Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Envisioning a West Main Transformed

West Main Street in Charlottesville has long served as a corridor connecting the University of Virginia with downtown. Now, in a new exhibit, a team of Wahoo architects and planners envision the street as a destination in its own right.

Through a series of site studies, the "Destination: WEST MAIN" exhibit depicts West Main as it could look if it were redeveloped into "compact, mixed-use, walkable places that enliven the city’s core," according to an article in UVa Top News Daily. "The work highlights the integral link between land-use and transportation by examining how a modern streetcar system could shape development along this central corridor."

Musings on the Third Crossing

The issue of the Third Crossing spanning Hampton Roads arose in Gov.-elect Tim Kaine's latest "town hall" meeting, on the Virginia Peninsula. According to press reports, a couple of speakers bucked the conventional wisdom and questioned whether a third crossing from Norfolk to Newport News would be the most efficient expenditure of funds.

Here's a question I have about the Third Crossing: It would relieve bottlenecks at the two existing bridge-tunnels, but wouldn't it just create a new bottleneck on Interstate 64?

The need for a Third Crossing is most commonly justified on the following grounds: (1) Increasing truck traffic generated by the expanding ports; (2) An evacuation path in the event of a hurricane or some other disaster; and (3) congestion associated with summertime beach tourists. So, let's say we spend the $3 billion-plus dollars to build the crossing and run a bridge from the vicinity of the Norfolk International Terminals all the way to the Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel where it touches land at Newport News. Let's say that trucks, tourists, evacuees find themselves mercifully free of congestion on the bridge-tunnels. Then what?

Then they hit I-64 in Newport News. In my experience, the most predictable congestion (if not necessarily the worse) is where I-64 narrows from four lanes to three and from three lanes to two. It doesn't matter how many bridges you build across Hampton Roads, you still have to squeeze four lanes of traffic into two on I-64! From what I can tell, all the $3 billion buys you is a displacement of congestion from the bridge-tunnels to a point 10 or so miles to the northwest.

Hampton Roads needs to address system-wide congestion, not just spot congestion. And that would require adding a third lane to I-64 all the way to Richmond, would it not? If I'm missing something, please point it out to me.

Kaine goes to town in Hampton Roads

A big crowd turned out for governor-elect Tim Kaine's 'town hall' meeting in Hampton Roads last night and gave him an earful on what driving is like here. Let me summarize: they don't like it.

The Virginian-Pilot story rounds up the usual mish-mash of opinions that make events like this so rewarding to cover. Some don't like the third crossing. Some don't like HOV lanes. Others don't want to pay higher taxes.

There's a certain irony in the 'town hall' label. If this were really a town hall meeting, there'd be a town around it, and it wouldn't look anything like Hampton Roads, where the mass of residents drive everywhere, by themselves.

Monday, November 21, 2005

New Political Dynamics in the Transportation Debate

Bob Burke has filed a story about the third meeting of the state Senate task force, known by its acronym of START, that is expected to recommend transportation-related legislation for the 2006 General Assembly. The good news: The group is wrestling with substantive issues. The bad news: It hasn't come anywhere near a consensus, and there's only one more meeting left.

I'd long assumed that Senate Finance Chair John Chichester had set up START to rubber stamp a tax-increase proposal he had waiting in the wings. But that may not be the case. START, chaired by Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Chatham, is looking at a wide range of issues, not simply ginning up a case for a tax hike. Indeed, the issues the group has identified are so overwhelmingly complex that it is difficult to foresee it developing a meaningful set of recommendations in the time remaining.

From my distant vantage point, it seems as if the Senate is in disarray on the transportation issue. Unless the START hearings are nothing but smoke and mirrors designed to deceive the public -- and they don't seem to be -- it's hard to imagine Senate sentiment coalescing unanimously around a straightforward tax-and-build approach to transportation.

If Chichester tries to take the Senate in that direction, he may well encounter opposition. Over the past two years, he could count on support from Senate Democrats because they, like he, were lined up on the same side of the tax debate as Gov. Mark Warner and against the House. But the dynamics will change with Kaine in the Governor's Mansion. Kaine is not seeking a transportation tax increase -- at least not now. His priorities are tackling the transportation-land use connection and putting transportation funds in a lockbox. Senate Democrats may prove more loyal to him than to Chichester.

In a sign of new Democratic assertiveness, Sen. Edward Houck, D-Spotsylvania, spoke forcefully about land use issues in the recent START hearing. Expect to hear more from Senate Democrats in the upcoming debate. If they align tactically with conservative, low-tax Republicans in the Senate on the transportation-tax issue, Chichester may not enjoy the same control over the Senate as in the past few years. He still may be able to mobilize a majority - but not without a fight. That new reality will undercut his negotiating position with the Governor and the House.

The House of Delegates is playing its legislative cards close to the chest, but Speaker William Howell has made clear his opposition to raising taxes to fund transportation. All things considered, the 2006 session is shaping up as a transportation free for all. Given the governor's power to set the agenda and frame the issues, however, Tim Kaine should enjoy the initiative.