Thursday, September 01, 2005

Angry About $3-per-Gallon Gasoline? Don't Blame the Oil Companies, Blame Our Transportation System

Thanks to Hurricane Katrina, $3-per-gallon gasoline has arrived in Virginia sooner than anyone anticipated. Only a year ago, I was beefing about $2-per-gallon gasoline and warning that "Virginians could be looking at $2.50-per gallon fuel in the not-too-distant future." At the time, I estimated, based on Department of Motor Vehicle statistics, that Virginians were spending about $10 billion annually on gasoline. Today, if this $3 price tag sticks, the number could rise to $15.1 billion a year (based on 2003 consumption figures).

Thanks to higher gas prices, Virginians are $5 billion poorer this year. As much as demogogues will blame everyone else -- OPEC, greedy oil companies, environmentalists, Hurricane Katrina, and George W. Bush, Halliburton and the war in Iraq -- we have brought much of this misery upon ourselves. As recently as 1982, Virginians consumed only 2.78 billion gallons of gasoline per year. By 2003, the number had risen to 5.04 billion. (See DMV stats.) Yes, some of that increase was due to population growth, but Virginians also are driving farther -- racking up roughly 70 percent more Vehicle Miles Driven per motorist.

Much -- not all, but much -- of that increased driving reflects changing commuting patterns and lifestyles built around our scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development -- a pattern of development subsidized and encouraged by a transportation policy that has channeled resources mainly into the construction of roads and highways. Even before Katrina, it was evident that the transportation system was imploding: The VTrans2025 study estimates that funding for Virginia's Business As Usual transportation policy will fall $108 billion short over the next 20 years -- an unaffordable gap.

Lawmakers are studying how to fund that immense shortfall. The fact of $3-per-gallon gasoline has registered upon their consciousness mainly as a political inconvenience: Virginians won't stand for another increase in the gas tax, so the politicians must find some other way of paying for all those roads and mass transit projects. (Former Gov. Gerald Baliles has floated an interesting proposal to raise $1 billion a year through Interstate tolls, as reported on this blog two days ago.)

I have yet to see an acknowledgement from anyone in power that our transportation system is broken. By VTrans2025's admission, we're facing a shortfall of $5.4 billion a year. And, on top of that, gasoline prices are costing Virginians another $5 billion a year -- an amount that will increase by another $1 billion with every 20-cent hike in the price of gasoline. Continued pursuit of our Business As Usual transportation policy is a sure-fire formula for empoverishing Virginia. Someone, please stop the madness!

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Illinois to Convert to Open Toll System

Former Gov. Gerald Baliles has proposed a statewide network of 38 tolls on Virginia's Interstates to raise an estimated $1 billion a year to be applied to Interstate maintenance and improvements. In favor of the proposal, he noted, "Open road tolling technology eliminates the 'stop and go' toll booths of the past."

As it happens, one company that develops open-road tolling technology has extensive operations in Virginia: SAIC. And according to a press release issued yesterday, SAIC will be helping the state of Illinois convert to an open-toll system. According to an item to be published in tomorrow's VA Newswire:

SAIC to Upgrade Illinois Toll System

MCLEAN--Science Applications International Corporation has been awarded a $6.6 million contract by the Illinois Tollway to assist in the Tollway's system-wide conversion to Open Road Tolling, the first in the nation to convert all mainline toll plazas to a barrier-free electronic toll collection system. SAIC’s Violation Enforcement System enforces payment of tolls by capturing images of vehicle license plates that drive through toll lanes without paying or without a valid I-PASS. More.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Gerald Baliles Proposes Interstate Tolling

Virginia could reap about $1 billion a year if it set up a network of tolling stations on the state's interstate highways, says former Gov. Gerald Baliles in an Aug. 23 letter to state Sen. John Chichester.

Baliles' proposal is directed at Chichester's Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force (START), which holds its first meeting next month.

Writes Baliles: "When you dig into the statistics on vehicle miles traveled in Virginia, one fact jumps out. The vast majority of the growth is on the interstate highway system." Setting up 38 tolling locations would raise $1 billion a year, and tolls are indisputably a user fee, which has more political support than a tax increase, he says. "A billion dollars of new money annually, sustained over 12 to 15 years, for example, would give Virginia resources to address a long list of significant projects."

Among the projects are the Third Crossing in Hampton Roads, widening Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley and a "long list" of road improvements in Northern Virginia, and some key rail projects.

The tolls - collected electronically - would average 85 cents, but could vary, such as lower tolls for commuter routes and higher tolls at border crossings, or different tolls for trucks, etc. Plus, tolls could be lowered across the board if another funding source were found for the $1 billion, Baliles says.

Baliles also proposes creating Port District Transportation Funds, tax districts that would use the revenues collected to build key infrastructure. Baliles uses as an example the $130 million Virginia spent in 1989 to upgrade Route 28 next to Washington Dulles International Airport, an investment that, a decade later, produced $6 billion in economic activity a year and $1 billion increase in property values, he says.

If You Build It, They Will Drive

How far is too far, asks this interesting article in the Wash Post, about a developer's plan to build a 4,300-unit residential development in western Maryland. And he figures some of the buyers will be commuters to the Washington area's suburban job markets along the I-270 corridor in Maryland.

' "If I was going to draw a realistic radius, I would think you'd get folks going to Germantown, to northern Montgomery County, to work," says the developer, Michael Carnock. "You can get there in an hour and a half in rush hour." '

Here's a thumbnail of the project: a 23-acre equestrian center, a hiking trail and a shopping center, 2,280 single-family homes, 424 townhouses, 912 condominiums and 684 apartments. Carnock says it will be kind of new urbanist, "similar to Montgomery County's Kentlands."

Carnock says it will attract "active adults" who are willing to commute for a few years before they retire, and the recently retired who want to be close to their former homes.

And speaking of distant commutes, here's Post auto columnist Warren Brown's bitter description of what has happened to another Washington highway corridor - Route 7, which used to be a ride through open countryside.

Now, says Brown, Route 7 is "a permanently congested artery filled with cars and trucks and drivers commuting to jobs miles away from their faux-rural, prefabricated houses and rushing to shopping centers to spend the money they've earned on stuff that they ferry back to their homes."