Friday, August 05, 2005

Transportation Planning, CBN Style

I love how the details are trickling out about what's actually in the $286 billion transportation budget. In Virginia Beach, Tom Holden of the Virginian-Pilot has filed two stories about a $10.8 million earmark for an interchange on Interstate 64 right at the Virginia Beach city limit and next to 50 acres owned by the Christian Broadcasting Network, which wants to build a planned community of stores, houses and offices.

GOP Rep. Thelma Drake, whose district includes CBN, helped get the money and thinks the interchange will ease traffic congestion and that it could be built in a few years. Senators Allen and Warner also reportedly had a hand as well. But the interchange is not among the region's list of priority interstate projects, says the article, nor is it on the VDOT six-year plan. In fact there's no road for it to connect to, though one is planned with private dollars. And the Federal Highway Administration still hasn't approved the idea.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Mo' Money from Washington

A commonly voiced "solution" for Virginia's transportation woes is, if you live in Northern Virginia, to get more money from "Richmond," or, if you live anywhere in Virginia, to get more money from "Washington." It's a message that Virginia's congressional delegation has heeded. Largely overlooked in the press coverage of the latest federal transportation bill, Virginia actually will get a higher share of federal transportation dollars than in past years.

U.S. Senators John Warner and George Allen noted the following in a recent press release:

Known as a “donor state” because of its history of contributing more than it receives in federal highway funds, Virginia has received a 90.5% return on its contributions of federal gas tax dollars over the past six years. The bill passed by the Conference tonight will increase that rate of return annually, ultimately to 92% in FY 2008 and 2009.

In 1998, the last time Congress addressed the funding levels, the Virginia delegation worked to increase Virginia’s return from 79% to the current level of 90.5%.

In a $1 billion-a-year annual allocation, the increase from 90.5% to 92% yields an extra $15 million or so a year. Compared to the $108 billion revenue shortfall forecast in the VTrans2025 study over the next 20 years, the extra federal money is chump change. Sure, it beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, but it falls far short of what our Business As Usual transportation strategy calls for. Squeezing more money out of Uncle Sam won't be easy for an affluent state like Virginia. Unless we're willing to pony up an extra $4 billion to $5 billion a year in taxes, we have no choice but to radically rethink our transportation strategy.

Affordable Housing In Virginia Beach

There isn't any, according to a study cited by this Virginian-Pilot editorial. And besides making it tougher for businesses to find employees, the lack of houses for those making $50,000 a year or less means more cars on the highways as people accept long commutes in exchange for being able to own a home.

A group called Empower Hampton Roads is pushing one solution - letting developers build more units that zoning would allow in exchange for making some of them affordable. It's called "mandatory inclusionary zoning" and it's in use in Fairfax County, says the editorial.

Making inclusionary zoning an option doesn't work - Suffolk has had such an ordinance for years, the Pilot says, and no developer has ever used it.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Kaine and Kilgore Agree on I-81 Approach

Proponents of a multibillion project to add truck-only lanes the entire 325-mile length of Interstate 81 in Virginia have few friends today, now that Congress has rejected appeals for $800 million in federal money for that concept.

Neither of the major-party candidates for governor voiced support for that approach or for imposing tolls on trucks. Tim Kaine and Jerry Kilgore are quoted by the Bristol Herald Courier as favoring a focus on the 'problem areas' along the highway instead of the multi-billion project of adding truck-only lanes, as proposed by the Star Solutions consortium. The state did get $141 million for I-81 improvements. "What we really ought to do is fix the specific safety problems and be much more strategic about what we do," Democrat Tim Kaine told the paper. "It’s more of a surgical solution than a global solution."

Portions of the interstate have crash rates nearly double the state average, the story says. Rail proponents see an opportunity to push their ideas for improving rail service in the corridor and moving all that truck freight by train. "I think it opens up the ball game again," said Rees Shearer, chairman of the group Rail Solutions.

Roundabouts Aren't Just for the English...

They're for the Anglophiles in horse country, too. The latest round of pork-laden transportation funding to emerge from Congress dispenses $8 million to "a series of traffic roundabouts" at Gilberts Corner in Loudoun County, at the intersection of U.S. 15 and U.S. 50, according to the Loudoun Times-Mirror. Of course, there aren't many horse farms left around Gilbert's Corner -- the area has been overrun by residential development.... hence, the need for traffic improvements.

