Friday, September 16, 2005

State Disperses $50 Million in Local Project Funds

The Commonwealth Transportation Board has dispersed $50 million in matching funding for transportation projects in localities across Virginia, according to a press release issued by House Speaker William J. Howell, R-Stafford. A $25 million increase in the local-matching program was a key part of the transportation funding plan enacted by the General Assembly in the 2005 session.

"Through this House Republican initiative, localities have been given another tool from which to develop valuable expertise in transportation project oversight," Howell said. "Moving these important transportation decisions away from the bureaucracy of Richmond and to the insight of the localities is an important step in reforming the way transportation is delivered in Virginia.”

Ninety-eight cities, towns and counties applied for the funds. The Speaker's statement did not detail any of the recipients or the projects funded. (Despite assurances to Bacon's Rebellion nearly a year ago that the Speaker's office one day would establish a website so we could link to the full text of his press releases, there still is no website. Take note, Paul Nardo!)

Road versus Transit versus Politicians

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Tim Kaine says transit projects should be on equal footing with road projects - but GOP critics say that would just steal dollars away from roads that the state desperately needs to build.

An article in The Free Lance-Star today covers the dispute:

'GOP delegates and senators held two conference calls with reporters, orchestrated by Republican Jerry Kilgore's campaign, to blast Kaine for what they viewed as a call to change the state's complicated transportation funding formulas.

"I'm not exactly sure what the lieutenant governor meant, but what he'd have to do is change the transportation trust fund formula to do what he intends to do," said state Sen. William Wampler, R-Bristol. "I don't know that we should rob from Peter to pay Paul. To take it from an already strained transportation budget adds to the problems we already have.'

To which Kaine's camp responds, nonsense. The disparity isn't in how much each gets, it's in how they're funded. The state pays for nearly all the cost of roads, while localities have to foot the bill for transit projects and then apply for federal and state reimbursements - and the state caps its reimbursements at 35 percent of the nonfederal share of the cost.

'"There is an incentive that leads localities away from mass-transit projects even if the mass-transit project is the right one," said Kaine spokesman Jeff Kraus. "We want to ensure that localities aren't penalized for selecting mass-transit options to meet their need."'

An inspiring policy debate. You gotta love Sen. Wampler's comment - 'I'm not exactly sure what the lieutenant governor meant...'

Thursday, September 15, 2005

An Answer in the House

An interesting 'what if' study was outlined in an afternoon session of the Virginia Sustainable Future summit yesterday in Richmond. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is studying what the region would be like in 2030 under a few different scenarios:

1) Increasing household growth by 200,000, built in regional 'activity centers' (that looked to be along major transportation corridors.)

2a) moving household units (84,000) to the inner suburbs to put people closer to their jobs.

2b) shifting job growth (82,000 jobs) to the outer suburbs to be closer to residential growth.

3) put new jobs and households around transit stations.

The results so far: moving the forecast growth around the region had a very small effect on daily travel, said Robert Griffiths of MWCOG's Department of Transportation Planning. But adding 200,000 residential units had a "dramatic effect." It would increase transit use by 12 percent and cut VMT per capita by nine percent. Walk and bike commuting would increase 18 percent. "This was one of the few studies that actually showed that we could make a reduction in VMT," Griffiths said.

Tri-County Parkway Sunk by Corps of Engineers?

It's hard to get highways built. A proposed $548 million road that would run through Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties is unlikely to ever get built because the Army Corps of Engineers won't issue a permit for it, says a story in today's Washington Post.

The corps says the chosen corridor, one of four options but one all the counties agree on, would have the highest impact on wetlands and streams. The road would run from Route 50 near Dulles through part of Fairfax and end at the Route 234 bypass and Route 28 interchange in Prince William.

VDOT Project Manager Ken Wilkinson delivered the bad news to Prince William county supervisors but held out hope. Route 288 west of Richmond faced similar obstacles, he said, but it was eventually built.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Cool Virginia Technology Makes Mass Transit More Efficient

A division of Dulles-based Orbital Sciences Corporation has been awarded a $4.4 million contract by Intercity Transit of Olympia, Wash., to provide an Advanced Communications System to manage a fleet of 85 vehicles. The contract will provide a radio communications system that is fully integrated with Computer Aided Dispatch and Automated Vehicle Location capabilities.

With Orbital's ACS deployment, Intercity Transit expects to realize both reduced operating costs and improved service to its riders. Intercity Transit will collect and analyze data from actual operations and modify its schedules and travel times to improve on-time performance.

Orbital TMS is the country's leading supplier of satellite-based Automatic Vehicle Location (AVL) systems for the expanding Intelligent Transportation Systems market. Orbital's AVL systems are used by 55 transit and state agency customers in the U.S. and internationally, with units installed, or scheduled to be installed, on approximately 26,000 buses and similar mass-transit vehicles.

What a novel idea -- making bus systems more efficient and responsive to consumers. Maybe we could use some of that state-of-the-art technology here in Virginia.... assuming, of course, that we can spare a few bucks from the state's multi-billion road and rail construction programs. Why Virginia's technology sector hasn't mobilized to push IT applications in transportation is beyond me.

