Friday, June 17, 2005

The Six-Year Transportation Plan: Where the Rubber Meets the Road

The VTrans2025 transportation vision for the next 20 years paid hommage to a broad range of transportation strategies: harmonizing transportation and land use planning, applying information technologies to improve operational efficiencies of existing assets, encouraging shared ridership and otherwise managing demand. Now comes the Commonwealth's latest Six-Year transportation plan, in which we can see that all the discussion of alternatives was nothing more than lip service.

According to an Associated Press story, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a plan Thursday to spend $9.4 billion on highways, rail and public transportation projects over six years. Sayeth the AP:

The bulk of the spending--$7 billion--will be for 2,029 highway projects, including 103 new ones. The six-year plan also allocates $1.5 billion for rail and public transportation and $900 million, more than half of it federal dollars, for the Dulles Corridor Metrorail Project.

The plan does represent an improvement over previous plans in at least one regard: It is fiscally responsible, based upon realistic revenue projections -- not the kind of fantasy projections that prevailed under the Gilmore administration. Also noteworthy: The plan includes $247 million to pay off deficits on completed projects, another legacy of the Gilmore years.

But virtually the entire capital spending plan will go to new road and mass transit projects. The pittance not dedicated to roads and rail, says the AP, goes to "safety and enhancement projects, signs, guardrails and other improvements that do not have construction phases." VDOT has posted a detailed listing of the projects here. I haven't been able to scroll through all 203 pages to see if any money will be spent on coordination with local land use planners, traffic modeling systems, traffic light synchronization, ramp metering, expansion of the incident management system, tele-work, demand management, ride sharing or other alternative strategies, but my hunch is that there's nothing more than crumbs.

I'm happy for someone to disabuse me of the notion--indeed, I hope someone does--but this plan looks like a complete and total victory of the big construction lobbies.

The Poor: Let Them Live Elsewhere

The developers of Washington, D.C.'s Watergate apartment complex now propose to build three condominium high-rise buildings with a total of 720 units on the waterfront of the Occoquan River. According to an editorial in today's Manassas Journal Messenger, the location would be well served by transportation infrastructure.

Considering the county's problems with sprawl, our leaders need to seriously consider building up, instead of building out. The only places to build up, are near transportation hubs. This is such a place.

... When it comes to infrastructure, this property is not only served by Virginia Railway Express, HOV and the I-95/Va. 123 interchange, it is practically on top of a large commuter lot that we pay for, yet no one uses. Plus, Fort Belvoir, and yes, Woodbridge are next in line for Metro expansion. Making the correct decisions when it comes to developing along U.S. 1 is key to Metro's migration south. If the county worked with the developer, there's a good chance it could come away with some lucrative transportation concessions.

It goes without saying that the project faces opposition. Supervisor Corey Stewart, R-Occoquan, fears an influx of "low income" residents. The county, he says, should focus on adding office space and employment centers. With attitudes like that, no wonder housing is so unaffordable in Northern Virginia, and no wonder developers are moving deeper into Virginia's rural hinterlands to find developable land--and more congenial local governments--to build houses that people can afford. If the ensuing long-range commutes add to gridlock on I-95, that's the state's problem, right? Mr. Stewart can always blame the stingey politicians in Richmond for refusing to cough up more bucks to widen more miles of Interstate.

Fortunately, there are indications that other supervisors -- including Chairman Sean Connaughton, back from the campaign trail after his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor -- see the value of permitting denser, more compact development in areas well served by existing infrastructure.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Around Virginia

From today's newspaper coverage:

Virginian-Pilot columnist Kerry Dougherty blasts Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel Commission members for travel spending. She calls them "sugar-addicted kids with an endless supply of Oreos."

Converting old buildings into condos and apartments brings new life to downtown, says The Roanoke Times.

More state money may mean the return of bus service between Chesterfield County and Richmond.

Orange County wants to retool its comprehensive plan before it votes on a major development proposal.

A proposed $35 million condo, office and retail project
is "a terrific idea" for anchoring downtown Suffolk, says city leader.

