Saturday, October 22, 2005

At Last, a Spark at Start

Bob Burke has filed his coverage of the second session of Senate Finance Chair John Chichester's Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force. After an unpromising start, the task force seems to be gaining momentum, Burke reports. The group heard a grab-bag of ideas on how to approach Virginia's transportation future. But no big theme, or debate, has yet emerged.

Read Burke's story here.

The Shucet Solution: Develop Access Management Plans

The second of Philip Shucet's proposed transportation reforms focuses on a topic that has received virtually no attention, either by politicians or pundits, in the debate over transportation. But an opportunity exists to significantly improve efficiency of major thoroughfares, Shucet suggests, by rethinking the way that state and local authorities provide access to limited-access highways.

By way of background, Shucet argues that the purpose of a transportation network can be broken down into two broad categories: mobility and access. By "mobility" he means the efficient movement people and goods on longer trips between general areas; by "access" he means moving people in and out of specific destinations like malls and shopping centers. (For concrete examples of the atrocious access in a major thoroughfare in Henrico County, see my most recent column, "Lost in Suburbia.") Preserving mobility comes at the price of access. To achieve efficient traffic flows, highways can have only a limited number of places where motorists can enter and get off.

Property values generally increase at points where Interstates/highways intersect with local roads because those points provide convenient access to commercial properties located nearby. As a consequence, developers apply intense pressure to increase the number of access points, or to create "access breaks," along limited access highways. Under current legislative authority, these "access breaks" are considered on a case-by-case basis. Because the stakes are so high -- a developer who gains access from a highway to his commercial property reaps a windfall in property values -- such cases are often characterized by furious behind-the-scenes lobbying and politics.

As Shucet observes: "There is no requirement for an access management plan to protect and preserve access along these roads. Perhaps there should be." By fending off the creation of new access points that interfere with the flow of traffic, he says, access management plans can squeeze more capacity out of the existing transportation network -- "holding off (or maybe eliminating) the need for certain improvements."

Shucet cites research by the Transportation Research Board indicating that effective access management programs on certain roads can increase capacity by 25 percent to 45 percent, reduce travel delay as much as 60 percent and reduce crashes by as much as 50 percent.

Reforming the creation of access points will never resonate with voters -- it's just too hard to explain. It can't be expressed in a sound bite. But it just makes sense.

Friday, October 21, 2005

The Shucet Solution: Outsource Maintenance

The first of Philip Shucet's proposed transportation reforms is to outsource road and highway maintenance more aggressively. By way of background, it is critical to understand that VDOT had been moving in the direction of developing an advanced asset-management system around the time that Shucet left the department in the summer. I don't know what the status of that program is currently, but Shucet regarded it as the next major phase of VDOT reform. If Phase 1 was doing a better job with project management -- bringing in new construction projects on time and on budget -- Phase 2 is to do a better job of managing the tens of billions of dollars worth of transportation assets under VDOT's care.

An asset management program is a necessary precursor to effective outsourcing. VDOT must maintain a full inventory of its assets -- roads, highways, bridges, etc. -- the standards it wants to maintain them to, and the capability to measure assets against those standards.

Once VDOT has that system in place, it can then intelligently outsource different pieces -- or all -- of the state highway system. In his letter to the START commission, Shucet argued that outsourcing would shift the capital cost of new equipment to the private sector, divest state property no longer needed, spur competition, resulting in lower costs and improved performance, reduce the size of VDOT, and -- don't underestimate the significance of this -- "shift the front-line accountabilty for outcome-based maintenance standards to the private sector."

Further: "Shifting the delivery of maintenance services to the private sector offers an opportunity over time to develop a substantially smaller, yet more productive, program-focused state transportation agency" (my emphasis). In other words, outsourcing would allow VDOT to evolve into a department whose primary maintenance focus is setting standards, tracking metrics and enforcing accountability of the private-sector contractors to whom it outsources the maintenance work.

Concluded Shucet: "A carefully executed implementation strategy could be developed and implemented over 36 to 60 months. And, I believe the overall result will be lower costs and improved productivity."

