Saturday, July 30, 2005

Interstate 81's Fading Star

The highway bill passed yesterday by Congress didn't give supporters of adding truck-only lanes to 325 miles of Interstate 81 in Virginia quite the financial boost they'd hoped for. Instead of $800 million for the project the bill contains just $100 million - and that money isn't linked to the Star Solutions proposal, says the Roanoke Times. It simply calls for spending the money on dedicated truck lanes.

It's the third blow this year to Star's plan, says the paper. VDOT's early analysis of project showed the truck-only lanes would be underused by 2035, while the general-purpose lanes would be crowded with cars and trucks. And in June Koch Performance Roads dropped out of the Star consortium after its parent company sold off its asphalt plants in the U.S. and Mexico.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Richmond's Route 288 - Who's Brilliant Idea Was that Again?

The Richmond region committed hundreds of millions of dollars to building Route 288, part of the jagged ring road about the urban/suburban core. Not only did the project soak up every thin dime of new construction dollars for the region for several years to come (until the General Assembly paid off obligations this past session using funds from the state surplus), it's diverting toll revenue from the Powhite Parkway.

According to an article in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch, the number of vehicles going through the toll barrier at the Powhite Bridge fell 8.7 percent in June and 8.5 percent in May. But not to worry, say officials with the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, the dip is only temporary. In the long run, traffic will rise. That's encouraging!

Rt. 288 may well qualify as Virginia's most poorly conceived road project of the past 20 years, which is saying a lot, considering the competition. Let us count the ways.
  • As part of the circumferential highway around Richmond, Rt. 288 does not connect with Interstate 295 to the north. Motorists have to zig onto Interstate 64, drive a few miles, and then zag back onto I-295. Nice planning, folks.
  • The original premise for fast-forwarding Rt. 288 no longer applies. The highway was meant to serve the vast West Creek office park west of Richmond when Motorola committed to building a $3 billion microchip plant there. Microsoft reneged, but plans for Rt. 288 kept on plodding ahead. Other than Capital One's 10-building campus, there's still not much there. And given trends in the commercial real estate sector -- large-scale redevelopment in downtown Richmond and Innsbrook, plus the rise of the mobile workforce, which requires less office space -- it may take decades before West Creek fills up.
  • Rt. 288 is fulfilling its promise of accelerating suburban sprawl. A major mixed use project is planned for the intersection of Rt. 288 and U.S. 360, located on the metropolitan fringe. And that's just beginning.
  • Rt. 288 sucked up all the oxygen in the room, i.e. funds for new construction projects in the Richmond region. The General Assembly solved that problem earlier this year by spending General Fund revenues, in effect, bailing out Richmond at the expense of the rest of the state. Regardless, the alternate opportunity cost of the project is huge: The money could have been spent on creating better connectivity inside the metropolitan core, where most people live and work, rather than creating connectivity outside of the core, where people may go in the future, thanks in large part to Rt. 288 itself (talk about a self-fulfilling prophesy!)

Rt. 288 is what you get when politicians get too involved in making transportation decisions.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Tom Davis' Metro Deal

Rep. Tom Davis, a Fairfax County Republican, is dangling a $1.5 billion infusion of cash in front of Metro managers to help them maintain tracks and trains and deal with overcrowding. The offer - which no other transit system would get - comes with strings. Davis wants Metro to hire an inspector general and add two seats to its board for federal representatives.

Oh yeah - he also slipped in 31 words in the bill he plans to introduce that would forbid Metro from selling the 3.7 acres it owns next to the Vienna Metro station, thus scuttling the massive MetroWest project proposed by developer Pulte Homes, which is seeking county approval for 2250 homes, offices and stores, says the Washington Post.

Davis says he's worried about high density in an area already crowded with cars. Notwithstanding the arguments in favor of transit-oriented development, and the idea of a member of Congress interfering with a local land-use decision, Davis' critics have also accused him of opposing the project because it could bring more urban-loving Democrats to his district.

'Urban Pioneers' in Tysons Corner

There are four Metro stations planned for Tysons Corner and the county wants to double the development that's already there, says today's Washington Post. But this city-in-the-suburbs already has some happy residents - mostly young professionals and older empty-nesters who don't want the hassle of a suburban home.

In a decade county planners predict 40,000 people will live there, triple today's numbers. And even though most of the development that could really give Tysons a city feel is years away, the place has its appeal. 'Everything revolves around traffic here,' says one resident. But if you're living in it, it's not that bad.'

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Questioning Old Assumptions

In an op-ed piece in today's Fauquier Times-Democrat, John J. "Butch" Davies III, has expressed the conventional wisdom regarding the inevitability of continued traffic increases. "We are using vehicles much more extensively now," he writes. "The U.S. population increased by about 25 percent between 1980 and 2000, but the vehicle miles of travel increased 80 percent. There is no indication that automobile use will decline in coming generations -- even considering the increased cost of gasoline." (My italics.)

