Friday, November 18, 2005

Tri-County Parkway Takes Another Step Forward

As reported in today's Washington Post, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has approved a route for the controversial Tri-County Parkway planned for Prince William, Fairfax and Loudoun, and directed the Virginia Department of Transportation to seek private sector proposals to finance the $201 million cost of the 10.4-mile highway. Sayeth the Post:

State officials and other parkway supporters say the road is critical to link the Dulles business corridor with the growing residential communities of Prince William and Loudoun counties. Chronically crowded Route 28 is the primary north-south connection; otherwise drivers must take a series of country roads.

But critics argue that the plan is inconsistent with the transportation platform articulated by Gov.-elect Tim Kaine during his election campaign. Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth had this to say in a prepared statement (not yet posted online):

The Commonwealth Transportation Board’s [decisions are] a clear demonstration of why Governor-elect Kaine’s message about needing new thinking to solve our transportation problems resonated with voters. These outer bypasses and beltways would primarily open up more land for development instead of addressing people’s existing transportation needs. ...

The Tri-County Parkway, Schwartz says, would be the first link in an outer beltway that developers who own the land along the route have pushed for decades. Furthermore,

[VDOT's] study of the Tri-County highway indicated that the north-south highway would have almost no effect on relieving current traffic congestion, but the new travel and development the highway would trigger would increase traffic in the study area, and along Interstate 66, in particular.

State funds, Schwartz said, should be used to fix I-66 and to improve the local road network instead.

On the other hand, Secretary of Transportation Pierce R. Homer was quoted in the Post article as saying that there isn't any state money to spend: "There's extremely limited available funding to even do the next phase of planning or engineering, and there's no funding for right-of-way acquisition or planning or construction." In all probability, the Tri-County Parkway would have to be funded through tolls.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Earth to Roanoke Times: Read Your Candidate's Campaign Platform

The Roanoke Times editorial writers never cease to amaze. They endorsed Tim Kaine for governor, but on the biggest issue of 2005, transportation policy, they appear to be oblivious to his thinking. Maybe they should take the trouble of reading his transportation platform!

In today's editorial, the Times still opines on the need to increase taxes to meet a supposed $108 billion shortfall in transportation funding over the next 20 years. Rejecting the idea of funding transportation with transitory budget surpluses, the Times argues:

Senate Finance Committee Chairman John Chichester, R-Northumberland, sees the need for a sustainable plan that goes beyond one-time infusions of cash. "I am really hopeful we can come to a consensus on a long-term transportation package that lasts well beyond all of our horizons," Chichester said. Virginians who don't want to watch gridlock spread should pray that Chichester's hope is well-founded.

And what about the guy the Times just endorsed for governor? It turns out that he supports the idea of applying General Fund budget surpluses to transportation projects, and he doesn't want to raise transportation taxes until they can be protected from budgetary raids for other programs. He also wants to attack underlying causes of transportation congestion by addressing the problem of development in inappopriate places, and he proposes a number of "demand management" strategies to reduce the number of cars on the road during periods of peak congestion.

I find it extaordinary that the Times pundits can pen editorial after editorial plugging for higher taxes without even acknowledging the existence of alternative congestion-mitigation strategies -- strategies enumerated by a candidate they have endorsed! It would be one thing if the Times pundits had said, "Some people say we should address land use, but we disagree for the following reasons.... " But they don't. They write as if they live in an intellectual vacuum, unaware that points of view exist. They repeat the same worn-out nostrums as the debate passes them by.

Amazing, just amazing. ISMHIW. (I shake my head in wonder.)

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Pocahontas Parkway to "Defease" on Bonds?

An interesting, if cryptic, announcement has been posted on the Pocahontas Parkway website, the Interstate 895 toll road in the southeast quadrant of the Richmond region. Traffic and revenues have fallen short of projections, and the credit ratings of the toll-backed bonds have tumbled. Now Transurban, the Australian company that has been sniffing around for Virginia toll-road properties, enters the picture.

