Saturday, June 25, 2005

Coalfields Highway Dealt Heavy Blow

The Federal Highway Administation is pulling the plug on the $3.8 billion Coalfields Expressway, a proposed four-lane highway that would run through Virginia's rugged and isolated coal-producing counties. The feds cited delays and escalating costs for the 51-mile project, which was estimated to cost $1.6 billion as recently as 2001. Backers of the project had looked to it as an economic lifeline for a region plagued by a shrinking population and the state's highest unemployment rates.

"I don't think it's dead," state Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. "But it's going to require a lot more private-sector ingenuity and creativity, and some kind of dedicated state or federal funding source to make it happen.... with a heavy emphasis on 'private sector.'"

With the price tag so high, it's time for coalfield leaders to let go. One way or another, local residents would end up paying for the lion's share of the cost of building the Expressway, which makes sense mainly as a tool to induce manufacturing operations to locate in the region. But such a hope looks less and less realistic as the U.S. manufacturing base continues to migrate offshore. Perhaps the region would be better considered to leap past the manufacturing stage of development all the way to the Knowledge Economy, connecting to the world with high-speed Internet access for a fraction of the cost.

Ireland didn't transform itself into one of the most prosperous, fastest-growing economies in Europe by investing in roads. Bangalore didn't make itself the high-tech capital of India by investing in roads. Perhaps SW Virginia would be better off investing in its telecommunications infrastructure and institutions of knowledge creation.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Kaine Transportation Plan a Huge Step Forward

Tim Kaine's transportation plan represents a revolutionary step forward in thinking about transportation policy in Virginia. Never before has a gubernatorial candidate so explicitly acknowledged the disconnect between transportation and land use planning as a fundamental cause of traffic congestion.

Kaine may or may not win in November. He may or may not govern according to the principles he has laid out in his plan. But the mere fact that he has articulated them injects into the mainstream ideas that previously had been the domain of university lectures, environmentalist wonkfests and cranky niche publications like Bacon's Rebellion. No longer can these important ideas be marginalized.

Says the Kaine plan:

For too long in Virginia, we have made transportation and development decisions separate from each other. We can all point to examples of new homes or shopping centers that were built on roads not ready to handle the traffic, or to new roads that seem oversized for their surroundings....

The inefficiency of the planning divide shows up in both directions—localities plan large developments near roads without the capacity to support them, then turn to the state for money to widen the roads; or the state approves roads that open unexpected areas to development, forcing localities to spend money on new schools and services. The result is not only that we develop in a way that affects our natural and historic resources, but that it actually costs more per person to move us around.

We can’t continue to do things the same way and expect them to turn out differently. It’s time for new thinking on transportation.

Is giving more power to Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) the best solution? Should metro areas establish regional plans? Should counties be given more control (like Arlington, Henrico and all cities have) over which projects are funded within their jurisdictions? I don't know the answers. But these are questions no one has been asking -- until now.

With Kaine's announcement the terms of the transportation debate are shifting dramatically. The genie is out of the lamp and can't be coaxed back in. Finally, Virginia will begin addressing issues that, before now, it has steadfastly ignored.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Environmentalists Line up Behind Kaine on Transportation

The Virginia League of Conservation Voters, the political arm of Virginia's environmental community, lost little time in praising Tim Kaine for the transportation plan he unveiled earlier today. (The VLCV's press release arrived in the Bacon's Rebellion e-mail in-box even before Kaine's!)

Said Executive Director Lisa Guthrie: “Tim Kaine’s plan to move Virginia beyond our failed efforts to build our way out of traffic with new bypasses is innovative and economically sound. As our elected officials begin to link land use and transportation planning, we will have healthier, more stable communities and more efficient use of taxpayer dollars.”

Also, said Guthrie:

The old transportation spending approach is extremely costly to taxpayers, destroys natural and rural areas, spurs sprawl development, increases air and water pollution, limits people's transportation choices, and increases energy dependence, while doing little to relieve congestion in the long run. Tim Kaine’s bold vision to tackle these challenges goes beyond just increasing transportation funding for asphalt. He has shown a willingness to carefully analyze the vital connection between land use and transportation decisions at the local and state levels.