When Shucet Speaks, People Listen

Philip Shucet, former commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation, has submitted a nine-page letter to the Statewide Transportation Analysis and Recommendation Task Force outlining a 10-point proposal for addressing Virginia's transportation crisis.

Given the superb job he did in running the state's most challenging agency, his lack of partisan affiliation, and his openness to new thinking, Shucet speaks with as much authority on the subject as anyone in Virginia on the topic of transportation reform.

Shucet's letter can be read here. We will highlight Shucet's proposals in future posts as we have time. (Hat tip to Steve Haner for bringing this letter to our attention.)

Cities, The Missing Voice in the Transportation Debate

I don't know what Gov. Mark R. Warner is expecting from his Commission on Transportation in Urban areas, but the study commission could have an interesting impact on the looming General Assembly debate on transportation funding. Why? Because the interests and perspectives of Virginia's cities have been largely absent from the debate so far, a debate that has been dominated by the interests of fast-growth counties grappling with congestion and, to a lesser extent, rural areas looking at road funding as an economic development tool.

Virginia's central cities are very different. They already have transportation infrastructure and, with spot exceptions like the Hampton Roads tunnels, congestion is tolerable.

Far from demanding huge injections of transportation funding, cities have every reason to fear a statewide transportation policy that would raise taxes on everyone, including city residents, and pour mega-billions into more suburban transportation projects. Commission members, here are your talking points:

First and foremost: A massive tax increase along the lines contemplated by suburban and rural legislators is anti city. A tax increase would transfer wealth from the cities to the suburbs and counties where most of the money would be spent.

Second, and a very close second at that: Suburban congestion is the city's friend. As congestion drives up the cost and inconvenience of living in the suburbs, it makes the urban core more attractive by comparison. Demographic trends, such as the migration of empty nesters back into the city, already favor cities. A transportation policy that increases subsidies for suburban sprawl as opposed to urban in-fill and redevelopment is clearly against the cities' best interests.

Third: An aggressive extension of roads into the metropolitan periphery would push economic growth and development farther away from the core cities, making retail and other service jobs even more inaccessible for the substantial populations of poor people living in the central cities. Most poor people can't afford cars, and mass transit doesn't reach the metropolitan fringe. Any transportation strategy that further isolates these poor people is economically wasteful and downright immoral.

Fourth: Suburban areas have created many of their congestion problems by perpetuating scattered, disconnected, low density growth and by adopting a blockage-prone artery-feeder road system in place of the more flexible grid-street system found in traditional cities. Instead of fixing their problems through higher taxes, more roads and the same kind of development, counties should focus their energies on building communities with a balanced and well-integrated mix of jobs/housing/amenities that require fewer, shorter car trips.

Fifth: Instead of adding expensive capacity, suburban counties should address congestion by managing demand: encouraging telecommuting, ride sharing, flex schedules and other inexpensive strategies.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Tim Kaine's Road to a Tax Increase

The Virginian-Pilot editorial page today gives a nice outline of where the gubernatorial candidates are on transportation funding and what might actually happen if they were elected:
"In baseball terms, here are the differences. Potts wants to be a pitcher for higher road taxes. Kaine won’t be a pitcher, but he might be willing to catch, if the legislature first meets his demands and then throws some tax ideas his way.
And Kilgore says he won’t either pitch or catch, but he’s willing to arrange the game. He’d empower regional transportation authorities to raise sales or income taxes for transportation, so long as voters approve the hikes in a referendum. Kilgore says he will stay on the sidelines in a referendum vote, awaiting the outcome."
"The candidates are trapped between the presumed anti-tax sentiment of Virginia voters and the reality that Virginia can’t progress without efficiently moving people and goods."
If you accept the premise that voters won't elect someone who says they will raise taxes, and they also won't elect someone who won't do something about transportation, then it's kind of surreal how much effort is going into doing an end-run around the beloved vox populi.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Warner's High-Quality Commission

Gov. Mark Warner yesterday announced the creation of a Commission on Transportation in Urbanized Areas which will, as the release says, "recommend strategies for better integrating planning and transit options in Virginia’s urbanized areas." It's supposed to come up with those recommendations by Dec. 31.

