Friday, September 09, 2005

Ben Cline's Really Bad Idea

To ease the impact of high fuel prices, Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge, has called for a 60-day suspension of Virginia’s 17.5 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. Said Cline in a press conference Thursday: “Using less than 20 percent of the current surplus to suspend the gas tax will help Virginians who are facing tighter budgets due to high gas prices, while providing a much-needed boost to Virginia’s economy.’’

Let's start by addressing the fiscal issues. Warner administration spokesman Kevin Hall said the proposal would cost the state much more than the $146 million projected by Cline because the loss of state dollars would entail the loss of matching federal dollars for transportation. Cline disputed Hall's statement. Regardless of who's right or wrong on that particular point, there is a larger issue...

High prices are the economy's way of telling people to conserve, in this case either by shifting to more fuel efficient cars or by changing their driving habits. When people drive their cars and consume gasoline, they generate costs for society that are not reflected in the market price at the pump. Most obvious is the cost of maintaining and enlarging the state road network -- that's why there's a gas tax. Arguably, this tax is too low as it is. Other costs are less visible and impossible to measure but no less real: the costs of traffic congestion imposed on other motorists, the costs associated with air pollution, the economic costs associated with the U.S. dependence upon foreign oil, and the geopolitical costs entailed by high oil prices propping up noxious regimes like those in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

Gas prices need to reflect the social costs of gasoline consumption and oil dependency. Lifting the gas tax, even temporarily, sends the wrong message and discourages Virginians from re-evaluating how often, and how far, they drive.

Read the story in the News Virginian here.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The 'Cozy' Relationships behind STAR's I-81 Proposal

A supporter of upgrading freight rail service instead of building truck-only lanes on the 325 miles of Interstate 81 in Virginia is putting a spotlight on the relationships between the project's political and private-sector supporters.

In a column in The Free Lance-Star today, Rees Shearer of a group called RAIL Solutions points to the cozy connections between STAR Solutions and Alaska Rep. Don Young, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and a strong supporter of the truck-lane approach.

Says Shearer: "Behind STAR Solutions is the principal partner Halliburton Corporation, through its infamous subsidiary KBR. KBR is under investigation for allegedly defrauding and over-billing the Pentagon while conducting military support operations in Iraq.

STAR partners include Randolph DeLay--brother of U.S. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay--and the Richmond law firm McGuire Woods, which helped write the Public-Private Transportation Act on which the STAR proposal is based.

These heavyweights are selling STAR as contractors for I-81 improvements. McGuire Woods' advertising slogan makes it plain: "Relationships that drive results." These relationships are too cozy."

Not cozy enough, I suppose, for the STAR team, since it only got $100 million out of the latest transportation bill, not the $800 million it hoped for.

Shearer says rail is safe, efficient and a cheaper way to move the freight, since most of it is just passing through the state.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Macquarie Purchases Dulles Greenway

The Macquarie Infrastructure Group, a Sydney, a global developer of toll roads, has announced plans to acquire and operate the 14-mile Dulles Greenway toll road. For $533 million, Macquarie is purchasing full control of the general partner -- The Shenandoah Group -- and one of two other partners. The company, based in Sydney, Australia, is negotiating with Kellogg, Brown and Root for the remaining 13 percent ownership.

Macquarie's toll-road portfolio extends from Australia to the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Portugal and the United States. Said CEO Steve Allen: "Dulles Greenway has a number of highly attractive attributes that caught the attention of MIG and we have been actively pursuing the opportunity to invest in the road for some time. Dulles Greenway is a relatively young, well maintained intra urban toll road with a 10-year operating history and 51 years remaining in the concession agreement. Tolls are established, on application, by the Virginia State Corp. Commission."

Furthermore, Allen noted, the toll road serves Loudoun County, with one of the most affluent and fast-growing populations in the United States. Despite financial difficulties in the early years, the Dulles Greenway has enjoyed compounded average growth of 17 percent for traffic and 26 percent for revenue between 1996 and 2004."

For details, see the article in the Loudoun Times-Mirror.

BRAC Tells Virginia Beach: Back Off Oceana

Virginia Beach has grown so quickly for so long, but now it's got to pull back, says the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which is threatening to close the Oceana Naval Air Station if city leaders won't move development out of the base's crash zones.

Oceana employs 12,000 people, but the alternative to losing those jobs is buying and tearing down 1,800 homes and an unknown number of businesses, says the Times-Dispatch. Some city officials estimated the cost at about $500 million, says the paper. But city officials say they're not yet sure exactly what the commission wants; the formal documents outlining BRAC's terms may arrive this week.

I have a hard imagining that the council has much of a choice here - bulldozing homes and businesses is not really an option.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Rebellion Is Now!

The September 5, 2005, edition of the Bacon's Rebellion e-Zine is now available online. Click here to read it. Transportation-related columns include....

Carpool Comeback: Thanks to $3-per-gallon gasoline and NuRide's online, ride-sharing service, carpooling could stage a big rebound. by James A. Bacon

Baliles Weighs In: Former Gov. Jerry Baliles has altered the terms of the transportation debate with a bold new proposal: Raise $1 billion a year through tolls on Virginia Interstates. by Barnie Day

Feelings vs. Facts: The case for extending Metro rail to Dulles plays to the emotions. The case against it is based upon facts and logic. by Philip Rodokanakis

Electronic Tolling Is Catching On

Virginia drivers are sure getting comfortable with the idea of electronic tolling, which is good news for proponents of toll funding for new highways - especially for former governor Gerald Baliles' pitch to set up 38 tolling stations on Virginia's interstates.

The Washington Post reports that the number of EZ-Pass transactions jumped from 118,000 last October to 646,000 in June. Transactions using Smart Tags rose by 1 million during the same period.

Says the Post: 'Officials said the rise in users is due to greater familiarity with the technology and the universal desire not to sit in traffic jams.

'The results of increased usage are "better operations of roads, drivers are certainly not sitting in traffic as much, and they're not creating more pollution or air quality issues," said Barbara Reese, chief financial officer for the Virginia Department of Transportation.

'Public enthusiasm for electronic tolls also bodes well for plans to build more toll roads in the Washington region. Virtually every major road being considered in Virginia and Maryland would have a toll, and the success of the roads would require collection of tolls without slowing traffic.'