Saturday, October 08, 2005

Why Isn't U.S. 58 Finished?

The Patrick Henry Economic Development Council is paying $30,000 to hire Whitt Clement, former Secretary of Transportation, to lobby the General Assembly to raise funds for the completion of U.S. 58, the road that runs across the southern tier of Virginia, from Hampton Roads to the Cumberland Gap. Now the Danville Register and Bee is applauding the decision to hire him.

Here's my question: Why is it even necessary to hire Clement? Why wasn't the project completed a long time ago? Drawing upon my musty memory, I recall that U.S. 58 was a hot issue during the Wilder administration more than 12 years ago. As best I recollect -- and I'm willing to stand corrected -- the state issued $600 million in bonds to finance the four-laning of the highway, a project that was regarded as an indispensable economic development tool for the mill towns like Martinsville, Danville and South Boston that are strung like beeds along the length of the road.

Apparently, that $600 million -- which was a considerable amount of money back then -- was not sufficient to do the job. Does anyone know how much of the road remains unfinished, and how much more is needed? Is anyone asking why the job wasn't completed a long time ago? Why do we need to go back to the well?

Friday, October 07, 2005

Does the VTrans $203 billion add up?

No, says Coalition for Smarter Growth and the Piedmont Environmental Council, which calls the VDOT estimate of the state's transportation needs over 20 years a flawed analysis. The two groups put out a release yesterday with several links to supporting documents.

According to Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition, “All too many business leaders are treating VDOT’s shocking claim that we face $203 billion in transportation needs over 20 years (VTRANS 2025), including $108 billion for which we do not have funding, as an unassailable fact. That’s $5.4 billion dollars more each year, above the $4 billion per year we spend today.”

To raise this kind of money would require over a $1 per gallon increase in the state gas tax, or more than doubling our state sales tax to 10.8 percent, or a $900 vehicle registration fee. Some even want to take money from education and other General Fund needs. “The VDOT needs number is simply not realistic,” said Chris Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council. “It is unaffordable and calls for a completely new approach to transportation and land use policies before we decide what additional funding we need to provide and what projects we should fund.”

Whitt Clement to Lobby for U.S. 58 Improvements

The Patrick County Economic Development Authority has voted unanimously to support a proposal to hire Whitt Clement to lobby for completion of U.S. 58 from Stuart to Hillsville, according to the Stuart Enterprise. Clement, Gov. Mark R. Warner's former Secretary of Transportation, now works for the Hunton & Williams. Before joining the Warner administration, he served as a delegate from Danville.

Glenn Roycroft, EDA chairman, said Clement has offered to serve as a lobbyist during the 2006 session of the General Assembly, working to complete the four-laning of U.S. on behalf of Southside and Southwest Virginia localities from Halifax to Wythe County. The EDA can hire Clement for $30,000, Roycroft said, and should add a $5,000 contingency fund.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

It's All How You Ask the Question

Are Northern Virginia's controversial road projects really so controversial? Not really, found the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance in a telephone survey of 500 residents across the region. According to, the poll results show 70 percent support building a new northern Potomac River crossing and the Western Transportation Corridor.

Said Robert Chase, executive director of the NVTA:

The results show a disconnect between the elected officials making decisions and the motoring public dealing with the outcomes. “We hear all the time that these projects are just too controversial, that people don’t want them,” Chase said. “Well, if these projects were candidates, they would be pretty pleased with the public support they’re seeing.”

More likely, the poll results say little about public opionion and a lot about the way the questions were framed. It's one thing to ask people if they favor the Western Transportation Corridor. Sure, why not? It's another thing to ask if they would favor spending $1.1 billion to build the corridor, and another thing if they were asked if they were willing to pay an extra $100 year (or whatever the number would be) for 10 years to pay for it.

Finally, the poll would have yielded a different result entirely if people were asked, "Would you rather spend $1.1 billion to build the Western Transportation Corridor" or $1 billion to promote mass transit, telecommuting, traffic light synchronization, better urban design and other alternatives for promoting mobility and access?

Time to Give Back our Transportation Pork?

Ronald Utt, a Falmouth resident and scholar with the Heritage Foundation, makes the case for Virginians to return some half-billion dollars in 152 different transportation-funding earmarks to help the nation pay for the reconstruction of areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The recently enacted federal transportation package was crammed with about $25 billion in earmarks nationally. Cancelling those projects would go a long way to paying for disaster relief, suggests Utt in a column in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

Wrote Utt:

Virginia's congressional delegation willfully diverted more than half a billion dollars to 152 earmarks, among which are new horse-riding trails in the High Knob area of Jefferson National Forest, a new forest service facility on the Virginia Creeper Trail, restoration of the historic Hillman House in St. Paul, the Blue Ridge Music Center, the Rocky Knob Heritage Center, historic preservation of the Bristol Train Station, water mill preservation at White's Mill Trail, a river walk in Pound, a new entryway for James Madison's Montpelier, and a streetscape for Staunton.