There are seventeen members on this commission, with Norfolk City Council member Randy Wright serving as chairman. You can see the rest at the above link. Here's the commission's five-point mission, as taken from the executive directive:

-Establish a statewide framework for high quality urban growth.

-Identify any obstacles to high quality urban growth, including any inappropriate or outdated transportation, land use, or open space policies or programs.

-Identify long term savings in transportation initiatives by utilizing alternative sources of energy through the promotion of transit-oriented development.

-Identify possible legislative, regulatory and incentive programs to support transit-oriented development and open space preservation.

-Evaluate regional smart growth land use studies and the potential advantages and disadvantages of such studies.

-Examine other issues as appropriate.

Economic Illiteracy on Parade

The three gubernatorial candidates addressed a crowd Monday of some 400 people in a forum sponsored by the Virginia chapter of the American Association of Retired People. One of the topics that came up was the spike in gas prices. And all three candidates pandered to the crowd with nostrums that put their economic illiteracy on display.

Russ Potts demonstrated that he doesn't have the faintest idea of how the capitalist system works. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch account of the forum, Potts "criticized 'obscene' oil-company profits and called on President Bush to 'stop the tax cuts to the richest Americans right now.'" He also said he would raise $2.5 billion a year in taxes to pay for more mass transit and rail, to ease the burden on motorists.

Russ, I'll explain this real slow for you... Profits are good. Yes, even oil company profits are good. Profits send a signal to oil companies to drill more oil and refine more oil in the hope of making more profit. I'm not speaking too fast, am I? Profits also give them the means to do so. The most sure-fire way of keeping gasoline prices high is to punish oil companies for making a profit.

Also... listen real careful now... when you raise taxes for transportation projects, you're taking money away from people -- just like the oil companies do! But there's a difference. When oil companies earn profits, they do things, like drill more oil and refine more gasoline, that reduces the price pressure on gasoline. When you build more roads, which encourages people to drive more instead of, say, sharing rides or taking the bus, you increase the demand for gasoline and increase the pressure on prices. Got it?

Kilgore noted that as attorney general, he helped push an anti-price gouging statute through the General Assembly. Tyler Whitley's account doesn't describe exactly what powers that statute has to restrain gasoline prices. Hopefully, it's a toothless measure that the politicians wheel out when they want to act concerned, but really has no impact.

Let me explain it to you real slow, Jerry. High gasoline prices act as a rationing mechanism. If you force gasoline prices to stay low, you'll create a shortage. Then people will start topping off their gas tanks, making the shortage even worse. If you allow prices to stay high, people don't top off their tanks -- it's too expensive. Instead, they start conserving by finding ways to drive less. "How about the poor?" you say. When you cap prices and create shortages, people conserve by running out of gasoline. If you're poor and you need gasoline to drive to work, which would you prefer: To pay an extra $1 per gallon -- or run out of gas and not be able to drive to work at all?

Tim Kaine said he urged companies to restrain themselves after Hurricane Katrina and shun higher profits so consumers could afford to buy gas. In other words, Kaine's position is Potts and Kaine Lite. Jawbone the oil companies, but don't actually do anything. In other words, make a lot of noise so people think you're concerned, but let the market do its thing.

Come to think of it, that may be the best solution. Let's give it up for Tim Kaine!

Kaine's Appeal to the Exurbs

Democrat Tim Kaine is pushing growth-control measures in fast-growing Loudoun County in hopes of peeling away enough GOP-leaning voters, says the Washington Post this morning.

Kaine is telling voters that their counties need the authority to restrict development if the road network can't handle the extra traffic.
"You have got to connect your land use decisions with transportation decisions," Kaine said. "There are some who find that that is a huge and controversial concept, the notion that we shouldn't just automatically rezone and develop everything when the transportation infrastructure isn't in place to support it. I think that is such a common-sense value."

The Kilgore camp says:
'"This is an attempt by a liberal candidate to provide government with the tools to tell people where they can live," Kilgore spokesman Tim Murtaugh said. "The exurbs are important to us. We feel very good about the fact that people who live there will be on our side."'

Monday, October 17, 2005

Bacon's Rebellion Cuts Loose

The October 17, 2005 edition of Bacon's Rebellion is now online.