Caroline County planners reject a proposed 510-home mixed-use project, saying they don't have the road capacity or enough water/sewer service.

Hampton Roads' MPO says it needs $275 million a year in new taxes and tolls or it will have to shelve a half-dozen major projects, including the Third Crossing.

State's Six-Year Plan gains from this year's transportation package but future is still dim, warns Commissioner Philip Shucet.

Warrenton developer files suit, accuses water authority of "anti-growth tactics."

Three Northern Virginia supervisors say their region is penalized by state government for its economic success.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Speaker Howell Urges Free-Market Solutions to State Transportation Woes  

From the Bacon's Rebellion News Service...

by Bob Burke

The 70 or so business types that gathered in a Holiday Inn Select conference room in Fredericksburg Tuesday morning didn’t appear to need a pep-talk on the power of free markets. But Bill Howell gave them one anyway.

During a two-hour face-off against advocates of spending billions more in state funds on transportation, the speaker of Virginia’s House of Delegates rejected any talk of raising the state’s gasoline tax. Instead, he called for more public-private partnerships, more toll roads and maybe even selling off some of the state’s major road infrastructure to raise money.

Government needs to question “what it does, why it does it and how it does it,” Howell said. “History has demonstrated time and time again that market forces work” in key infrastructure, such as telecommunications. “Why not highways, bridges and tunnels? I want to make free markets in general, and public-private partnerships in particular, a much bigger part of Virginia’s transportation future.” More.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

The Quiet Zoning Revolution

Bedford County is the latest Virginia locality to revisit its zoning regulations to make it easier for developers to design new communities according to the tenets of traditional neighborhood development. A new "planning development" zoning district will encourage sidewalks, street lamps and houses on small lots.

Developers still will have to go through the rezoning process to gain the PD-1 designation, but having a set of pre-approved zoning standards should make the job easier. According to Lynchburg's News & Advance, the first applicant for the PD-1 classification probably will be George Aznavorian, who wants to build a mixed use development in Moneta, at Smith Mountain Lake. Sayeth the News & Advance:

"It promotes pedestrian-friendly community," Aznavorian said of the new zoning district. Existing zoning wouldn't allow for the relatively small, roughly 5,000-square-foot lots that are planned for much of the Moneta development, he said.

Bedford is only one of many Virginia localities to revamp their zoning codes to encourage neo-traditional town development. Such development is much more compact and cost-efficient than scattered, disconnected, low-density sprawl development. Neo-traditional development also cuts down on traffic trips as residents find it easier to walk or ride their bikes for a number of errands, or, when they do drive, drive shorter distances to reach their destinations. The trick for planners is to discourage developers from putting neo-traditional developments in the wrong places -- in locations where they stress the regional transportation network -- or, if they do, to make sure developers pay their fair share of upgrading that network.

Botetourt & Bedford Go Traditional

The 'traditional' style neighborhood development of sidewalks and streetlights has gained some ground. County supervisors in Bedford unanimously backed a new 'planned community' zoning district, and a developer is waiting in the wings to use it, says the Lynchburg News & Advance.

Developer George Aznavorian is planning a project with a residential area dubbed "Mayberry Hills" and a commercial sector called “Downtown Moneta at Smith Mountain Lake.” Aznavorian told the paper the new zoning district "promotes a pedestrian-friendly community."

And planners in Botetourt County just to the west have OK'd a project that would be the county's first traditional neighborhood development. The Daleville Town Center - a mix of houses and up to 400,000 square feet of commercial space - is "the right development in the right place at the right time," one planning commissioner told the Roanoke Times. "It will make Daleville a destination."

Monday, June 13, 2005

An Expressway to Wal-Mart

Whitt Clement's point about the disconnect between local land-use decisions and roads (see Jim Bacon's post below) is underscored in Newport News, where local officials want to put a traffic light on a four-mile limited-access expressway built between the city and Norfolk. See this Daily Press story. The road was built to relieve traffic but the traffic light would serve a proposed Wal-Mart.