Also troubling is the diversion of as much as $6 million from VDOT to the U.S. National Park Service--whose budget this year will total more than $2.3 billion. Why not fund it from there?

The idea of giving up the roundabouts on U.S. Route 50 really hurts me, but the fiscal profligacy in Washington, D.C. hurts me even more. I think Utt has a good point. We should give the earmarks back.

The New Role of Interstates

The Wash Post today has a 1A story on how population growth along major interstates is making these highways part of the local road network. The article focuses on Frederick, Md., on Interstate 70 and Fredericksburg, Va., on Interstate 95, and has some of the soaring traffic counts there.

Transportation experts, says the article, say that '...drivers in the booming areas at the fringes of the Washington suburbs have turned what are meant to be long-distance freeways into their main streets as they look for ways around overwhelmed local roads.'

The Fredericksburg region's population is about 290,000 today (four-county area), and is projected to rise to about 438,000 by 2030.

Here's the expert quote:
"One of the things that has happened, particularly in those two areas, is that they're not well served by major arterials that are not interstates," said Alan E. Pisarski of Falls Church, author of "Commuting in America." ..."There's a lack of reliability in the system and a lack of redundancy in the system," he said. "More and more, it's a clear threat to interstate commerce. I think it's very real."

Mandatory Inclusionary Zoning

A group called Empower Hampton Roads is pushing Virginia Beach to adopt mandatory inclusionary zoning, a policy that would essentially require developments of a certain size to include some housing affordable to someone making $50,000. There's a hearing on the proposal tonight.

Says the Virginian-Pilot in an editorial this morning:
'...the shortage of affordable homes in the region is severe and worsening. Teachers, sales clerks, secretaries, sailors — just about anybody who has to pack a lunch and bring it to work — are often forced to live far from their jobs in order to afford adequate housing, safe streets and good schools.'

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Show Us The Money

Steve Ginsberg of the Washington Post channels the frustration of a lot of others in an article this morning that points out how sketchy gubernatorial candidates Jerry Kilgore and Tim Kaine have been in explaining how the state's long list of transportation projects would be funded.
Says the Post:

'The lack of detail has left transportation advocates wondering what will change for commuters after the Nov. 8 election. Asked what would be different under a Kilgore administration, Bob Chase, president of the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance, said: "I don't know." And under Kaine? "Well," Chase said, "it's kind of the same thing."'
There isn't much new information in the story, because there isn't much new information, period. Kaine emphasizes better coordination of land-use decisions and transportation planning and warns that under his administration, the state 'wouldn't bail out localities if they allow growth in places where it's clear the road and rail systems can't handle it.' Kilgore continues to cast VDOT as the bad guy and pushes his regional funding approach.

Kilgore also thinks, the story says, that the state could raise $100 million a year by levying 'stiff fines' on aggressive drivers, habitual offenders, drunk drivers. (But those fines aren't about raising money - they're supposed to discourage the behavior, right? Eventually we'd end up giving one really bad person a $100 million speeding ticket.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Selling the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel

Hampton Del. Tom Gear thinks the state should lease the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel and take money from the deal - he says about $2 billion - and use it for other projects, such as expanding capacity at the congested Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, says the Daily Press.

Gear plans to introduce legislation in the coming session to create a task force to figure out how to do a leasing deal, says the article. Del. Marty Williams, R-Newport News, sees another way to get money out of the bay bridge-tunnel too, by abolishing the commission that manages it and creating a regional bridge authority. He'd essentially let the state control the bridge-tunnel, and use the $10 million in annual toll revenues plus $100 million already in the bank, to underwrite costs for building a third crossing.

Monday, October 03, 2005


This morning's Washington Post has an editorial blasting Loudoun County's pro-growth government for trying to slip in some comprehensive plan amendments that could produce rezonings near Dulles Intl Airport to allow up to 28,000 more residential units. That's about seven times what's currently there, says the Post.

And down in Hampton Roads, the Virginian-Pilot has a nice series of stories on housing. "When the Workforce Can't Live Here" is one headline on a story, which talks with a young family that moved to Elizabeth City, N.C. to find a single-family home they could afford. They got a house for under $130,000 but face a 100-mile roundtrip commute. Says the story:

'Friends and co-workers used to question why they traded a Chesapeake apartment and a shorter commute for a house so far away.

“I was like, 'Well, I have a house. You have a condo,’” Mercedes [Koedinger] said. “I have no regrets. Not at all.”'

Look at the photo with the Pilot story. There's no need to point out the higher fuel costs this couple will pay, or lecture them on lost-family-time quality-of-life issues, etc. They wanted a house.