools in Loudon County, proffer only $7,000 per house in Fairfax County for schools. The developers and builders actually persuaded the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors to discount the target proffer to $7000 because many children have classes in trailers. Of course, the developers and builders pass along this discount to home buyers. Housing prices are cheaper in Fairfax than in Loudon -- right!
This is hardly a free market, so I suggest "we" are not necessarily the cause of the problems and that the developers are not just responding to market demand.
Moreover, these same developers are down in Richmond annually begging for tax increases. Fairfax County was screwed again by the so-called tax reform legislation. The staff of the Senate Finance Committee estimated that the net increase in taxes for Fairfax County for 2005 would be $107,883,350. Fairfax County Schools staff determined that FCPS received exactly $13 M in new money for 2005. All other increases in state aid for education for FCPS would have occurred without the tax changes. We got a great return on our investments.
Steve Haner - Special tax districts are unfair and designed to enrich certain property owners at the expense of others. For example, there are many commercial landowners in Fairfax County who have told me personally that they believe that they are paying higher real estate taxes to support rail to Tysons in order to generate a financial windfall for Developer "B." I think that many of them believe that they live in an Animal Farm world where some property rights are more important than others. If this is not true, why is the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce losing members because business owners believe the Chamber is simply a shill for certain favored landowners?

At 6:25 PM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

VDOT’s objectives for the Commonwealth’s transportation program

The allocation formula drives all VDOTs investment decisions. The straitjacket on transportation investment created by the allocation formula has not been recognized by any of the elected officials. Some do recognize the "pork" effect, but most do not see the problems that VMT investment criteria creates. Because lane mile costs are not constant, the allocation formula moves construction from areas of high congestion and high construction costs and rewards areas with lower construction costs with more lane miles. In areas where demand makes rail a more economic investment then highways, the allocation formula provides VDOT with an excuse for continuing to fund highways even when highway congestion creates a drag on the regions economy.

The best description I have found for VDOTS goal is a July 2005 Presentation to the CTB, these Goals were discussed for the 2007 6 year program:

Efficient movement of goods and services measured by LOS (traffic volume), Volume to Capacity ratio, Passenger Cars per lane per mile, access to other modes. Safety measured by Crash rate or Strategic or Emergency route designation. Business and employment opportunities measured by Local Unemployment rate or volume of heavy trucks. Quality of life and Environmental Impacts measured by environmental impacts and right of way impacts. Preserve the existing system measured by mainline adequacy, alternate modes, bridge conditions, and cost per vehicle mile traveled.

What is missing is the relationship of transportation to land use. All the emphasis is on miles traveled. No recognition that a shorter trip is a more economical trip. No recognition that at times of peak demand, rail is more economical than cars. No recognition that above a certain volume, rail is cheaper for freight than trucks. No recognition that the number of trucks does not reflect the value of moving goods.

You can discuss lack of metrics. But the real answer is to put VDOTs investment decisions on a return on investment basis. By return on investment, I look for minimizing transportation expense for the citizens of the commonwealth.

At 9:47 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...


You raise some interesting topics that I know nothing about. Shame on me because I own property in Fairfax.

I'd be interested to hear more.

At 10:17 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Jim Walmsley:

Good point about lane miles. there is an intersting factor here that is not often recognized. VDOT (and others) classify highways by the level of service they provide. Superhighways which offer high speed when they are not congested typically offer class A service. The grades go down with road class and traffic as speeds diminish.

But the maximum throughput on a road is around 30 mph. Because cars travel closer together at that speed, more cars go through the gate and the road support far more VMT because the increas in traffic more than offsets the decrease in speed.

Superhighways cost exponentially more than your typical two lane country road. I submit we could do a lot to improve traffic flow by building more low cost, low speed, two lane roads and fewer sexy superhighways.

The ideas are kind of jammed together, but I like your paragraph that bigins "Efficient movement of goods and services..."

One question is, how do we balance all those different metrics, if we ever have enough data to evaluate them.

As for rail, I don't believe it is ever more economical than cars. For freight in large volumes, maybe. but the problem is still the same for the last mile: trains don't go where you need them to, and not on your schedule.

Particularly with passenger rail, the cars tend to travel full in one direction and empty in the other, so your starting point is only 50% efficient. If VRE and Metro passengers had to pay their full costs, those systems would shut down tomorrow.

Sure, cars have large external costs. But people who have studied this find that even considering all the external costs, car users pay more of their share of the ride than other modes.

When I was riding VRE, if I mised my train I would drive in. That trip was always faster and less expensive than taking the train. Even during rush hour, I could miss my train and stillarrive at the office a half hour sooner than if I had caught the train.

If current trends continue we are going to spend somthing like half of our transportation capital funds on rail that will transport, at most, ten percent of trips.

How is that cost effective?

I don;t see how you can calculate the ROI until you have the metrics to determine the costs and benefits. Right now, we don't even have adequate metrics for the most popular mode, auto use, let alone anything else.