Here's the full quote from the website:
The Pocahontas Parkway Association (“PPA”) announces that it has along with the Virginia Department of Transportation (”VDOT”) entered into a confidential Memorandum of Understanding with Transurban (USA), Inc. and DEPFA Bank, plc providing for the exclusive investigation and negotiation of a possible agreement relating to the transfer of the PPA’s rights and obligations under the Comprehensive Agreement dated June 3, 1998 with respect to the Pocahontas Parkway (Route 895) toll road in central Virginia. It is contemplated that any final agreement would be completed by the end of 2005 and would involve the defeasing of all outstanding bond obligations of PPA. No further details of the parties’ understanding will be made available unless and until the parties enter into a further agreement or the Memorandum of Understanding and related Confidentiality Agreement terminate by their terms.

James W. Atwell
Pocahontas Parkway Association

I'm not sure what the legal definition of "the defeasing of all outstanding bond obligations of PPA" means, but my Websters defines "defeasing" as "rendering null and void." Is this another way of saying that The Pocahontas Parkway is on the verge of defaulting on its bonds? Can someone clarify the significance of this announcement?

Read the original document here.

Budget Surplus Politics

News of a $1.8 billion budget surplus that Virginia will see over the next two-year budget cycle is giving opponents of raising taxes some leverage. This Washington Post story outlines the impact the money will have, and how the fight mirrors the 2004 battle over transportation funding. Sen. John Chichester still wants a long-term plan with money dedicated to transportation projects, while many House of Delegates members say no way to tax increases.
'The conflicting perspectives could foreshadow a clash between the House and Senate that could mimic the 2004 legislative session, when Chichester proposed a $4 billion tax increase to raise spending for state schools, public safety, health programs and transportation while the Republican leadership of the House insisted that there was no need for any tax increase.
"We're willing to look at any and all suggestions they make," said Del. R. Steven Landes (R-Augusta). "But I don't think any increases in taxes are viable at this point."
Meanwhile, Gov.-elect Tim Kaine and House members could find some common ground on the idea of locking up the transportation trust fund, says the Post.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Route 288: The Times-Dispatch Needs to Finish the Job

The Richmond Times-Dispatch performed a public service in publishing its Sunday package of stories about state Route 288. As the headline makes clear -- "Road to Riches, Landowners Cash In, Taxpayers Foot the Bill" -- landowners enjoyed windfall gains to the value of real estate holdings located near the major interchanges. A map accompanying one of the three main articles ("How It Came to Be") lists the identities of the landowners and the value of their properties.

A related story recounts how C.B. Robertson, the original developer of the West Creek office park offered free right of way for Route 288 and lobbied aggressively to run the route through his property. Robertson hired Harold C. King, a former state highway commissioner, as a traffic consultant. "Hall King had a lot of relationships, a lot of friends on the transportation board at the time," the T-D quotes Ray Pethtel, state highway commissioner when the state chose the West Creek route, as saying. Robertson, it is worth noting (though the newspaper did not) has been a major contributor to Republican candidates for public office.

The story also notes that state Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, and his relatives own 452 acres valued at $18.3 million at Route 288/Midlothian Turnpike interchange. Additionally, William H. Goodwin Jr., another major Republican campaign contributor, has large stakes in property at the nothern and southern anchors of 288.

There's nothing wrong with owning real estate -- even speculating on real estate -- and hitting the jackpot when the state decides to run a four-lane road through your property. Some people are just luckier or smarter than the rest of us. But the newspaper hints darkly that the funding of Route 288 is not entirely kosher: "Landowners Cash In, Taxpayers Foot the Bill."

Although the T-D report nails down C.B. Robertson's role in convincing the state to run the northern leg of 288 through his property, it offers no evidence that other landowners played a role in pressuring either the Allen or Gilmore administrations.

