Saturday, October 01, 2005

Are NoVa Communities Restoring Residential Balance?

The root cause of Northern Virginia's transportation woes is the imbalance of jobs and housing at the community level. Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax have been incredibly successful at attracting commercial development but have restricted new residential development, with the consequence that workers have been forced to seek housing in outlying jurisdictions -- and rely upon a handful of increasingly congested transportation arteries to get them back and forth to work.

A wave of large mixed-use developments in the inner- and middle-ring suburbs, however, promises to rectify the jobs/housing balance to some degree. As reported in the Falls Church Weekly Focus:

Most of the larger and most successful mixed use development projects in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan region are far more than 60% residential, the Falls Church City Council learned last week in a special briefing from Rick Goff, the City's economic development chief....

The Market Common on the Clarendon district of Arlington is now 64% residential, and will be 79 percent by the time its third phase is completed, he said. Pentagon Row, with 2.3 million square feet, is 69% residential. The 2.37 million square foot Metro West project in Vienna is 85.5% residential, the Merrifield Town Center, at 1.95 [million] square feet, is 68% residential, the Silver Spring project is 55% residential, and the Midtown Springfield project is 79% residential, Goff reported.

Goff delivered the report as the Falls Church council considered changes in the city's comprehensive plan to permit a major redevelopment of the city's downtown area. The report strengthened the city staff's recommendation to allow a higher residential component.

Vienna Looks at Form-Based Code

The town of Vienna in Fairfax County is studying the possibility of converting to a form-based code along Maple Avenue, reports The Connection Newspapers. In contrast to traditional, Euclidian zoning, which governs the use of a piece of land, form-based codes regulate the shape and design of the buildings on the land. Form-based codes typically do away with traditional strip shopping centers set behind large parking lots that are inhospitable to foot traffic.

Friday, September 30, 2005

Hey, It's Better than Alaska's Bridge to Nowhere!

I'm not a fan of Congressional pork barrel, but the $40 million "traffic calming" initiative for Rt. 50 in Loudoun County -- 80 percent of which will be funded by a federal earmark -- may provide a useful demonstration effect on the value of traffic circles. The initiative, a pet project of U.S. Sen. John Warner, would install traffic circles at three congested intersections along the scenic byway.

Computer models show that a traffic circle would improve the level of service at Gilbert’s Corner from an F, which is failing, to a B, the second-highest rating. Movement through the roundabout will be 10 to 15 mph slower than traffic along the main roadways, but cars keep moving, unlike at a stoplight, where drivers have to come to a stop and wait for the light to change.

“Roundabouts are used all over Europe and are growing in use in the U.S.,” said Supervisor Jim Burton (I-Blue Ridge). Besides reducing congestion, traffic circles nearly eliminate fatalities because there is no opportunity to “t-bone” someone at full speed. “The series of roundabouts for the area will greatly improve the safety.”

Backers of the roundabouts note that they will alleviate congestion on Rt. 50 for a fraction of the cost of widening the road. Read more at Leesburg2Day.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Kilgore on Transportation: Regional Authorities

Unlike the Washington Post, which hasn't evolved past a zombie-like level of analysis -- based on the previous post, I envision its editorial writers lurching forward, arms outstretched, muttering... must... build... more... roads... must... raise... taxes -- Jerry Kilgore is at least thinking seriously about transportation. I differ with some of his conclusions, but he's raising points that the WaPo editorial writers would be discussing if they weren't brain dead.

Among the novel features of Kilgore's transportation plan is a proposal to create regional transportation authorities. If implemented as it now stands, the idea probably would prove to be disastrous. But the proposal takes the transportation debate in a useful direction.

Here's what's good about Kilgore's proposal. Transportation congestion is a metropolitan-wide phenomenon, tied intrinsically to patterns of residential and commercial development that overlap municipal boundaries. What Kilgore understands and the WaPo editorial writer doesn't, is that traffic congestion can be addressed effectively only in a regional context. Kilgore says he would would create Regional Transportation Authorities "empowered with real decision-making authority to find solutions to their transportation problems." These authorities:

...will have the power to issues bonds, hold referenda to involve taxpayers in certain financing decisions, sign private maintenance contracts, enter into public-private partnerships, and use other financing mechanisms to fund new road, bridge and mass transit projects over and above existing funding from the state.

That's moving in the right direction. Just one big problem -- and it's a killer. Kilgore would not give these regional authorities any power over land use planning. Instead of a disjunction between state transportation and local land-use planning, Virginia would experience a disjunction between regional transportation and local land-use planning. With its new power to tax, regional authorities would be empowered to waste even more money than the state currently does on ill-considered projects. Very, very bad.

But don't expect to read that kind of analysis in the Washington Post, which defines the transportation crisis purely as a revenue problem.

Editorial: Kaine, Kilgore Headed for Failure

According to the Wash Post's editorial this morning, the two major-party candidates for governor should be running from the office instead of for it.

