Friday, August 19, 2005

Hot over HOV Enforcement on I-95

There has got to be a smarter way to do this. The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star describes the nightmare that ensued yesterday when a dozen troopers with the Virginia State Police staked out a spot near Newington and began ticketing vehicles without the required three people. Imagine if the HOT lanes are actually built on this corridor, and a similar enforcement strategy is used...

Says the story: "They nailed 52 violators, but also managed to back up traffic about eight miles, making some commuters an hour or more late to work.

"Police spokeswoman Corinne Geller said her agency was not trying to make a bad week worse. The day for the enforcement was chosen well in advance to make sure enough officers were on duty, she said.

"Troopers often will ticket violators as they exit the HOV lanes, but stationing them on the road itself, as they did yesterday, is another method police use, she said.

"Unfortunately, this morning, this particular technique proved to be counterproductive to traffic flow," she said.

"In a news release, Col. W. Steve Flaherty, superintendent of the Virginia State Police, said his team worked in the HOV lanes from 6:15 to 7:30 a.m., calling off the operation after realizing how badly traffic was backed up. That enforcement technique is under review, the release said."

A 'Backdoor Scheme' to Fund Dulles Rail?

Steve Pearlstein of the Wash Post has written a fun column mocking Virginia's strategy for financing the extension of Metrorail to Dulles Intl Airport. Calling the $4 billion project "about the best investment of public dollars that you could imagine" because of the private investment it will attract, he goes on to ridicule the funding plans:

"In Fairfax and Loudoun, county officials have cleverly persuaded the owners of commercial property along the extension route to pay a 22 percent property tax surcharge that was supposed to cover the counties' entire 25 percent share of the project cost. Now that the cost for Phase I of the project has increased by 20 percent, or $300 million, officials are already planning to ask the commercial property owners for an increase in the surtax rather than suggest that general taxpayers invest even a dime of their expected windfall.

"The state of Virginia, meanwhile, plans to cover its share of the project costs by raising tolls on the Dulles Toll Road 25 cents now and another 25 cents later. Not only does that mean that the flinty taxpayers from Roanoke and Virginia Beach have once again picked the pocket of Northern Virginians, but there is also the delicious irony that the people least likely to use the new Metro are being forced to pay for the people who will.

"But wait -- it gets worse. A consortium of construction and engineering firms has come along with a proposal to hand the state a check for at least $1 billion -- the state share of the Metro project -- in return for a contract that would allow it to operate the Dulles Toll Road for the next 50 years and keep all the tolls. The group even promises to pay for improvements to access ramps and to add auxiliary lanes. Presented with what looks like a free lunch, some state officials are eager to chow down."

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Too Much Density in Arlington?

Here's a man-bites-dog kind of story - some residents near a proposed 23-story apartment and retail project in Arlington County's celebrated Ballston area are complaining that the project is too much development in the wrong place.

It doesn't sound like the neighbors will prevail, but running into some opposition there is an interesting twist - not sure if it's just NIMBYism or if the county isn't getting the word out on what's coming to transit-oriented development sites like the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor.

Here' are a few graphs from the Washington Post story:

'Neighbors say the development will add to the daily traffic headaches of the 1,000 residents of the small block, which is already home to five residential and office buildings, said Glenn Elliott, president of the Ballston Smart Growth Alliance, a group that represents the residents.

We don't oppose the development of the site," said Elliott, a resident of The Continental at Ballston, a 411-unit condominium high-rise adjacent to the site of the proposed 23-story building. "Our issue is the direct effect it will have on the area, with more congestion and overpopulation. It's important for us that the overall size be kept down."

"The fact that it's tall is a problem that other high-rise tenants have, but they have to realize that it is compliant with the overall plan for the area," said Terry Savela, vice-chair of the county's Planning Commission.'

