Friday, July 15, 2005

Metro Opens its Doors

After a blistering series in the Washington Post on problems with the Metro system's operations and management, the board that oversees the system is creating an 18-member Riders Advisory Council. The council would meet once a month to talk about budget issues, route changes and customer service.

The board apparently took its time to act - the advisory council proposal was made in December, and the group's chairman, Fairfax County supervisor T. Dana Kaufman, told the Post, "That specific proposal has been the most consistently requested for two decades."

Transit system critics aren't satisfied. The Sierra Club proposed the advisory group but wants it to be independent of the transit agency board. The leader of another group,, says the panel's makeup (six members each from Md., Va. and D.C.) will keep his group's members from participating.

The Military in Virginia

Plans for a 1,500-unit New Urbanism-styled development in eastern Spotsylvania County are on hold after leaders at the Army's Fort A.P. Hill in Caroline County told county officials that they'd prefer the land around the base remain mostly rural and undeveloped, says this story in the Fredericksburg paper.

The proposed New Post project, by Tricord Homes, is 2.5 miles away from the 76,000-acre base but that's apparently not far enough. Which puts fast-growing Spotsylvania in an odd situation - it's not clear if Army officials have said exactly how far outside their boundaries they'd like this rural/undeveloped area to extend.

Tricord CEO Doug Jones told the paper he thinks he can resolve the Army's concerns. But one county supervisor, Hap Connors, raises the question of whether A.P. Hill's actions amount to a federal taking, telling the paper, "If the federal government is going to start making local governments' land-use decisions, we've all got a problem."

A Transportation Plan for Hampton Roads' Future - or Past?

The Metropolitan Planning Organization for Hampton Roads has put its imprimature upon nearly $9 billion in high-priority road improvements for the region. The projects include $4.2 billion for the "third crossing," $1.5 billion for the Southeastern Parkway, $1.5 billion for improvements to U.S. 460, $1.6 billion for Interstate 64 and $550 million for a parallel Midtown Tunnel and related improvements. (You can read the details in a letter written by Virginia Beach City Manager James K. Spore and distributed widely by e-mail.)

The plan envisions using tolls to fund bond payments on all of these projects. Toll revenues would generate a projected $191 million a year, leaving an unfunded deficit of $275 million that would have to come from some other source. The MPO recommends raising that money through a mix of higher regional taxes and fees on retail sales, gasoline, motor vehicle registrations, the motor vehicle sales & use tax, and profits from the toll on the midtown tunnel.

Spore urged the General Assembly to take action on the regional taxes in the 2006 session, predicting dire results if the improvements are not made. Old Dominion University's modeling and simulation center in Suffolk, the city manager noted, has concluded that "between 2008 and 2010 something akin to the 'last vehicle' will be dropped in to the roadways of Hampton Roads, at which time the entire network will be substantially in gridlock for many hours of the day. This is a very ominous prediction, I'm sure you'll agree."

Clearly, Hampton Roads is facing a critical juncture: On the one hand, traffic congestion is a serious and growing problem; on the other, $9 billion is a massive public investment that, once made, will crowd out other potential investments in the region's well being. I do not dispute the recommendations in Spore's letter, but I submit that the magnitude of the MPO's plan demands that the citizens of Hampton Roads, indeed the citizens of Virginia, subject the numbers to close scrutiny.

At this stage, I won't rehash all the transportation alternatives to building roads. I would raise one question. Does this transportation plan really advance the vision for Hampton Roads' future? Traffic congestion in the region is partly a seasonal phenomenon tied to summer tourism, partly a function of the increased volume of shipping through the region's ports. Clearly, transportation improvements are needed to maintain the competitiveness of both industries. But are ports and tourism the industries that the region's business, civic and political leaders want to invest in? Is the continued expansion of these industries so crucial to the economic health of Hampton Roads... is the vision of an economy built around stevedores and freight forwarders, cocktail waitresses and time-share salesmen, so compelling that it justifies raising $275 million in taxes on the public -- roughly $180 per year for every man, woman and child?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Base Relocation Plan Would Make Traffic Worse

From today's Washington Post:

The Defense Department's plan to consolidate the country's military bases would lead to slight increases in the Washington region's traffic and pollution and a minor decrease in mass transit ridership, according to a new analysis.

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and researchers at George Mason University also found that the influx of workers that would be generated by the plan would require an additional 8,500 housing units, mostly in the fast-growing suburbs. ...