Anyway, my comment on metrics above were restricted to measuring the theory that land use affects travel, destinations, or VMT. The references I provided suggest that, even though the idea is widely accepted, there is no measurable connection or relationship between land use and transportation.

All that said, I have the feeling, but no knowledge to support it, that your comments on funding allocation are spot on.

If you really want to minimize transportation expense, then what do you do about the Blue Ridge Parkway, which has llittle to do with transportation, and much to do with recreation. For many people travel is an enjoyable pursuit by itself. They may invent trips for the purpose of being able to travel. If we just minimize the cost of transportation we will have eliminated the public park aspect of our roadways.

We don't call them parkways for nothing.

At 10:25 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...


You hit the nail on the head with the comment that some property rights are mnore important (and valuable) than others.

Some people have actually suggested that we have two taxation systems: one to subsidise or encourage urban development and densiification, and an opposite system to discourage the same in other places.

It really is an animal farm world, and it is not just commercial interests in fairfax that are paying for a transit friendly financial windfall: Metro capital costs come fifty per cent from the feds, so every taxpayer is contributing to this worth cause, which otherwise wouldn't have a chance of succeeding financially on its own.

At 4:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ray Hyde asked for more information about certain Fairfax County issues. Put on your waders before you read this, as it includes direct quotes from Fairfax County officials.

Civic organizations asked the County why it uses taxpayer funds to subsidize real estate development service, including building permits, fees and zoning fees. The County had the following to say about real estate development fees, but did not explain why zoning fees are set below cost. The answer applies only to land development service fees.

"[T]he County does not aim to recover 100 percent of the costs to provide these services. The County's building code requirements are premised on protecting public safety, property values and the environment. Both the residential and commercial sectors are charged fees to recover some of the costs associated with the services provided by the County, but the greater County interest is in safety. In some cases, setting the fee too high would discourage individuals from applying for a permit and, therefore, potentially jeopardizing safety. This is particularly relevant in the case of the residential homeowner who may not apply for a permit for a new deck or a gas appliance that is being changed out because the permit fee is too high. In addition, as required by the Code of Virginia, the County's fees are written into the County Code. Administratively, this requires there to be some standardization of fee structure across project activities. As a result, given the unique characteristics of individual projects, the actual cost to the County for an individual project will be slightly higher or lower than the fee set. In the aggregate, however, the costs and revenues average out. Another complicating factor is that on the site side, cost recovery per project cannot exceed 100 percent by Code. Therefore, cost recovery on the more complex projects, which require more County involvement, will be less than 100 percent."

"From FY 1994 to FY 2005, a goal of 80 percent recovery was set by the Board of Supervisors. The Board of Supervisors recently endorsed a higher cost recovery of 90 percent."

The County's logic fails because it does not limit the discount to small projects, but rather, offers volume discounts on the already discounted fees for large projects. One could protect the safety issue by setting the fee for building permit for a small project below cost (to encourage do-it-yourselfers to obtain permits), but set the other fees at cost. Public safety issues could be addressed without multi-million dollar taxpayer subsidies. Of course, the very same County recently imposed fees of several hundreds of dollars for ambulance and paramedic runs.

Also, Fairfax County simply failed to explain why it continues year-after-year to set zoning fees below their cost. It's pretty darn hard to make a public safety argument for taxpayer subsidies for rezoning requests. Some of us believe that campaign contributions the our supervisors from developers and the construction industry might have something to do with the continuous taxpayer subsidies.

At 4:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here is some more information responding to Ray Hyde's concerns about federal taxpayer subsidies for Metrorail's extension.

The source is the Federal EIS as analyzed by a group of Fairfax County landowners who don't stand to benefit from the rezoning of Tysons Corner to the same extent of Developer "B."

Increase in modal share of passenger miles in Fairfax County from 1% overall to 2%

No affect on faster growing outlying counties of Prince William, Loudoun, Stafford

$100 million a year increase in tolls on the Toll Road (about $240 more per commuter)

Subsidies per new rider equal to gross annual income of poorest 20% of Fairfax County Residents

No congestion relief on any road in Northern Virginia

Spillover of failed freeways onto local arterials such as Rt 123, Lewinsville, 7

Depletion of highway budget: Dulles Rail will cost more than Springfield Bypass/Wilson Bridge put together

Will guarantee failure of ETL (HOT) lanes on I-495

Predictable increase in traffic: no developer has, or is likely to, build parking to less than code

Car density will average 2 per 1,000 s.f. of overall mix

Example: Lerner Hi-rise Condo at Tysons II 230 units, ranging from 2,500-5,800 square feet.
The developer wants $800 per square foot, so the price range is $2 million to $4 million a unit.
How many of these folks will be taking the Metro?