"Putting a Wal-Mart there certainly doesn't fall into my definition of limited access," Del. Phil Hamilton, R-Newport News, told the paper. "That's part of where citizens are getting frustrated. The city built a road to move traffic and now they're talking about a development that is only going to intensify traffic."

Clement's point that localities give "insufficient consideration" to how much roads cost when they make land-use decisions could be countered that the state gives insufficient funds to localities to cover their obligations - the biggest being public education. I doubt Newport News officials enjoy making bad traffic - they're just trying to pay their bills.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Clement Gets It

Whitt Clement, having recently resigned as the Warner administration's Secretary of Transportation, also contributed an op-ed piece in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch. No other state transportation secretary has argued so forcefully for tying transportation planning to land use planning. Sayeth Clement:

The Commonwealth has been handicapped for years by the fact that land use decisions are almost exclusively the prerogative of local governments. In making their zoning and other land-use decisions, many local governments give insufficient consideration to the availability of resources to build the transportation infrastructure necessary to support those decisions; instead they have looked to the state, which has traditionally borne those transportation costs.

Clement never could translate this insight into tangible policy recommendations -- the forces of inertia were too overwhelming. But at least he achieved a level of understanding more advanced than that of his predecessors. That's a sign of progress of sorts. Let's hope he speaks out at the transportation summit on June 17.

Also worth reading in the T-D, Jerry McCarthy's piece on transportation. McCarthy, who serves on the Commonwealth Transportation Board, doesn't see the solution of Richmond's transportation woes soley on the revenue side of the equation. "Unless something is done both to control costs and to optimize the use of limited increases in revenues," he warns, "the prognosis for the future of transportation in the Richmond region is for more congestion, gridlock, air pollution and diminished quality of life." (My italics.)

A Question for Gov. Baliles

Former Gov. Gerald Baliles has given more thought to transportation issues than any Virginia's governor in the modern era. As the architect of Virginia's 1986 transportation funding structure, he speaks with authority. In this morning's Richmond Times-Dispatch, Baliles notes that Virginia's roads are bad. Twenty-seven percent of the state's major roads are rated either poor or mediocre in condition, he says, and the maintenance budget is gobbling the transportation budget. Within a few years, there will be no state funds for new road construction.

Highlighting the warning signs in the Richmond region, Baliles wrote:

Recent data demonstrate that during the past dozen years the Richmond region's consumption of land for development and vehicle miles traveled are now greater per capita than any other region of the Commonwealth. For example, from 1982-2001, while the Richmond region's population increased 42 percent, vehicle miles traveled jumped more than 98 percent.

Here's the question I would respectfully ask the Governor to ponder: Why is Richmond consuming land at a faster rate than Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads? Why is Vehicle Miles Traveled accelerating? Could there be any connection between those two trends and the regional road-building strategy of the past two decades?

Here's how I would answer the question: Richmond got out way ahead of the curve in building roads -- completing Interstate 295 roughly a decade ago, and the rest of the circumferential highway (Route 288 and the Pocahontas Parkway) in the past year or two. Patterns of development promptly changed; building clustered around the interchanges and the thoroughfares they served -- massively expanding the outer reaches of Richmond's suburban periphery. A handful of projects were well planned, mixed use projects, but most of the development was scattered, disconnected and land intensive -- what we commonly call sprawl. With development splattered all over, citizens found themselves driving greater distances to get places -- hence, the increase in vehicle miles traveled -- and increasing traffic congestion.

The situation is getting bad enough that civic and political leaders are gathering in a Richmond Regional Transportation SUmmit on June 17 to decide how to deal with the region's transportation challenges. Gov. Baliles did not say in his column exactly what he proposes, but he hinted that the answer may be finding more revenues to build more roads. "One thing is certain," he wrote: "An area ... that ignores addressing investment needs in transportation, that proposes to deny, defer, or distract rather than meet the needs head-on, will be an area that loses more than it wins."

I would add that a region that fails to heed the lessons of its very recent past also will be one that loses more than it wins.