Luckily for local residents, U.S Sen. John Warner lives close to nearby Middleburg, and he's personally familiar with the travails of local commuters, of whom, presumably, he is one. Warner proposed the roundabouts as part of a "traffic calming" plan for U.S. 50 through Middleburg. The Times-Mirror quoted Warner as saying, "The intensity of backups there [is] extraordinary. That's a waste of productivity to the residents."

I've got questions: If roundabouts are such a good idea, why don't we see more of them? What are their relative virtues and shortcomings compared to traditional stop-lighted intersections? Why do the English have so many more of them than we Yanks do?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Broadband vs. Asphalt

The leaders of SW Virginia have long pursued a two-track strategy for integrating the economy of their isolated, mountainous region with that of the rest of the country: Building highways and building broadband. While the Coalfield Expressway project remains stuck in limbo, communities in SW Virginia are among the most wired in rural America.

Rep. Rick Boucher, 9th, used his position in Congress to steer telecommunications investment into the region before the Internet was cool, before the term "broadband" had been coined. And, as Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol, tells the Bristol Herald Courier, the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission has been investing heavily in broadband as well. Sayeth the Herald Courier about a recent meeting of the Commission:

The commission’s technology members were briefed on how the region has used broadband Internet service and other telecommunications features to promote economic development, education and job training. "It’s no different than the old shell buildings we used to build," Wampler said of using the technology to lure companies the way the traditional, ready-made buildings once were used.

It will take millions of dollars, maybe tens of millions of dollars, to provide ubiquitous wireless broadband access to the communities of SW Virginia. By contrast, it would take billions of dollars to build the four-lane Coalfield Expressway. A wireless broadband infrastructure would integrate SW Virginia into the information-intensive Knowledge Economy. By contrast, the Expressway would integrate the region into the declining Industrial Economy.

Let's see.... the less expensive strategy (by a factor of 10 or more) would leapfrog the region into the economic future, while the expensive strategy would commit the region to the economic past. Hmmm. Not a hard choice. The region's leadership needs to focus its creative energies and political capital on broadband, not asphalt.

Monday, August 01, 2005

New Transit Benefit for D.C.-area Workers

The Washington Post's Stephen Barr highlights in his column today a new benefit for federal employees that is in the $286 billion transportation bill passed by Congress last week. The provision would expand the number of tax-free vouchers available to federal workers, up to $105 monthly, for using transit.

Currently 155,000 workers receive the benefit in the D.C. region. Maryland Sen. Paul Sarbanes handled the legislation on the Senate side, while Rep. Tom Davis and Rep. Jim Moran did so in the House. Moran is quoted as say that the federal government, as the region's biggest employer, "needs to be setting an example that will help reduce traffic congestion."

The new legislation expands an executive order issued in April 2000. Besides making thousands of other employees eligible for the benefit, the bill would also let federal agencies set up shuttle services between their offices and transit facilities.

The benefit is available outside the Washington region to other federal employees, on a pre-tax basis, Barr reports, but many agencies just pay the benefit to keep their employees on par with Washington-area staffers.

Saving Norfolk Southern

Last week Norfolk Southern announced that its second-quarter profits of $424 million were nearly twice that of the same quarter a year ago. And its coal revenues were up 36 percent over last year. Clearly the company is doing just fine. "We met and exceeded expectations, even our own," Chairman David Goode told analysts, according to a Roanoke Times story.

A few days later, reports the Virginian-Pilot, Congress passes a massive transportation bill that includes $90 million "to modify tunnels and make other changes to rail routes in Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio, so that Norfolk Southern Corp. would be able to increase the number of double-stack container trains it runs from Hampton Roads to the Midwest." Maybe Norfolk Southern could have funded this work itself, you think?

As far as what other transit or rail funding Virginia will get, it's apparently hard to figure. Gov. Mark Warner's transportation advisor, Mary Lynn Tischer, "aid she had not been able to determine how much transit and rail money would flow to Virginia under the bill."