Columns related to transportation and land use include:

Lost in Suburbia
Virginia's transportation "crisis" is really an urban design crisis in masquerade. Broad Street in Henrico County is a case in point: The ugly, dysfunctional retail strip is truly a road from hell.
by James A. Bacon

Reality-Based Regionalism
Most people talk about "regionalism" with no clear idea of what they mean. A regional approach to solving problems is a good idea -- if informed by Geographic Literacy.
by EM Risse

Pork on Steroids
Transportation spending at the federal level has become a raw money grab, and it's getting that way in Virginia, too.
by Steve Vincent

Assigning Blame in Hampton Roads

It doesn't really matter who wins the gubernatorial race, says the Daily Press in an editorial today. The General Assembly doles out the money so if you want a third crossing or other road improvements, pester your legislators.

In a second editorial, the paper also, fairly gently I would say, points the finger at all of us.

"..Virginia has shown, repeatedly, a disinclination to pay the heavy cost for the roads necessitated by what is undeniably discretionary demand - more trips, over longer distances, because of choices about where we live, who drives, where, with whom.

That cost is not just financial. It's cultural, involving the abandonment of our urban centers. And it's environmental, killing habitat and polluting water and air.

Part of the solution has to lie in roads. And part has to lie, as Pogo would say, in us."

The Avian Flu, Business Continuity and Traffic Congestion

My 76-year-old mother frets about everything from the U.S. balance of trade deficit to the war in Iraq, from the spread of Hollywood morals to the spread of avian flu. The flu has been bleeping the brightest on her radar screen of late, and she has earnestly advised me to protect my my family by stocking up on Tamiflu and loading my larders with enough food to allow us to stay safe inside our house for weeks should a flu outbreak reach the pandemic stage.

I tease my mom for her chronic worrying, but the avian flu is no laughing matter. As an op-ed published this morning in today's Wall Street Journal has advised, the H5N1 variant of the avian flu has had a 50 percent mortality rate among the 60 or so humans known to have been infected. The disease is not easily transmissable at present, but given the formidable mutation rate of the virus, epidemiologists believe it's only a matter of time before it breaks loose in the human population.

A disease with a 50 percent mortality rate would be more deadly than the bubonic plague, too frightful to contemplate. The world would return to the Dark Ages. But even a one percent mortality rate would wreak havoc as millions of Americans seek to reduce their exposure to the disease. The best way to protect oneself, as my mom suggests, is for each family to quarantine itself at home. That would keep people alive, of course, but what would happen to the economy if no one went to work?

"Business continuity" is a concept that has gained a lot of traction since the 9/11 terror attack, and it was dramatized by the remarkable ability of many New York corporations to reconstitute their operations elsewhere within short order. It's a concept that John Vivadelli, president of AgilQuest Corporation, continually preaches as well. (Full disclosure: I publish an electronic newsletter for Vivadelli.) Richmond-based AgilQuest develops a software that allows workers to share workspace in the office. The premise is that employees equipped with cell phones, blackberries and wireless laptops are equipped to work anywhere and don't need a personal desk that stays empty half the time. The most commonly acknowledged benefits of shifting to a "distributed workforce" arrangement are improved productivity and the opportunity to reduce real estate costs. But business continuity is third benefit. Should an avian flu pandemic strike, a business with a distributed workforce could more readily reconstitute itself as a virtual organization whose workers were caccooned at home.

Vivadelli, many of whose customers are based in Northern Virginia, has focused primarily on business continuity in the event of terrorism. But as events in New Orleans so amply demonstrated, natural disasters can interfere with business continuity as well. Now, if we heed my mother's advice, we should add global pandemics and quarantines to the list of potentially disruptive events.

How does this relate to transportation and land use? Simple. One of the social benefits of a "distributed workforce" is that employees are equipped to work from home. The more they do, the less they're clogging Virginia's transporation arteries during the great commute to and from the office. I have argued that the benefits to traffic congestion alone justify state backing for a distributed workforce in Virginia. With terrorism, hurricanes and now avian flu omnipresent worries, the Commonwealth needs to take a more aggressive posture in promoting the distributed workforce.