More information about Orbital TMS can be found at

Gas Crisis Gives Telecommuting a Boost

In response to the gasoline shortage caused by Hurricane Katrina, Richard Fleeter, president of AeroAstro, Inc., in Ashburn has urged all employees to telework at least one day per week.

Said Fleeter: "Since our inception in 1988 we have maintained a policy promoting employee teleworking except when presence at the office is essential. We have developed management and infrastructure at AeroAstro to make remote work as efficient and enjoyable as possible, allowing us to work effectively with clients and partners around the world and to attract to our work force the most highly talented people regardless of their geographic proximity to our home in Ashburn."

Telecommuting is a win-win-win strategy, Fleeter said.
  • Employees cut transportation costs related to commuting by 20 percent, offsetting the rise in fuel.
  • The region benefits from reduced traffic congestion and air pollution
  • The nation benefits from reduced gas consumption and reduced dependence upon foreign oil.
  • The company benefits because telecommuting helps attract talented employees.

For more info, read AeroAstro's press release.

When Good Highways Go Bad

The politicians are clamouring for billions more in taxes to pay for billions more in road construction projects, which they control. Route 288, a $450 million bypass around southwestern Richmond, is a case study of a project whose funding moved to the head of the line when powerful special interests line up behind it. Not only did the project crowd out other primary road projects in the Richmond region, it required a $129 million bail-out from the General Assembly earlier this year -- a fact that has gone largely unnoticed by politicians and pundits in Northern Virginia, Norfolk and Roanoke, who are normally hyper-sensitive about favoritism to Richmond in the allocation of state pork.

To read more about Route 288, see Bob Burke's story, "When Good Highways Go Bad."

Steve Haner has posted a response to Burke's story on the Bacon's Rebellion blog.

Will the True Fiscal Conservative Please Stand Up?

As gubernatorial candidates Jerry Kilgore and Tim Kaine prepared to discuss transportation and other issues in their first televised debate today, a coalition of "smart growth" groups weighed in with its own recommendations for transportation policy. The bottom line: Want more money for transportation? Adopt key reforms first to make sure it isn't wasted.

In a prepared statement, a group calling itself Reconnecting Virginia said the following:

"Far too many business leaders are saying 'we just need to spend more money on transportation.' But they're not addressing the fundamental underlying problems with Virginia's transportation program," said Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. "We need to address where and how we grow. Without better land use and community design to reduce the growth in driving, our tax dollars will be wasted on VDOT."

"Moreover, the public and decision-makers still can't track the taxpayer dollars we already give to VDOT," said Chris Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council. "We have to do better at showing the public how the money is being spent and what we're getting for our investment before we ask for more money. We can't fiscally afford or physically build our way out of this problem, if VDOT continues to focus on building roads that create more scattered development and traffic instead of fixing the problems where people already live."

Most of those advocating for major increases in transportation spending base their demand for higher taxes or more toll roads on VDOT's own, un-audited, claim that they need $203 billion over the next 20 years (VTRANS 2025 Plan). This represents over a $100 billion increase and another $5 billion per year for Virginia taxpayers.

"VDOT's proposal is so costly it should give every Virginian pause. It is a grand wish-list that failed to consider alternate approaches to massive new highway spending and should not be used to justify spending increases," said Schwartz. ... "VDOT's approach failed to consider better land use, rising gas prices, changing population demographics, and other factors that would contribute to reducing traffic at lower cost to the taxpayers. "

To view Reconnecting Virginia's legislative priorities, click here.

(Full disclosure: The Piedmont Environmental Council underwrites the Road to Ruin project.)

The Potts Transportation Plan -- a Parody of Itself

I have to give Sen. Russ Potts credit for one thing: He's published the most detailed transportation plan yet to emerge from the 2005 gubernatorial campaign. But that's the last thing I'll give him credit for. It's scary to think that this man is running for governor largely on the basis of this plan -- and scarier still that elements of the press, the punditocracy and the public are taking him seriously.

In the first line of his plan, the Senator blurts out: "Virginia’s transportation crisis is among the­ worst in the nation and is rapidly deteriorating." He offers no evidence whatsoever for the claim that Virginia's transportation crisis is "among the worst in the nation." Compared to who? Based on levels of congestion? The condition of our roads? What? He doesn't bother to tell us.

Then comes the "analysis": How did we get here? Potts cites population growth of two million since 1980. Of course, he neglects to mention that those two million people also are paying gasoline taxes and other transportation-related fees, with the result that transportation funding has been increasing, too. Potts notes that Virginians now own three million more cars, without ever suggesting why -- could it have something to do with the scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development that has forced people into cars for every trip they take? Nor does he ever pause to wonder, now that Virginians collectively own more cars than they have licensed drivers, could this trend finally have expended itself as a force for greater Vehicle Miles Driven?