More Details on Kaine's Transportation Plan

Tim Kaine's transportation plan will look a lot like the Warner administration's current transportation policy -- with extra emphasis on land use. His four-part platform includes:
  • Amending Virginia’s constitution to make sure that transportation dollars are spent on transportation. "In the meantime," he says, "I’ll veto any budget that tries to raid the transportation trust fund."
  • Continuing the improvements in on-time and on-budget performance "that Mark Warner and I have made over the last three years."
  • Working to improve Virginia train service to take commuters, travelers, and goods off the roads and onto the rails so that "everyone gets where they’re going faster."
  • Integrating transportation with land use planning so that "as Virginia grows, we're smart about how we keep Virginians moving."

The details of Kaine's plan can be found on his website.

From a quick analysis of his plan, two things stand out. First, Kaine does not advocate higher taxes for transportation. He would be willing to invest budget surpluses in one-time transportation projects, and he would support HOT lanes and public-private partnerships that raise revenues through tolls.

The other key tenet of the Kaine plan is its emphasis on tying land use and transportation planning. He would strengthen the role of Metropolitan Planning Organizations in developing regional plans, promote redevelopment and infill development where infrastructure already exists, and encourage the development of pedestrian-friendly mixed-use communities that "give people the choice to live close to where they work and shop [and] reduce the demand for new roads."

Tim Kaine's Plan for 'Moving Virginia Forward'

Democrat Tim Kaine has laid out his vision for the state's transportation system, telling a group of business execs in Northern Virginia today that if elected governor he'll push for a constitutional amendment lock up the state's transportation trust fund. Kaine also called for a better link between local land-use decisions and transportation plans, says

The Post quotes Kaine: "We will never solve Virginia's complex transportation problems with old approaches.. Simply trying to tax and pave our way out of traffic won't work."

Kaine's plan doesn't include new taxes or fee increases, the Post says.

Walking in Tysons Corner

Metrorail's planned $1.5 billion extension west toward Dulles Intl Airport includes four stops in Tysons Corner, and it will need every penny from passengers there to succeed. But first planners have to figure out how to break the automobile's dominance there - which won't be easy, says the Washington Post.

Right now Tysons is anything but a traditional city. And the biggest hurdle is Route 7, a huge pipeline of commuter traffic and a dangerous crossing for pedestrians.

The Post says nobody's done a makeover on this scale, which begs the question - Is it too late to change Tysons?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Denver is Doing Mass Transit Right

Keith Schneider with the Michigan Land Use Institute compares the can-do approach to building a world-class mass transit system in Denver with the sluggishness of local leaders in Detroit, which he describes as "the slowest growing, most racially and economically segregated, yet also among the most congested and sprawling metropolitan regions in the nation."

The big difference between Denver and Detroit, Schneider writes, is that Denver's business, civic and political leaders share a core value: a “continuous intense pursuit” of public investments that assure economic competitiveness. And no investment, they argue, is more basic or vital than modernizing the region’s transportation system, especially mass transit.

Voters made mass transit a reality by approving an increase in the sales tax to fund the $4.7 billion construction project, which includes 119 more miles of light and commuter rail, 18 miles of rapid bus routes, and 57 new stations. It helped that the Regional Transit District was respected as one of the best-run in the country--in an unfortunate contrast to the Washington, D.C. Metro, which, The Washington Post has revealed in a recent series, has serious management deficiencies.

One last point. Although Schneider doesn't address the point explicitly, it appears that Denver insisted upon appropriate density and urban design around the transit stops to ensure maximum ridership. Sayeth Schneider:

Planners predict that when Denver’s FasTracks public transit system is finished in 2016, it will attract so much new development that half of the region’s new residents — 550,000 people — will live and work within walking distance or a short ride of a transit stop. The rail and rapid bus routes alone will carry a quarter of all rush-hour commuters.

It's too bad Denver's mass transit system won't be completed for another 11 years. It will be interested to see if it lives up to its billing.

Around Virginia

Charlottesville could lose its Amtrak station after a Congressional committee approved $657 million in budget cuts. Local officials tell the Daily Progress that the loss would hurt the city's standing as a transportation hub.

A judge in Stafford County banned a developer from cutting down more trees on land where his company plans a housing project. The developer says it was forestry work but the county says it was site work for the subdivision.

George Mason University's Stephen Fuller says double- and triple-digit increases in housing prices in Northern Virginia will force wages up too. (And push commuters even farther out to find housing.)

Chesapeake approves a new condo project in an industrial area - hoping it will 'revitalize' the South Norfolk area.