By 2025, Tysons/Dulles Corridor will have the unique disadvantage of:
Highest property taxes in Virginia (special tax district)
Only full-time tolled freeway in area, but money diverted to Metro, not highway improvements
Service Level “F” (failure) on every major freeway/arterial
Cost overruns and delays paid by taxpayers and toll payers (just like the Big Dig)

In the eyes of many elected officials, this is but a small price to pay so that Developer "B" and other Tysons landowners make billions. Incidentally, Gerry Connolly, Chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, works for one of the other major Tysons Corner landowners, SAIC.

You might want to drop the Governor and your US Senators a line, asking a few questions.

At 6:33 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...



Makes it pretty hard to come up with a social ROI to support rail transit.

Modal share increase from 1% to 2% and no congestion relief for any road in NOVA.

Is this great planning, or what?

At 1:13 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

When I built my house in Alexandria, it took me 18 months to get a building permit: they "lost" my drawings three times.

I'd hate to think there is some reason I have to pay 100% of the cost for that kind of inefficiency. If user fees are set that way, there will be no incentive for efficincy and a lot of incentive for waste.

At 2:41 PM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

Density functions are available.

One of the comments by Ray Hyde was: “[M]y comment on metrics above were restricted to measuring the theory that land use affects travel, destinations, or VMT. The references I provided suggest that, even though the idea is widely accepted, there is no measurable connection or relationship between land use and transportation.”

If we are going to get into the business of competing references, I go with the folks that loan you money.

Here is a web site that includes the “measured connection” between land use and transportation and a lot of other data on cost savings from urban density.

Public Transportation. Increasing housing density and neighborhood convenience shortens trips. More people choose to walk, bike or take transit. So most public transit is provided to such convenient, pedestrian-rich areas. Of course, some otherwise convenient neighborhoods located off transit corridors might lack great service. Or, low density neighborhoods located near a subway stop might have great service. But, with these few exceptions, superior transit service is normally provided to compact, convenient neighborhoods.

A bus every 30 minutes becomes feasible above 7 hh/res ac, and every 10 minutes at 15 hh/res ac. Light rail service is feasible above 9 hh/res ac. Rapid transit is feasible above 12 hh/res ac. Public transit use increases fourfold as density increases from 7 to 30 hh/res acre.

Calculations are based upon data developed for the Location Efficient Mortgage‚ studies of the Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco regions by the Institute for Location Efficiency (Natural Resources Defense Council, Center for Neighborhood Technology and Surface Transportation Policy Project). The nearly 3000 neighborhoods are the Metropolitan Planning Agencies’ (CATS, SCAG and MTC, respectively) travel analysis zones, generally a census tract or two. This analysis applies to neighborhoods in metropolitan areas or within commuting distance of major job centers, not to isolated rural towns. Location efficiency lowers auto costs and can qualify you for a Location Efficient Mortgage‚.

At 11:30 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Who is and what is their purpose?

When I look at that website, what I see is a bunch of calculations, which are apparently correct, so far as they go. But the underlying precept is that lowering land use, and auto use, and increasing density is necessarily good.

Mind you, I subscribe to those ideals, but I can't see that they are proven. I want to see a hypothesis, a test that the hypothesis is true, a test that it is false, and the results of the test.

When I look for a reference I try to avoid those that use value judgements as descriptors. Why is 240 empoyers per acre necessarily good? One stat noted that a community with 500 households per acre uses 171 gal per day and one with three households uses 1031. That 171 gallons all goes to the sewage treatment plant, whereas the 1031 gallons includes that used to water the flowers and corn, and maybe fill the pool, so it is hardly a rational comparison.

One thing the site does not do is cite the relative incomes of the neighborhoods it is comparing. I have lived in the city and in the country and in the burbs. My experience does not include a 10x difference in auto costs, as noted in the site.

I'm not impressed that a bus every half hour becomes feasible at over 7 houses per acre because I know that bus costs per passenger mile are similar to car costs and the trip is slower. My usual trip is on the order of a half hour, why would I want to wait a half hour to pay more for a slower trip, and run the risk of being accosted by bums?

As EMR would say, this is a site with a dog in the fight. That doesn't mean their figures are wrong, necessarily, but in this case they are very incomplete.

When I quote figures I try not to use such sources: ones that are inflammatory or prejudiced on either side. I try to use academic sources, usually published in peer reviewed journals.

On the page describing how the site and calculations were developed we find "This analysis was obviously assembled by people who love cities..."

I don't have anything against cites or those who choose to live there. I feel the same way about exurbanites.

However, to the best of my knowlege the connection between land use or street pattern and traffic congestion or pollution is not proven. I'll agree a shorter trip is a more economical trip, but most people measure their trips by time, not miles. A trip of the same time in town generates more pollution than a similar trip in the country, and puts that pollution where it is least wanted.

This is not an easy problem to solve, but just quoting dogma won't solve it.

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a regular reader and sorry if this has been covered, but thought you might be interested in TDM data compiled over at VTPI which looks at demand elasticities of driving


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