'THE NEXT GOVERNOR of Virginia will face a stark choice," says the Post. "Either devise and implement a comprehensive rescue plan for the state's obsolete highway and transit systems or be judged a failure in office.'

Here's the paper's take: Republican Jerry Kilgore is cynical and will spend general fund money carelessly - 'which general-fund priorities would Mr. Kilgore cut to free up money -- education, health care, public safety, care for the mentally ill? He isn't saying.'

Democrat Tim Kaine is vague and, without raising more money, offers no real solution. 'Mr. Kaine does say he would redirect the taxes on auto insurance premiums to transportation projects -- they now go toward general spending -- which would yield nearly $1 billion for the state's six-year road construction plan. But like Mr. Kilgore, he has avoided saying what he would cut to make up for that lost revenue in the general fund.'

And Russ Potts is not a serious threat to win, despite his $2 billion-a-year proposal.

Says the Post: 'The most that can be hoped is that once the victor takes office, he will be jerked to his senses by clogged roads, crumbling bridges, angry commuters and grim forecasts.'

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Kilgore on Transportation: Privatize Maintenance

One of the more interesting ideas in the Kilgore transportation strategy is to "privatize asset management and maintenance wherever feasible." Virginia has achieved some success through the privatization of maintenance, and it only makes sense to build upon it.

Virginia Maintenance Service (VMS), a Richmond engineering firm, pioneered the concept of privatizing maintenance and, under contract to maintain significant stretches of Virginia's Interstate system, has saved the state tens of millions of dollars while maintaining the highway to VDOT specifications. Surely, one would think, the potential exists to save hundreds of millions of maintenance dollars by extending the concept across the state transportation system.

What the Kilgore team isn't taking into account is the fact that VDOT is already instituting elements of an asset-management program, replicating some of the techniques that VMS uses to cut costs. Admittedly, much work remains to be done. Installing a comprehensive asset-management system was the great challenge that former Commissioner Philip Shucet left uncompleted when he resigned earlier this year.

The logic is compelling. Instead of budgeting for maintenance according to the two-year investment horizon of the state budget, VDOT should budget according to the natural life cycle of its roads and highways. Spending more on maintenance today -- on un-sexy items such as road shoulders and drainage systems -- can lengthen the life span for a road between major overhauls, significantly reducing costs over its life cycle. In an interview earlier this year, Shucet told me that VDOT could conceivably reduce maintenance expenses by 20 percent.

As part of any asset-management program, VDOT could run a cost-benefit analysis for any given section of road comparing the cost of conducting maintenance in-house or privatizing the work. What must come first, however, is the asset-management system itself. Only when that management tool is put into place can VDOT make intelligent decisions about when and where to outsource.

Maintenance costs are rising astronomically, as you may recall, fueling claims that Virginia is experiencing a fiscal crisis. Following through with the asset-management program should be a top priority for the next governor, no matter who is elected.

Kilgore on Transportation: There's Something New About This?

On to other aspects of Jerry Kilgore's transportation strategy... Besides giving more emphasis to traffic demand management (see previous post), Kilgore wants to improve management over at the Virginia Department of Transportation. A laudable goal. But two of the initiatives he mentions leave me scratching my head:

· Focus on core business functions – establish goals and measure performance against them
· Assign a project manager and project management team for every critical transportation priority project.

On the first point: VDOT already sets goals and performance measures for completing construction jobs (a) on time, and (b) on budget. What other metrics does Kilgore suggest? There may be equally valid ones, but he doesn't tell us what they are.

On the second point: VDOT already assigns project managers to major transportation projects!

Former VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet put both of these reforms into place before departing in June. Am I missing something here?

Kilgore on Transportation: Demand Management

In a major policy press release, Jerry Kilgore has fleshed out the details of his transportation plan and listed his funding priorities. The campaign document, which you can read here, raises so many issues that I can't deal with them all in a single blog post, so I shall address them in a series of posts.

Let me embark upon this analysis by saying something positive. Jerry Kilgore is the only prominent politician in Virginia today who makes "demand management" a key plank in his discussion of transportation. In yesterday's press release, he vowed to:

Establish a Congestion Management Division to implement increased camera coverage for incident detection and traffic management, increase communication of highway disruptions, expand incident management/service safety patrols, and employ new technologies like signal synchronization to ease congestion...

Incident management. Most people can handle routine commutes as long as the congestion is predictable. It's all a matter of expectations. What drives motorists into a cursing, white-knuckled frenzy is when an "incident," from a jack-knifed tractor-trailer to something as simple as someone fixing a flat tire alongside the road, causes unanticipated backups. Developing systems of sensors, communications and rapid responders capable of clearing up these messes is an imperative to keep the roads moving -- and keeping drivers sane.

Traffic light synchronization. In crowded urban areas, it's prohibitively expensive to expand transportation capacity by widening roads and freeways. But it may be possible to move more people through secondary roads by making stoplights more responsive to changing flows in the volume and tempo of traffic. Likewise, Virginia needs to give serious attention to the idea of ramp metering, which regulates the flow of traffic onto freeways with the idea of ensuring minimal disruption as cars merge. These types of solutions are small scale but offer a high return on investment.

