Friday, June 10, 2005

Metro's $1 billion budget

On the heels of the recent Washington Post series detailing mismanagement at Metro comes the agency's budget proposal, which for the first time tops $1 billion, says today's Post.

The plan would at 25 buses and 62 rail cars to ease overcrowding. Local governments are being asked to pay $434.4 million, 8 percent higher than the current budget. No fare increase is included; Metro riders have seen fares rise twice in the past two years and they already pay two-thirds of the operating budget, according to the paper.

Fly Virginia

Air travel might not be the cure to Virginia's crowded roads, but it could sure provide some pain relief. At a recent three-day conference in Danville proponents of air travel described their vision. It's called SATS, which stands for Small Aircraft Transportation System, would use many of the nation's 3,500 small and underused airports to carry passengers to destinations too far from major airports.

You could go when you want, where you want. A Daily Press editorial calls it "a safe, affordable and viable alternative to driving or flying a commercial airline, an alternative that would free us from the delays and constraints of other modes of travel."

Thursday, June 09, 2005

HOT Ideas for Crowded I-95

Now come more details of two PPTA proposals to build HOT (high-occupancy toll) lanes down the congested I-95 corridor. One comes from a team led by Clark Construction and Shirley Contracting, the second is led by Fluor Enterprises. Both proposals come with price tags close to $1 billion but use no public funding, according to a report.

The proposals would convert and extend existing HOV lanes farther south; tolls would be collected electronically and rise or fall depending on demand. HOV-3 vehicles and buses would still travel free. There are multimodal elements as well - the Clark plan includes funding for more Virginia Railway Express rail cars and expanded bus and van pool service. Fluor's plan would add BRT (bus rapid transit) service.

An advisory panel will hold its first of four meetings on the project on July 12 in Stafford County. The I-95 corridor clearly needs help - is a toll-funded road the right answer?

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Kudos to the Intelligent Transportation Society of Virginia

I had the good fortune to deliver the banquet address last night to the Intelligent Transportation Society of Virginia. ITSVA represents a cross section of entrepreneurs, consultants, engineering firms, VDOT officials and state planners who advocate a variety of technology-based solutions to Virginia's traffic congestion problems. The members I chatted with were a fount of enthusiasm and creative thinking. These people believe passionately in their alternative vision for Virginia's transportation future.

So many fresh ideas are bubbling out of this group that I can't do justice to them all. But just for starters.... HOT lanes. Congestion pricing. Traffic light sequencing. Rapid response to clear wrecks off the road. Delivery of real-time traffic information to motorists.

Gregory Pieper, a principal in SmarTek Systems, a developer of traffic sensors, sketched out a remarkable vision for the future--a vision he's dedicated the last 10 years of his life to. Just imagine: Automobile dashboards embedded with display panels that map the driver's destination. Oooh, those already exist. Just imagine cars equipped with GPS data, showing their exact location on the map. Oooh, those exist, too. Just imagine traffic sensors lining Virginia's highways that track real-time traffic speeds. Oh, yeah, those exist, too. We're only a few steps away from being able to deliver real-time traffic information directly to people in their cars that show them traffic conditions on the route they're planning to take. If we had traffic sensors embedded along all major thoroughfares (at least those suffering from periodic congestion), motorists would be able to reschedule their trips or plot different routes, shifting demand spatially and temporally away from the congestion.

How much would this cost? I don't know, but with the cost of constructing Interstate highway running $30 million per mile, or more, I think you could make the case that traffic sensors could offer a lot more congestion-mitigation per buck. I feel confident that Bacon's Rebellion will be sharing more ideas from ITSVA members in the future.

Is Metrorail Worth the Money?

The Washington Post's four-part series on Metro ends today with a lengthy detailing of some of Metro's missteps in money management, describing an agency "with inconsistent spending priorities, an uneven record of cost containment and a board of directors that sometimes makes political decisions that drive up costs."

How well Metro is managed is especially key now - the agency wants $1.5 billion in federal funds and permanent funding sources such as a regional tax, the paper says, noting that the request for additional money comes on top of $1.8 billion in "emergency" funding the agency recently received from state and local governments to maintain the system.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Virginia Beach's BRT experiment

In two years Virginia Beach will unveil a new bus rapid transit system - six miles of dedicated lanes, 31 stops and 18 extra-large buses - that will replace the city's existing trolley service, says today's Virginian-Pilot. The new transit system will connect the oceanfront to the city's new $200 million convention center, and have stops at the Lynnhaven Mall and the Virginia Beach Town Center.

