Saturday, August 27, 2005

More Fuel for the Fight over Gas Taxes

No surprise - the high price of filling the tank is driving down gas-tax revenues, says this article in the Washington Post. In June and July gas tax receipts for Virginia dropped nearly $1 million compared to the same months a year ago, says the Post.

Speaker Bill Howell seized the moment, telling the Post:

' "I think the fundamental problem is that the gas tax is just becoming less and less reliable," said Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), who has called for more private investment in road and rail projects. "Why continue to look at that as the primary way to fund transportation needs? We need to find another way." '

For another view, look at Steve Haner's column, in which he says: ' "When you hear about new, innovative, outside-the-box proposals that will eliminate the need for any straight-up tax increase that is what they are usually boil down to – tolls, debt and old wine in a new skin. Free rides are as hard to find in the real world as free lunches." '

Friday, August 26, 2005

It Takes a Village

Albemarle County planners would like to channel growth in the Crozet community (to the west of Charlottesville) into a "village." The Old Trail Village project would permit some 2,000 residential units and 250,000-square-feet of commercial space a short distance from "downtown" Crozet.

An editorial in the Daily Progress is skeptical. "County planners refer to a 'village concept' in a sort of marketing jargon that takes the bucolic term, stands it on its ear and force-feeds it steroids until it plops down next to a community such as Crozet as something a little less country and a little more inflated." Locals are worried about the impact on traffic, water supplies and schools.

I know next to nothing about this particular project, so I cannot comment on the details. But I would note that, in the abstract, clustering rural development in "villages" makes a lot more sense than smearing growth randomly over the countryside. Presumably, a village contains a mix of houses, stores, offices, restaurants and other amenities that enable residents the ability to take care of most of their daily needs locally -- without the necessity of hopping onto the regional transportation grid (in this case, U.S. 250 and Interstate 64). Ideally, the houses, shops, office and schools are located closely enough together, and the streetscape designed in such a way, that people are encouraged to walk or bicycle with some frequency to destinations within the community.

In the best of all worlds, the new "village" would not even be a free-standing community, but would integrate seamlessly with the existing town of Crozet, creating a larger community with a balance of housing, retail, office and amenities.

The Right Way to Encourage Pedestrian Traffic

Following up on my previous post about a proposed bike/walking path in Charlottesville, I offer an example of a small project in the town of Pound, in the coalfields of Southwest Virginia. According to, Rep. Rick Boucher, D-9th, has pried loose $80,000 in federal funds for construction of a pedestrian walkway there.

Currently, pedestrians walking Highland Avenue share the roadway with vehicular traffic -- not exactly what you'd call pedestrian friendly. The completed sidewalk will connect one residential and business area of downtown Pound to another business area and will provide safe and convenient pedestrian access between the two areas.

Will there be sufficient foot traffic to justify the expenditure of $80,000? That's a different question. But at least we're talking about a transportation project that promotes mobility and access in the town -- not recreation.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

The BRAC Impact in Northern Virginia

If the Base Realignment and Closure Commission approves a plan to move tens of thousands of jobs from D.C. and the inner suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria out to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, it will wreak havoc on the local road networks, say opponents. And they've put out a draft study to back up their argument.

The Coalition for Smarter Growth hired its own consultant to analyze traffic data from a broader regional study and came up with these examples: If the move is approved, says the group in a release, "17,935 more cars will leave the Fort Belvoir area between 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on weekdays in 2010 than will be able to, given the limited roadway capacity. In 2020, even after widening Route 1 north, Route 1 south, Telegraph Rd., and Pohick Rd, the model calculates that there will be 14,541 more vehicles leaving the Fort Belvoir area between 4 p.m. and p.m. than the roads can handle."

From coalition executive director Stewart Schwartz: “Even if it were feasible to provide sufficient roadway capacity, the cost could be hundreds of millions of dollars, and possibly more, at a time when area jurisdictions are already struggling to fix existing transportation problems.”

The group also dismissed the idea of extending Metrorail to Fort Belvoir, arguing that the less-dense land use and setbacks required by BRAC would be a poor fit for transit: "No amount of capital investments in transit will be able to recreate the quality of transit service in Fort Belvoir that currently exists in Arlington."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

The Wrong Way to Encourage Pedestrian Traffic

Federal transportation funds often come with strings attached, such as a requirement to spend a certain percentage of dollars on transportation "alternatives" like biking and jogging trails. The problem is that most of these projects are really recreational in nature. A case in point: The planned bicycle path running from Richmond to Williamsburg. A second case in point: a proposed $200,000 bicycle/pedestrian path in downtown Charlottesville. The trouble with the Charlottesville path, from what I can divine from the article in the Daily Progress, is that it doesn't take people anywhere they want to go.

If communities want to build recreational amenities for their citizens, that's fine -- we all need more exercise! -- but they should spend parks & recreation dollars. Transportation dollars should be allocated to projects that improve access and mobility.

The fact is, building park-like bike and jogging trails doesn't do anything to pry people out of their cars. "Trails" that meander through picturesque terrain, whether urban or rural, are largely useless as a transportation mode because they are the destination; they don't take people anywhere else they want to go.