By 2020, when the full effects of the changes would be felt, mass transit trips in the region would drop 0.52 percent, while vehicle trips would grow 0.34 percent, according to the 33-page report. The region's poor air quality would worsen with the increased traffic, the report said. ...

While the percentages are low, the increases in traffic would be concentrated at specific points, such as the highways leading to Fort Belvoir and Fort Meade, said Ron Kirby, the council's director of transportation.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Are Commuter Buses a Realistic Option?

In theory, we could run a lot more people down our major transportation corridors if we could persuade them to ride in commuter buses. And in theory, the bus trips should appeal to commuters, who can read, chat or work on their long, stress-free rides to work. That's the logic behind an experiment being conducted in the Winchester-Front Royal area, where 25 commuters have signed up for a commuter bus service that takes them into Washington, D.C., every day.

Trouble is, Winchester-based Schrock Bus Lines needs at least 32 committed drives to sustain the service. Currently, the financial gap is being filled by the Northern Shenandoah Valley Regional Commission. But the subsidy expires in July.

If another seven or eight commuters can be found, the project may be sustainable. And it may serve as a model for other communities on the periphery of the Washington New Urban Region. A dozen buses... 32 commuters per bus... Commuter buses could take 384 commuters off the highways.

That's only a drop in the bucket, to be sure, but there is no silver-bullet solution to traffic congestion. The "solution" consists of literally dozens of small-scale initiatives that bubble up from entrepreneurs, community groups and developers. Multiply the commuter buses by 100 other projects--including the development of mixed-use communities that provide a balance of housing, jobs and amenities, and reduce the need for long car trips--and we can make a real dent in congestion.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

GPS to the Rescue

Virginia has moved one step closer to a market-driven, Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) that will equip a motorist to look at a screen on his dashboard, spot congested traffic conditions ahead and plan a route around the gridlock. According to the, you can do just that in 20 different cities. For the price of about $2,100 up front and less than $30 per month, you can arm yourself with a state-of-the-art GPS-navigation system.

Pioneer's AVIC-D1 navigation system provides on-screen directions while the XM NavTraffic service displays traffic delays on the Pioneer's on-screen map. It also recommends alternate routes in 20 major metropolitan areas.

The key to making the system work is the ability to stream real-time data on traffic conditions to the motorist. That requires the installation of sensors along major traffic corridors. In Virginia, radar- and video-based sensors are limited mainly to Interstates, although they are begining to be deployed in other locations as well. Sensors embedded at stop lights can track the speed of traffic to synchronize the movement of cars along major corridors. The same data can be repackaged and transmitted to motorists equipped with GPS navigation.

The cost of installing the sensors is modest compared to the expense of adding new lanes in urban areas. What's stopping us?

Monday, July 11, 2005

Your Biweekly Dose of Rebellion and Attitude

The July 11, 2005, edition of Bacon's Rebellion has been published. You can read it here.

Of special interest to "Road to Ruin" readers are the following two columns:

The Maintenance Mantra
The Road Gang wants you to believe that the surging maintenance budget for Virginia's roads justifies another tax increase. Take a closer look at the numbers before you buy their story.
by James A. Bacon

Transport in the November Election
Politicians are fixated on finding more money for Virginia's ailing transportation system, whether through taxes, tolls or private investment. But without Balanced Communities, there will never be enough money.
by EM Risse

Placing New Urbanism

New Urbanism-styled developments are popping up all across Virginia and supporters tout the mixed-used approach as a tool for reducing traffic congestion. But location has a lot to do with that - and what defines the right place for these projects? Can you build them out in the countryside, or do they only work as infill projects in more urbanized areas?

One of the latest is the proposed 1,500-home New Post project just east of I-95 in Spotsylvania County. The Web site for the mixed-use project touts its 'smart growth' and anti-sprawl principles and invites potential buyers, "Imagine a time when your children could hop on their bikes to fetch a loaf of bread at the nearby market..."

The pitch has its appeal. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star says the developer - Tricord Inc. - has sweetened the pot with about $52 million in proffers, including $19 million in transportation improvements, $6 million to help build a VRE station (in case the county ever joins the commuter rail system) and $6.1 million toward Spotsylvania's new Purchase of Development Rights program.

The county's board of supervisors has a hearing tomorrow on Tricord's rezoning application on the 418-acre site, a former sand and gravel mine.