Saturday, July 09, 2005

The Traffic Jam from Hell

Philip Shucet, former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation, once confided that the biggest mistake he'd made as commissioner was cutting funds for "incident management" during the budget crisis of the early Warner administration. The funds have since been restored, but the critical importance of rapid incident response was on display Friday in an accident involving three trucks and a chemical spill on Interstate 95 south of Fredericksburg.

Traffic backed up 22 miles to Prince William County. One woman reported taking 10 hours to drive from Washington, D.C., to Midlothian, south of Richmond. That's gridlock.

Fairly or unfairly, motorists quoted by the Richmond Times-Dispatch complained that state and local officials weren't as helpful as they could have been in getting the traffic moving again. Authorities, they said, could have done a better job of informing motorists of the nature of the problem, steering them onto alternate routes, and moving traffic along those routes more efficiently by changing traffic light sequences.

Incident management sits near the bottom of the VDOT funding totem priorities, garnering a few million dollars each year compared to a billion or more for maintenance and new construction. As frustrating as daily traffic congestion can be, it pales in comparison to monster traffic jams like Fridays' I-95 incident. Perhaps VDOT -- or, more properly, the lawmakers who fund VDOT programs -- will take a more generous view of incident management programs in the future.

Friday, July 08, 2005

In HOV Lanes, A Car is a Car

So why should drivers of low-emission hybrid vehicles get a pass on the three-passenger restrictions for HOV lanes? Plenty of drivers of old-fashioned gas guzzlers would like to see the exemption ended - they say there are so many hybrids on the HOV lanes now that it's undermining the carpooling function.

This AP story in today's Daily Press says that normally the federal government would withhold funding from states that exempted hybrids on HOV lanes, but Virginia "has a special waiver while Congress considers allowing the states to make their own rules for hybrids. Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia and Florida are poised to move ahead with similar incentives if the Senate passes a long-delayed highway bill."

By May of this year, says the AP, there were about 9,000 hybrid cars registered to use the HOV lanes - up from 2,500 two years ago.

The carpoolers have a pretty good point - they're already doing their share to cut congestion and pollution. Still, says VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris: "Even if we got rid of all the violators tomorrow, we'd still have a capacity problem."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Washington is House Poor

Here's some scary figures from George Mason University's Stephen Fuller - the Washington region's job growth is outstripping the housing supply, and it ain't even close.

Says this report: "The region is adding jobs nearly twice as fast as it can build homes to house the workers. Fuller said 50,000 new houses would be needed this year based on job growth projections, but that only 28,000 homes would get built."

Fuller was talking to some Northern Virginia business types about the impact of federal procurement in D.C. region, which was more than $50 billion last year - 18 percent higher than the year before.

Adding to the mix is the potential shift of thousands of federal workers to the suburbs as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission's proposals. (Two hearings on the proposals are planned tomorrow, at the Sheraton in Arlington and the Canon building in D.C.)

More than 300,000 workers already commute daily from outside D.C., says the paper. If the BRAC proposal goes forward and 18,000 workers are moved from D.C. and inner suburbs out to Fort Belvoir, that 'will put even more pressure on the Interstate 95 corridor, "which is already a parking lot."'

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Kaine's Transportation plan - 'Fluff' or the Right Stuff?

A Washington Post editorial today gives Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine a good kick for laying out a transportation plan that has "a batch of likeable ideas" but no plan for a long-term infusion of cash.

Neither Kaine or his GOP opponent Jerry Kilgore offer "any support for an increase in the most natural transportation "user fee," the gasoline tax," says the Post. "Virginia needs tens of billions of dollars for transportation over the coming decades, and the two party nominees are sidestepping the hard calls." State Sen. Russ Potts, running as an independent, is given credit for pledging to haul the General Assembly in for a special session until it produces a funding package.

The Post rightly warns that delays in funding will only mean paying more. But doesn't Kaine's linking of local land-use decisions and transportation funding at least give taxpayers some hope that the money won't be wasted? A key reason for the state's transportation budget problems is the lack of control on the sprawling development patterns that drive the demand for more money. Maybe voters have figured that out.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Albemarle County Goes to Town

Albemarle Place is a New Urbanist's dream - "a mixed-use, neo-traditional community that will attract high quality retailers, residents and economic development interests to its "New Main Street" environment," is how its designers describe its master plan.

Work on the project - with 1.9 million square feet of leasable space, 780 apartments and a 150-room hotel - could start by year's end, says the Daily Progress. Developer Frank Cox and county planners have traded compliments about how the project meshes with the county's 'Neighborhood Model' zoning.

And look at the location - the project is tucked right against the city limits at the intersection of Route 29 and Hydraulic Road. Isn't this just what other counties ought to be doing - leveraging the economic strength of an urban core?