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Kaine Hanging Tough on Transportation Trust Fund

Addressing the Virginia Association of Counties yesterday, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tim Kaine stuck by his position that he would not raise taxes for transportation until there are mechanisms in place to halt future raids on the Transportation Trust Fund to fund other programs. In doing so, he incurred the ire of the otherwise Democratic-leaning Virginian-Pilot editorial board. Sayeth the unsigned editorial:

“I will not entertain new revenue unless the Transportation Trust Fund is locked up,” Kaine insisted. “I really, really believe [that] a fundamental question about honesty” caused the failure of a 2002 transportation referendum in Hampton Roads.

The Pilot's editorial response: "The trouble is that trust-building [by means of a constitutional amendment] takes time, and when it comes to traffic, Hampton Roads doesn’t have time to spare. Clogged highways, tunnels and bridges are threatening to overwhelm the region now."

Citing local planning studies indicating that the region needs to raise at least $275 million a year in new revenue (not including tolls) to finance critical road projects, the Pilot has consistently taken the view that the problem with the region's transportation system is simply a lack of money to finance new projects. In that regard, the Pilot reflects the consensus view of the region's political and civic leadership.

The Pilot and other Hampton Roads opinion leaders would inspire more confidence if they acknowledged that money alone won't solve the region's congested roads. Any road construction program is only a short-term palliative as long as local land use policies perpetuate the scattered, disconnected, low-density development that has prevailed in the region for so long. If the Pilot has its way, taxes will be raised, new roads will be built, traffic congestion will ease momentarily, then congestion will get worse again. And then, 10 to 15 years, the Pilot will come back arguing for more tax increases for more roads again. Not a winning formula, if you ask me.

Monday, August 15, 2005

The Fear Factor in America's Growing Exurbs

A fascinating article (registration required) in the New York Times this morning profiling the rise of new planned communities on the what the NYT calls "the farm-road margins of metropolitan areas.."

I've pasted several graphs - first the story's set up, and then a few sentences on the fear factor that the buyers in these developments cite for choosing a house there. (New Urbanists beware)

"Such places do not sprout by happenstance. Driven by irresistible economic forces and shaped by subtly shifting social patterns, they are being created, down to the tiniest detail, by a handful of major developers with a master plan for the new America. In the case of New River, that developer is KB Home, one of the nation's biggest and most profitable builders with $7 billion in sales last year, which helped make it sixth among all Standard & Poor's 500 companies in total revenues.

KB Home has 483 communities under development in 13 states and expects to complete more than 40,000 new homes this year. Yet it is just one of about two dozen such corporate giants fiercely competing for land and customers at the edge of America's suburban expanse.
Poring over elaborate market research, these corporations divine what young families want, addressing things like carpet texture and kitchen placement and determining how many streetlights and cul-de-sacs will evoke a soothing sense of safety.

They know almost to the dollar how much buyers are willing to pay to exchange a longer commute for more space, a sense of higher status and the feeling of security."

Here's the crime & fear: (italics are mine)

"In its most recent survey of Tampa home buyers, KB asked people what they valued the most in their home and community. They wanted more space and a greater sense of security. Safety always ranks second, even in communities where there is virtually no crime. Asked what they wanted in a home, 88 percent said a home security system, 93 percent said they preferred neighborhoods with "more streetlights" and 96 percent insisted on deadbolt locks or security doors.

So KB Home offers them all. "It's up to us to figure out what people really want and to translate that into architecture," said Erik Kough, KB's vice president for architecture. And the company designs its communities with winding streets with sidewalks and cul-de-sacs to keep traffic slow, to give a sense of containment and to give an appearance distinctly unlike the urban grid that the young, middle-class families instinctively associate with crime. "I definitely feel safe here. I feel protected," said Lisa Crawford, who moved to New River about a year ago with her husband, Steve, and their two children."

The article touches on other elements of the issue - that the GOP dominates in these new and racially diverse developments. "White flight has nothing to do with it," says one expert. "It's all housing prices." KB Home has also figured out the formula for housing cost versus commute: buyers are willing to commute an additional one minute for every $800 they can save on the price of a house.