Friday, October 14, 2005

The State-Local Disconnect in Transportation Planning

Charlottesville and Albemarle County aren't your typical Virginia localities -- between liberal university professors and horse-country gentry, residents of this corner of Virginia have very different ideas about how to do things, including plan for transportation. So, it's not surprising that local government officials clash with the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The latest instance: According to the Daily Progress, VDOT recently caught local officials offguard when it unveiled proposals to widen stretches of U.S. 29 and U.S. 250. Local officials, want to give priority to pedestrian and bike lanes.

There appears to be plenty of opportunity in the planning process to reconcile competing visions, so it's not as if VDOT is going to slip something past the local officials. But the more fundamental issue is this: Why do we have this disconnect in the first place?

When authority is distributed between VDOT administrators, an unelected Commonwealth Transportation Board and local government officials, the "process" takes over. No one is really in charge, and no one is accountable.

Jerry Kilgore Answers VBT

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore's responses to a questionnare from Virginians for Better Transportation can be found here - and at the VBT main page you can find some information about the positions of his opponents, Democrat Tim Kaine and independent/Republican Russ Potts.

Fighting Infill Development

Some Fairfax County residents have had enough with the new development projects that are crowding into space they thought would always stay open. The Wash Post has an article today on the conflicts going on as more people try to move in.

'Twenty-five years after a backlash against suburban development threw the county's leadership out of office, homeowners are rising in revolt again, this time over an urban future they never envisioned when they moved in.
As developers press to fill space in subdivisions and office parks to create denser collections of homes and offices, neighbors from disparate corners of the county have established a network called FairGrowth to fight back. They want to protect their quiet streets and driveway basketball hoops from condominium and office towers and big new homes crammed into the last slivers of buildable land.'

Doesn't sound like the county supervisors are too intimidated, though. They're pushing for more density around the county's Metrorail stations. One supervisor, Lynda Smith, told the Post, "We're not encouraging growth; it's happening because of the job market."

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Small Families & Big Lots

Urban Land Institute senior fellow Edward T. McMahon told a Richmond audience yesterday that real estate development patterns of big residential lots is unsustainable, says today's T-D. He spoke at the Real Estate Trends Conference sponsored by VCU.

The average family size is going down, while the average amount of land per family is going up, he said.

One doesn't need to drive far in the Richmond area to see the reason so much land is being gobbled up: large-lot subdivisions and big one-story stores with huge paved parking lots.

It can't be sustained, McMahon said. "Real estate has been on a fast track for the past few years. Where do we get off the train, and where do we go?"

McMahon says that strip malls are no longer a viable retail model, and that a rising number of homebuyers and retailers prefer town-center style living with small lots and walkable public spaces.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

So That's Why Jerry Kilgore Loves the Coalfield Expressway

Sometimes it takes me a while to put all the pieces together. I'm not always as quick as my readers. But now, thanks to some revelations over on the Bacon's Rebellion blog, I understand why Jerry Kilgore is so doggedly supportive of the Coalfield Expressway, a proposed $3 billion highway through Virginia's coalfields and arguably the worst boondoggle south of the Rail-to-Dulles project.

By way of background, I've blasted the Coalfield Expressway elsewhere on this blog: $3 billion is an insane amount of money to invest in a highway designed to make Virginia's coalfield counties more attractive to manufacturers. First of all, the manufacturers won't come, or if they do, there won't be enough of them to justify building the Expressway. Second, money is far better invested in bringing broadband to coalfield communities in the hope that they can pole vault past the manufacturing stage of development directly into the Knowledge Economy stage of development.

Yet Jerry Kilgore supports this extravagance. As he says on his website, "This project, which is vital to the economic development of Southwest Virginia, must move forward immediately. ... The Kilgore administration will take advantage of ... new private activity bonds ... to enable the private sector to build the Coalfields Expressway, and then maintain and operate it under a long-term lease arrangement with the Commonwealth. This will allow the costs of the project to be paid back over a 50 ­ [to] 100 year timeline while producing jobs in Southwest Virginia and improving the region's quality of life. "

A 100-year timeline? Holy Cow! Kilgore wants to mortgage the economic future of SW Virginia for 100 years? We'll be flying around in Jetson-mobiles in 100 years. This is crazy!

It should be apparent to any objective person that the Coalfield Expressway is a very poor investment of SW Virginia's scarce financial and political capital. Coalfield communities could use such a sum far more productively in other ways -- like installing broadband and improving education. I've always assumed that Kilgore supported the project because local leaders in the coalfields supported it. And maybe some of them do. But there's more to the story. It turns out that Jerry Kilgore lobbied for Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), the engineering/construction firm and helped the company win millions of dollars in design contracts for the Expressway.