Thumbs up for this part of the Kilgore plan.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Case Gets Stronger for Federal Telework

The federal government workforce spends $19 million commuting to and from work every day, while the total U.S. white-collar workforce spends $356 million, according to a study published by the Telework Exchange, an online community focused on eliminating telework gridlock in the Federal government.

With East Coast gas prices surging from an average of $2.14 per gallon in April to $3.05 in September, the case for telework is stronger than ever. By commuting five days a week, the Federal government workforce uses 31.1 million gallons of gasoline each week, calculates the study, "Fuel Smart Economy: It's No Gas." If all Federal employees telework just two days a week, they can conserve 12.4 million gallons of fuel per week.

Said Stephen W.T. O'Keeffe, executive director of the Telework Exchange.:"Telework provides America with a green opportunity to reduce gas consumption and a golden opportunity to improve our economy's productivity. The Federal government must walk the walk as well as talk the talk on telework." Click here to see the study.

Mo' Money for Transportation: The Latest Flap

From what I can glean from news reports, the House of Delegates' approach to transportation as as intellectually bankrupt as the state Senate's. The main difference is that the House would spend less money, thereby doing less harm. But the underlying assumption is the same: There's nothing wrong with Virginia's transportation system that money can't solve.

The latest evidence comes from a story today in the Virginian-Pilot. According to reporters Christina Nuckols and Tom Holden:

A fight over the shape of next year’s state budget has some House Republicans suggesting that a portion of last year’s sales tax increase be spent on transportation. ... Doing so would create a permanent new source of money for roads without a new tax increase. With a large surplus expected this year, schools could still get a large increase in state support even if the legislature shifts part of the sales tax to road-building.

The only legislator thinking outside the box is House Speaker William Howell, R-Fredericksburg, who is noodling on the idea of privatizing large chunks of the state highway system -- an interesting idea but one full of potential potholes and perils. No one but Tim Kaine, a Democrat, is talking about tying transportation planning to land use planning, and not even Kaine is talking about fundamental land use reform. No one is talking about telecommuting, riding sharing or other forms of demand management. No one is talking about increasing the capacity of existing roads and highways through traffic-light synchronization, ramp metering or other strategies.

It's really the most extraordinary thing I've witnessed in years of following Virginia politics. Alternative ideas are out there. People are pushing them. But the people in power are ignoring them as if they didn't exist. Our legislators live in a bubble that, apparently, is impervious to new thinking of any kind. Just pitiful.

Moving Sales Tax Dollars to Transportation

The Virginian-Pilot today describes a proposal by some Republicans in the House of Delegates to shift some of the revenues from last year's sales-tax increase to transportation.

Says the story: “That’s one of the items that is on the table,” Del. Leo Wardrup , a Virginia Beach Republican, confirmed recently. Doing so would create a permanent new source of money for roads without a new tax increase.

With a large surplus expected this year, schools could still get a large increase in state support even if the legislature shifts part of the sales tax to road-building.

Wardrup dismissed arguments that the change would be detrimental to schools in later years when money is tighter. “I don’t think that’s an issue,” said Wardrup, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.'

The story says the $850 million surplus this year earmarked for roads triggered a dispute over whether some revenue from the sales tax increase should be set aside for transportation or whether that was a one-time thing.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Tim Kaine on Interstate 81

Tim Kaine made some newsworthy comments Saturday at the Virginia Environmental Assembly on how he would address traffic congestion on Interstate 81. While ducking the issue of whether he's "for" or "against" the STAR Solutions proposal for I-81, which would entail spending $13 billion or more to add four truck-only lanes the full, 325-mile length of the transportation corridor, Kaine articulated two strategies that make more sense to him:

(1) Devise a way to shift more container traffic to rail, and

(2) Focus road improvements on the 50 to 60 miles of Interstate, mainly in and around urban areas, that are most congested.

Kaine's approach would be far more affordable than the STAR boondoggle, which doesn't have much support outside the Warner administration. The devil, of course, is in the details. How could containers be shifted to rail? What public investment would need to be made? By whatever means containers are diverted to rail, the solution will cost a fraction of $13 billion.

Hampton Roads Looks (Again) At Congestion Pricing

The Virginian-Pilot writes today about a plan by VDOT to study congestion pricing as a way to lessen congestion on Hampton Roads interstates. The idea is pretty straightforward - tolls rise with the traffic count until people feel enough pain to change their travel plans, thus cutting the vehicle count etc.

Hampton Roads looked at this a couple of years ago as an option for improving traffic flow through its Downtown Tunnel, but the paper says the public outcry killed the plan. Hampton Roads Planning District Commission deputy director Dwight Farmer talked about this concept at a conference in Richmond earlier this month - he said the research showed that congestion pricing could chase away enough drivers to flatten out the peak period on the Berkeley Bridge.

Of course, Farmer says, people don't like paying tolls and getting nothing for it. Except, of course, that they are getting something. It's a hard sell.