If walking and biking is ever to become an alternative for more than a handful of health nuts, we need to integrate sidewalks and bicycle lanes seamlessly into the design of our streetscapes. Sidewalks and bike lanes need to take people to actual destinations, like cars do. But that's a job for city and county planners, not the federal government.

The STAR Solutions Spin on I-81

In an essay in the Times-Dispatch on Sunday, English Construction president Doug Dalton gives an all-is-well assessment of the status of the STAR Solutions $13 billion proposal to upgrade I-81. Despite not getting the $800 million it wanted in the recent federal transportation bill ($100 million was designed for I-81 for truck lanes), Dalton says the consortium's "creative, cost-effective solution to the worsening conditions on I-81" is still, um, on track.

He brushes aside many if not all of the major criticisms of the project. Moving freight through the corridor by expanding rail capacity isn't the answer, Dalton says, and it's too expensive. Tolls might be so high that some trucks would choose alternate routes, but "we are convinced the benefits of bringing long-awaited safety improvements to this increasingly dangerous highway will keep diversions to a minimum."

And despite not getting the millions it wanted from the feds - not to mention Virginia's budget problems - Dalton says the funding plan is on track. "..we're in an excellent position to get work underway to address the very real problems that exist on I-81."

Oh yeah - the public apparently loves the STAR proposal, according to an unspecified poll Dalton cites. He doesn't mention the opposition from local groups in the Shenandoah Valley, or the Virginia Manufacturing Association and the Virginia Manufacturers Association.

Dalton's column is an apparent attempt to limit the damage done by editorials like this one from the Bristol Herald Courier earlier this month.

"The road-building consortium wants to use I-81 as a guinea pig for the truck superhighway of the future – leveraging federal funds to test the idea of dedicated (but not physically separated) truck lanes on the nation’s interstates. Never mind that the Virginia Department of Transportation’s own study shows truck lanes are a poor fix for both congestion and safety concerns."

Monday, August 22, 2005

What's So Bad About Bus Rapid Transit?

Will Vehrs once noted on this blog that "if squirrels are rats with better PR, buses are the rats of the transportation system." And buses are getting no respect in Virginia Beach. Plans for what would be Virginia's first bus rapid transit system, serving Virginia Beach's resort strip and its new convention center, are getting a little shaky. Here's a good Virginian-Pilot story on the latest developments.

There are so many things going wrong at once: the local hotel owners association opposes the BRT system because it would apparently require turning Atlantic and Pacific avenues into one-way streets, which they see as a huge discouragement to business. And then there's the negotiation over purchasing parts of a 15.4-mile right-of-way now owned by Norfolk Southern. The city of Norfolk needs that property too, for its light-rail proposal, but the sides can't agree on a purchase price. (They really can't agree: at one point Hampton Road Transit offered $2.7 million; Norfolk Southern said the property was appraised at $48.4 million)

Says the article: "If all goes as planned, the BRT routes would cover six miles on Atlantic Avenue and 19th Street, the campgrounds on General Booth Boulevard, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center and express trips to Lynnhaven Mall and Town Center. BRT would use dedicated lanes with ticketing, boarding and scheduling similar to those for light rail systems, at a fraction of the cost."

It would replace the existing trolley system, but run year round and carry more people (421,000 vs 807,000) - and be more expensive ($217,400 a year for the city versus $457,500).

The Pilot has dissed the project in a recent editorial , saying: "The fact is, beyond the project’s official proponents, it has little support among any of the communities that actually matter: business, mass transit advocates, tourists, citizens."

The city council has delayed until early October a vote that would finalize more details of the project...

Head for the Hills: Bacon's Rebellion Published

The Aug. 23, 2005, edition of Bacon's Rebellion is now available online.

Two columns should be of particular interest to readers of this blog:

Does Not Compute
VDOT's forecasting model is the best yet devised, but it's still grievously flawed. Virginia does not face $108 billion in unmet transportation needs over the next 20 years.
by James A. Bacon

Balanced Communities
Developing "balanced communities" is critical to achieving sustainable New Urban Regions in a globally competitive economy. Herewith is a primer on what they are and how to create them.
by EM Risse

Walking Blues in the Outer 'Burbs

County planners in suburban counties in Virginia and Maryland are trying to retrofit a trail and sidewalk network, says this Wash Post story, in hopes of giving residents a chance to walk or bike. Planners in Charles County, Md., have rewritten their development rules to "encourage a series of urban-style villages where people would feel more comfortable walking to shop, eat and go to work." New roads are now required to have trails for walkers and cyclists.

Spotsylvania County in Virginia used to let developers build subdivisions without sidewalks. Now, says the Post, "developers that choose not to lay sidewalks must pay into a fund that covers the cost of connecting critical areas throughout the county, such as linking schools with older subdivisions where the developers are long gone."

A study released last year by the Coalition for Smarter Growth named Charles and Spotsylvania the Baltimore-Washington region's two most dangerous counties for pedestrians.