The city's consultant thinks the system, if it runs year round, could nearly double the ridership of the trolley system, which runs from May to September and carries about 421,000 people a year.

Backers of bus rapid transit are still pushing it as an alternative to the planned extension of Metrorail to Dulles. Bill Vincent of Breakthrough Technologies, a nonprofit that backs BRT, says it would work better than light rail in congested Tysons Corner. "We have a problem that is beyond Metro's ability to solve," said Vincent at a recent community meeting in McLean.

Transporting the Handicapped

The Washington Post's four-part examination of the Washington region's METRO system continues today with a close-up look at the MetroAccess service for the disabled. The METRO contracts with a third-party provider, LogistiCare, to transport the disabled to work. The program maintains a fleet of 176 vehicles, and relies upon taxi service for overflow.

According to the Post, "The agency pays LogistiCare $23.22 for each MetroAccess trip, and the passenger pays $2.50. METRO underwrites the service with tax dollars and revenue from bus and rail fares. MetroAccess's annual budget of $51.7 million has nearly tripled since 2000, when fares were cut and demand began to skyrocket."

METRO has paid LogistiCare $2.7 million in bonuses since 2000, despite the fact that its drivers failed to pick up scheduled passengers 5,500 times in the first half of 2004 alone.

High-density Blues in Woodbridge

Is Prince William County's road and rail system too crowded to support even transit-friendly high-density projects? Some critics think so, says today's Washington Post.

Rossyln-based IDI Group wants to build three condominium projects on Route 1 in Woodbridge near the Occoquan River in eastern Prince William - but critics say the project, called Rivergate, would just dump more traffic onto Interstate 95, and that the Virginia Railway Express is already at capacity. The project includes a shuttle service to VRE.

"Everybody's stuck in traffic. That's going to be the pattern for decades to come," county Supervisor Corey A. Stewart told the Post. The county rejected a similar project from developer Til Hazel three months ago.

IDI Group representatives suggested that more traffic from Rivergate and other new projects nearby might be a good thing - because it would raise the pressure to improve Route 1. "What it offers is a base for an upgrade," said IDI lawyer Michael Lubeley.

Monday, June 06, 2005

Regional Rigor Mortis

The 2005 Urban Mobility report confirms what we all know: Traffic congestion is steadily getting worse, says EM Risse in today's column published in Bacon's Rebellion. Risse worries that Virginia's transportation infrastructure is heading toward "regional rigor mortis," or systemic failure, with the Mainstream Media cheerleading the forces that are driving the system to ruin. Writes Risse:

The first page of the TTI summary notes that there are three things that will improve mobility: expand facility capacity, improve system management and change travel demand. The media coverage focuses on the first two. Almost all the quotes are from those who are paid directly or indirectly to expand or manage transport facilities. In other words the media quotes those who get paid directly or indirectly by “autonomobility” advocates.

The media coverage acknowledges the need for “land-use planning” but not Fundamental Change in the pattern of trip origins and destinations or balancing travel demand with transport system capacity, much less the imperative of creating Balanced Communities in sustainable New Urban Regions.

Hopefully, Bacon's Rebellion's "Road to Ruin" project will provide the editorial balance that has been lacking so far in Virginia.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Metro

Washington's 29-year-old Metro system is deteriorating due to mismanagement, says The Washington Post, which has begun detailing the decline in a four-part series that started today.

The 106-mile subway system is still popular - ridership is up 18 percent since 2000, the paper reports. But delays have doubled in the same period delays are up 64 percent in three years. What's at stake? "In a region with some of the worst traffic in the country, access to reliable mass transit could determine whether the area continues to attract businesses and residents."

Metro is planning a 23-mile extension to Dulles International Airport.

VDOT After Shucet

Outgoing VDOT Commissioner Philip A. Shucet did such a great job of turning around the chronically mismanaged agency, according to today's glowing editorial in The Washington Post, that he has "taken from the politicians a convenient excuse for not providing the road-building funds Virginia needs."

Shucet is "an exceptional pro," the paper says, with a no-nonsense approach that helped show VDOT how to be on time and on budget. "VDOT is up to the job," the Post says. "Whether the same can be said for the state's political class is less clear."

Well, maybe. Shucet undeniably has improved VDOT's performance. But his exit begs the question: has VDOT really turned the corner? Will his changes outlast him, or will the old VDOT culture reassert itself?

Shucet's replacement - appointed last week by Gov. Mark Warner - is 17-year VDOT veteran Gregory A. Whirley, who will take over as interim commissioner on July 1. Whirley has been inspector general of the agency since 2000, and reportedly plans to reclaim that job when Warner leaves office in January.