It matters what Davies thinks. As the Culpeper District representative to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, he is in a position to convert opinions into policy. Unfortunately, he, like many others, is guilty of assuming that the way to discern the future is to project the past. Because Vehicle Miles Traveled increased 80 percent over the past 20 years, VMT will increase 80 percent over the next 20 years. That's why Virginia faces a transportation crisis and (though Davies did not explicitly say so in his column) that's why the state needs to raise billions of dollars a year to finance a raft of road and transit construction projects.

There are many reasons to question Davies' core assumption--as the "Road to Ruin" project will enumerate in future articles and editorials--but I will point to three:
  • The 20-More-Years-of-the-Same scenario assumes, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, that there will be no change in the scattered, disconnected, low-density development that has prevailed over the last 20 years. In point of fact, New Urbanisn-inspired development, which generates fewer and shorter trips than conventional development, is all the rage in Virginia. When properly located and designed, these developments can absorb traffic from congested thoroughfares. Bob Burke's article about the Albemarle Place project on U.S. 29 is illuminating.
  • The 20-More-Years-of-the-Same scenario also assumes, despite evidence to the contrary, that rush hour commuting patterns will continue much as they have--millions of workers crowding the same roads, driving to the same employment clusters, at the same time of day. In point of fact, major employers are rapidly rethinking the relationship between the worker and the workplace. The rise of the "mobile workforce" means that an increasing number of Knowledge Workers have the latitude to work away from the office (often at home), or to drive into the office after rush hour. I have explored this trend in my column, "Rush Hour Will Never Be the Same."
  • Contrary to Davies' assertion, higher gas prices do impact driver behavior. During the 1970s energy crisis, Virginians did drive less. According to the Department of Motor Vehicles, Vehicle Miles Driven declined from 12,000 miles in 1973 per motorist to 10,000 in 1981.

Stay tuned. Burke will be reporting on innovative redevelopment projects in suburban areas that can make a big impact on traffic congestion. And I'll be delving deeper into the straight-line traffic projection underpinning the argument for tax increases.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Privatizing the Dulles Toll Road

A consortium of some major road-building companies and operators will offer the state a $1 billion lump sum in exchange for 50 years worth of revenues on the Dulles Toll Road, says today's Washington Post.

The group would make 19 improvements to the road, including repaving, upgrading toll facilities and building new ramps. Part of the appeal of the offer is that the cash could cover Virginia's share of the $2.4 billion estimated cost of extending Metrorail through Tysons Corner, says the Post. Virginia would still own the road.

Among the companies involved: Clark Construction Group, Shirley Contracting, Dewberry LLC and Autostrade, which operates the Dulles Greenway, a private road that connects to the Dulles Toll Road. Former governor Gerald Baliles is also part of the group.

Last year tolls on the road produced a $28.5 million surplus, the Post says. About 200,000 vehicles use it daily. VDOT officials aren't commenting, except to say that they'll also solicit other offers and review all proposals and make a recommendation to the VDOT commissioner, who would have the final say.

This is the kind of deal Speaker of the House Bill Howell described in a June speech in Fredericksburg, when cited examples such as the $1.8 billion leasing of the Chicago Skyway, or the deal Texas state officials made to have a private firm build part of the giant Trans-Texas Corridor and give the state a $1.2 billion franchise fee. "Imagine what we could do with that money," Howell said then.

Monday, July 25, 2005

More Madness, More Mayhem -- Bacon's Rebellion Online

The July 25, 2005, edition of Bacon's Rebellion has been published.

Of particular interest to those who follow transportation and land use issues:

Rush Hour Will Never Be the Same
Technology is liberating workers from the tyranny of the central workplace, scrambling commuting patterns in the process. Our transportation policies are still catching up.
by James A. Bacon

Tolls Versus Taxes
Tolls beat taxes as a funding mechanism for transportation projects because those with money at risk have reason to make realistic assumptions about costs and traffic.
by Patrick McSweeney

The Shelter Crisis
The price of housing is getting out of reach for a majority of Virginians. The solution isn't more government subsidies, which are part of the problem, but putting houses in the right locations.
by EM Risse

Guru of Gridlock
Tim Lomax, co-author of the 2005 Urban Mobility Study, says there’s no simple remedy for traffic congestion -- Americans need to try a wide range of strategies. His thinking could pave the way for the Network of Space.
Content sponsored by AgilQuest Corporation

Nice & Curious Questions
No More Free Rides: Toll Roads in Virginia
by Edwin S. Clay III and Patricia Bangs

The Third Crossing Argument

This editorial in the Daily Press makes the case for why spending $4 billion for a third crossing, a spur to Crainey Island and other road improvements is better for Hampton Roads than just widening the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel. Estimates put that project at just under $2 billion, but the paper argues that the region's economic future - tied to the Navy and port-related industries - demands the new infrastructure. Newport News Mayor Joe Frank is trying to get the General Assembly to let the region raise money itself to pay for the projects.

Says the paper: 'It may take some imagination to see the benefits of the third crossing, but they are real. It is the only option with the potential for long-term, high-yield payback that will reverberate throughout the region.'