How Dense Can Loudoun County Be?

Not that kind of dense. County leaders are considering two zoning options for a 300-mile swath of western Loudoun.

Three months ago the Virginia Supreme Court tossed a set of restrictive zoning rules - passed in 2003 by slow-growth county supervisors - that would have allowed just 10,000 homes in western Loudoun.

That means the old three-acres-per-home rules are back in place, and developers could put up to 46,000 homes there, says the Washington Post. The two new options require more acres per home - one would allow 14,000 homes, while the second would allow 20,000.

One of the property rights acvitists who opposed the 2003 zoning rules told the paper his group, the Citizens for Property Rights, could accept the 20,000-home plan but some members will probably sue anyway to keep the three-acre rule in place.

Breaking the Car Habit in Fairfax

Fairfax's Vienna Metro station - stuck in the Interstate 66 median and surrounded by parking lots - has long been an example of how not to develop the land around a transit system. But Fairfax planners may require the developer of a proposed 13-tower residential and commercial project near the station to create a transit-oriented 'mini-city,' says the Washington Post.

A consultant tells the county it can use a carrot-and-stick approach to discourage people from using or even owning cars. If you ride Metro, you get a cash reward. If you want a second parking space, it'll cost a lot.

D.C.-based UrbanTrans developed the plan, which would aim to cut by nearly half the number of residential car trips generated by Pulte Homes' MetroWest development. Pulte could even be fined if residents and tenants don't ditch their cars.

"What we're talking about is creating a financial incentive structure to attract households with fewer numbers of cars," Kevin Luten, planning director for UrbanTrans, told the paper.

Can Fairfax really break the habits of the surburban car culture? Maybe not, but it might not have to. One county supervisor predicts the project will attract people who want to be near Metro and get out of traffic.

Arlington's thriving Ballston-to-Rosslyn Metro corridor shows what transit-oriented development can do. But isn't Rep. Tom Davis planning to kill the high-density project?

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

What We Don't Like About Virginia Beach

The misery index for beach-goers is reaching new highs. Traffic levels through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel reached a new high on Friday, with more than 108,000 vehicles passing through tubes designed to handle about 65,000 says, the Virginian-Pilot. More people say the tunnels are the "thing they least like about Virginia Beach," says a tourism official.

If you've got an appetite for the suffering of others, go watch live feeds of tunnel traffic.

A third bridge-tunnel would cost about $4.1 billion, but Del. Leo Waldrup tells the paper that the better answer is expanding U.S. 460 to give visitors an alternative to I-64 to reach the beach. A wrinkle in the toll-funded approach: upgrading U.S. 460 Could cost about $1 billion, but tolls wouldn't raise enough because not enough people use it, says the Pilot.

Monday, June 20, 2005

June 20, 2005, Edition of Bacon's Rebellion Now Online

The latest edition of Bacon's Rebellion has been posted online. You can read it here.

Of particular interest to this transportation/land use blog are the columns written by EM Risse. They include:

Reforming the Property Tax
Forget about providing "relief" for residential property taxes. That's a Band-Aid. Restructure taxes to eliminate incentives behind so much of today's dysfunctional economic and social behavior.

METRO Ills and Base Closings
In the absence of balanced system capacity and Subregional demand, the METRO will be a long-term drain on Virginia's treasury. But the proposed military base realignment could help create that balance.

Cohousing and Dooryard Density
The "Cohousing" movement provides useful data on density for residential projects. If re-developed at "Cohousing" densities, our Subregions could accommodate growth for years without consuming any more land.

HOT Lanes - No Small Price to Pay

If California's experience with HOT lanes is any guide, drivers are willing to pay a hefty toll for the convenience, says the Washington Post. The 10-mile Route 91 Express Lanes in Orange County opened a decade ago and since then tolls have more than doubled.

Drivers tell the paper that the time saved is worth the money. So is the certainty that they'll reach their destination on time - "congestion insurance" is what one source calls it.

HOT lanes are planned for a 14-mile stretch of the Capital Beltway in Northern Virginia, and tolls for those lanes will vary depending on traffic levels. VDOT is also looking at proposals to build HOT lanes on Interstate 95/395.

Sluggers, meanwhile, tell the Post that HOT lanes could end their access to the HOV lanes by taking away the incentive for drivers to pick them up. "Within five or 10 years, they're going to eliminate HOV completely," said one.