The Times-Dispatch needs to finish the job. Route 288 clearly received preferential treatment and the economic development rationale was bogus (as established in my previous post). Can the extraordinary decision to push Route 288 to the front of the funding line be attributed to grass roots lobbying by Chesterfield County, the Chamber of Commerce alone and economic developers alone? Or were well-connected, land-owning interests operating behind the scenes as well?

It's not against the law to be a shrewd land speculator. But if land owners pressured pols to push the $434 million project forward, the public has a right to know. If the land owners were not involved, we need to know that, too. It is unfair to leave a cloud hanging over their heads. The T-D now owes it to the public and some of the region's more prominent citizens to finish the reporting job.

Route 288, Capital One and $434 Million

The Route 288 project, which Virginia taxpayers funded to the tune of $434 million, was always billed as an "economic development" project. The primary impetus for overriding the normal allocation of state transportation dollars and running up a $248 million project deficit (which was repaid subsequently with General Fund dollars) was the desire to attract Capital One to the West Creek office park.

In 1999 the giant credit card company was searching for a site to establish a national operations center expected to employ 8,000 employees. One of the sites under consideration was the West Creek office park west of Richmond. Capital One demanded some $240 million in transportation improvements, including completion of 288, as a condition for locating there.

It turns out, according to a nugget buried in a Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation into the politics of Route 288, that Capital One was seriously considering another site to the north of Richmond. Indeed, when Richmond business tycoons William Goodwin and "Booty" Armstrong revived an option to purchase West Creek from the original developer, the newspaper reports, "they thought the company had chosen a site north of Richmond at Interstate 295."

That's quite a revelation: There was another site in the Richmond region that satisfied, or came very close to satisfying, Capital One's requirements -- without the need to build a $434 million, four-lane, limited-access highway!

Let me clarify the issue here: The Commonwealth of Virginia spent $434 million to ensure that Capital One would locate in West Creek west of Richmond as opposed to a different location north of Richmond.

Pardon me while I temporarily take leave of my senses. That's absolutely friggin' insane! That is an unprecedented waste of state funds! No friggin' wonder people don't want to pay more in taxes to build more roads! Politicians cannot be trusted to make intelligent decisions! Politicians should all be hanged!

OK, I feel better now.

The Times-Dispatch Tackles Route 288

Kudos to the Richmond Times-Dispatch and lead writer Michael Martz for their in-depth look at state Route 288 (which our own Bob Burke had treated thematically in "When Good Highways Go Bad," on Sept. 12).

"ROUTE 288: Road to riches" is the T-D's best reporting on the politics behind a major road projects that I've seen in 20 years of reading the newspaper. The three main articles include:

"How It Came to Be"

"Road to toll-free 288 was bumpy for state financially"

"What's coming next"

Long-time T-D critics may find much to criticize: Why wasn't the T-D laying bare this information before the $434 million road was built? What conclusions can be drawn from this project? (The articles themselves don't really draw any.) Why hasn't the T-D's editorial page followed up with commentary on public policy lessons to be learned? For my part, I am grateful for the T-D effort and have found a wealth of information to mine. I will follow up with a few observations of my own in subsequent posts.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Insurgency Is Here!

The Nov. 11, 2005, edition of Bacon's Rebellion is now available online. You can read it here.

Columns of particular interest to readers of this blog include:

New Man, New Ideas
Tim Kaine's victory will transform Virginia's dead-end debate over how to raise more money and build more roads. The big new theme: How to manage travel demand.
by James A. Bacon

Just Say "No"
Hey, Growth Control Freaks, here's a way to cut down on all that congestion in Northern Virginia -- stop recruiting so many new jobs! Turn off the economic development machine!
by Barnie Day

Also, I would recommend Bob Burke's transportation-centric analysis of the Kaine victory, which I neglected to post to this blog last week:

Buckle Your Seatbelts. It's going to be a wild ride. Governor-elect Tim Kaine will take transportation policy down a road Virginia has never been before.
By Bob Burke, Nov. 11, 2005