Proceeding through the plan, Potts eventually stumbles across a germ of truth, noting that there has been no significant increase in infrastructure investment since 1986. Because the gasoline tax is fixed, and has not been adjusted for inflation, it has shrunk in real terms. But somehow, Potts thinks that an extra $2 billion a year in tolls and taxes will do the trick. The Warner administration's transportation plan, VTrans2025, says that the state will need $5.4 billion a year on average over the next 20 years if we want to be able to build our way out of our predicament. Nowhere does Potts say how he determined that a mere $2 billion a year will suffice to do the job.

Nowhere in his plan does Potts acknowledge the existence of alternative approaches to providing access and mobility. He doesn't even give lip service to alternatives, as the Warner plan at least did, suggesting that he doesn't even know they exist. Potts totally ignores the impact of scattered land uses and poor urban design upon the frequency and distance with which people drive their cars. He totally ignores the potential for demand-management strategies such as ride sharing. He totally ignores the potential to increase the capacity of existing infrastructure through such techniques as ramp metering and traffic light synchronization. He totally ignores the seismic shift in the relationship between workers and the workplace, which are profoundly altering commuting patterns.

The Potts plan is an extremist platform. It incorporates none of the mainstream insights found in VTrans2025 or the Texas Transportation Institute's 2005 Urban Mobility Study, much less acknowledging the critiques of environmentalists, urban planners, New Urbanists or Smart Growthers. The Potts plan is a parody of itself -- a plan that even the most fervent advocates of the road building lobby would be embarrassed to present to the public.

The really sad thing is that editorial boards around Virginia no doubt will commence singing Potts' praises for the daring of his vision rather than the depth of his ignorance.

Monday, September 12, 2005

The Baliles Plan Gains Momentum

Former Gov. Gerald Baliles continues to garner favorable responses to his transportation plan to raise $1 billion by imposing tolls on Virginia's Interstate highways. The latest comes in an encomium from the Virginian-Pilot: "Baliles deserves acclaim for crafting a state transportation plan that, while breathtaking in its demands, offers an innovative way out of a gathering crisis."

Citing the $108 billion in "unmet needs" projected by the VTrans2025 study, the Pilot states that "Baliles presents a complete solution for moving beyond the current malaise to solving the transportation woes that plague every section of the state" (my italics).

Clearly, Baliles has devised an interesting measure to raise $1 billion with a minimum of political pain: His proposed tolls on Interstates would tap out-of-state motorists passing through the state to help pay for Virginian roads. But even Baliles, I would venture to say, would not purport to present a "complete solution."

Let's run through the numbers one more time. $108 billion over 20 years averages out to $5.4 billion a year. Baliles' plan would raise $1 billion a year. That would leave the state $4.4 billion short. The Baliles plan has the same problem as the Potts plan: It doesn't come close to raising the full amount of money required by a Business As Usual Approach to transportation. It might kick the can down the road for a few years, but inevitably the system will veer towards collapse.

The current transportation system is fiscally and politically unsustainable. Virginians will not stand for $5.4 billion more in tolls and taxes. May $1 billion more, or even $2 billion, if they really thought the problem will be fixed. But according to the VTrans2025, even $2 billion won't come close to fixing the problem. We need to rethink the most basic assumptions of our transportation policy.

Gas Prices Driving Richmonders to Transit?

A Times-Dispatch article today discusses how high gas prices driving more riders on the the region's bus system, and who the transit agency's boss hopes to get even more.

John M. Lewis Jr., CEO of the GRTC Transit System, wants more buses on the road so commuters will have a real option. Says the article: Metropolitan Richmond wasn't built with mass transit in mind. After decades of suburban sprawl, the region lacks the kind of predictable, round-the-clock service it takes to get people to leave their cars at home.

"I come from Baltimore, which is a much larger city, with a bus every five minutes," Lewis said. "Here, if you wait 35 minutes and miss the bus and have to wait another 35 to 40 minutes, you're probably not going to see me again."

And the always-optimistic mass transit supporters chime in: 'Still, it's not too late to shift gears, transit supporters say.

Unlike Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, Richmond still has "a chance right now to design a system of the future," said Karen Rae, director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.

This could include light rail lines, or commuter rail on existing track, to whisk workers downtown from the 'burbs.

"One of the problems in thinking 10 or 20 years out is the ability to bring urgency to the problem," Rae said. "I think the gas prices may bring back the urgency."'

Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Potts Transportation Plan

Independent gubernatorial candidate H. Russell Potts Jr. proposes spending $2 billion more a year for road and rail projects, and he'd pay for it through a combination of tax increases, some interstate tolls and public-private partnerships, says today's Washington Post. Potts is going to formally unveil his transportation plan tomorrow.

"Potts's plan would pump billions of dollars into initiatives including extending Metrorail to Dulles, widening Interstate 66 inside the Capital Beltway and building a third crossing of the Chesapeake Bay in Hampton Roads. It stops short of endorsing specific forms of tax and fee increases and does not call for an immediate increase in the state's 17 1/2 -cent gas tax. For fiscal 2006, the transportation budget is $4.1 billion, a quarter of which is federal funds."

Is this going to get him up to 15 percent?