Ironically, the Kaine campaign has attacked Kilgore -- unfairly and inaccurately -- for lobbying in favor of increasing the tax on natural gas in Buchanan County. It turns out that (a) the tax was on natural gas producers, not consumers, as implied in the ad, and the money was to be used for economic development, and (b) a former deputy county attorney for Buchanan County by the name of Frank Kilgore (no relation) was the one lobbied for the natural gas severance tax.

What Tim Kaine's opposition researchers overlooked -- and what I found out as a response to my criticism of the Kaine campaign over on the Bacon's Rebellion blog -- was the fact that Jerry Kilgore was lobbying for KBR around the same time! Jerry Gray, a Democrat partisan from Dickenson County next door, informs me of the following: "Jerry Kilgore ... successfully convinced then-Governor Gilmore to approve a no-bid deal with KBR for $33M to plan a 6 mile segment of the Coalfields Expressway. The deal Jerry Kilgore got for KBR has turned out to be even sweeter--the planning cost has now ballooned to $55M, according to VDOT, and will finish out at $63M." And you know who owns KBR? This is too good, you couldn't make this stuff up -- Halliburton!

Think about that -- $63 million in design fees for a highway that, in all probability will never be built! We could have wired every itty bitty community in the coalfields with wireless broadband connectivity for that kind of money. But if Kilgore gets elected and manages to keep the project alive, his buddies at KBR will continue to rack up millions more in design fees.

And guess what a quick check with the Virginia Public Access Project reveals: Guess who has donated $25,000 to the Kilgore for Governor campaign. Yessiree -- KBR.

There's your next attack ad, Mr. Kaine! Served to you on a platter.

Andres Duany Fixes Mississippi

The guy who helped launch the new urbanist concept is working with Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour on how to redevelop the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast, says USA Today.

More than 100 architects, planners, transportation specialists, etc. from around the country are meeting in Mississippi today to talk about how to rebuild 11 communities along 120 miles of coastline. Besides the enormous scale of the damage, New Urbanists like Duany will have to overcome that peculiar Mississippi resistance to anything that comes from the mouths of non-Mississippians.

"Mississippi has a chip on its shoulder," said Marty Wiseman, director of the Stennis Institute for Government at Mississippi State, tells USA Today. "We want help, but we don't want people to tell us what to do."

Says the story:

Duany says the key is to create incentives for developers to build the way a community wants.

"The developers will do as told so long as the path is easier," he says. "Right now, the easiest path is building junk. We'd like to rebalance that through pre-permitting. Nothing will be imposed. ... Everything is incentive-based."

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Kaine Proposes Local Controls

Gubernatorial candidate Tim Kaine yesterday rolled out the idea of letting localities restrict development if it would overwhelm local roads, says the Washington Post. The proposal is being outlined in radio and TV ads in Northern Virginia.

In one new ad, the announcer says, "As you inch your way home in traffic, ask yourself, 'Is the problem that you don't pay enough taxes, or is it runaway development?' Then the candidate says: "We can't tax and pave our way out of traffic. I'm Tim Kaine. . . . I'll give your community more power to stop out-of-control development that increases traffic."

The Kilgore camp calls the idea more big gubmint. The homebuilders association doesn't like it either.
"We would vehemently oppose that legislative initiative, and it would be a silver bullet to the heart of the housing industry," said Mike Toalson, executive vice president of the association. Now, he said, local governments cannot simply reject rezoning because of potential road congestion, but in many cases, developers work with localities to reduce the their projects' impact on communities.

"If you give them the ability to just say no based on that single component, it's just going to encourage the very sprawl he and most Virginians are against," he said.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Congestion Pricing in Hampton Roads

In his latest Road to Ruin article, Bob Burke explores a fascinating strategy -- congestion pricing -- that doesn't get nearly enough attention in Virginia's transportation debates. Read the story:

Congestion Pricing
Too many drivers and not enough roads -- traffic congestion is nature's way of telling us that we need a pricing system to allocate scarce highway capacity. VDOT is studying a plan to demonstrate that radical idea in Hampton Roads.

Affordable Housing: The Beginning of Wisdom in Lynchburg

The bulk of the poor people in the Lychburg region live in the city of Lynchburg, observes an editorial in today's News & Advance. One prominent reason, the editorial notes, is the practice of exclusionary zoning, such as large minimum lot sizes, that make it difficult to build affordable housing in surrounding counties.

Some localities require developers to build a certain percentage of affordable homes in their subdivisions and housing projects. Of course, that imposes one layer of regulation upon another. A good starting point, the newspaper suggests, would be to take "a hard look at the impacts of zoning."

The next questions the News & Advance needs to ask are these: What is the impact of large-lot zoning on the cost of providing urban-level services to county residents? What impact does such zoning have on the cost of maintaining the transportation network? And, most importantly, to what extent do homeowners pay a hidden cost for scattered, disconnected, low-density development in the form of longer drives and higher automobile operating costs?