Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Revolutionary Way to Think About Transportation

A brief but fascinating passage appeared in a Free Lance-Star story about a legislative luncheon hosted by the Fredericksburg Chamber of Commerce. House Speaker William J. Howell "would like a thorough shake-up of the way the Virginia Department of Transportation does business," reported Chelyen Davis. "While senators are talking about tying road planning to land use planning, Howell said he'd like to see VDOT use different measuring sticks to determine the success of a road project.

"For example, instead of measuring a project by whether it gets done on time and on budget, Howell said, he'd like to measure things like whether that road mitigates congestion".

Now that's breakthrough thinking! Imagine if the Kaine administration developed a methodology for ranking all highway projects, all rail projects, all demand-mangement projects (like telecommuting), and all capacity-improvement projects (like synchronized stop lights) by how much traffic mitigation they offered per dollar spent. Imagine if transportation projects were funded on a Return on Investment basis!

Do you think such a list would bear any resemblance to the top-priority projects on the books today? If we could combine this idea with the idea of connecting transportation and land use planning, we could truly revolutionize transportation policy in Virginia.

New Shape of the Growth Debate in Albemarle-Charlottesville

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine wants to give local governments more authority to restrict development that takes place in the absence of adequate transportation infrastructure. To see the fault lines created by this proposal, it's instructive to look at the debate shaping up in Charlottesville and Albemarle County. (See "Leaders Split on Kaine Plans for Growth" in the Daily Progress.)

Pro-growth forces proffer two powerful arguments:

(1) Albemarle County will either restrict projects, thus aggravating the local housing shortage, or extract concessions from developers to pay for more improvements. Either way, housing will become more unaffordable.

(2) Builders will respond by hop-scotching to outlying counties like Nelson, Louisa, Madison or Orange -- until those governments, too, start cracking down. That will make growth for the region defined by the Charlottesville labor watershed (what Ed Risse calls a New Urban Region) even more scattered, forcing people to drive greater distances and placing even greater stress on the regional road system.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Not all development projects are created equal. Scattered, disconnected, low-density projects generate larger traffic footprints than projects designed to make it possible for residents and workers to make fewer, shorter car trips.

Albemarle County has to face up to the reality that, from a regional perspective, it makes sense for development (or re-development) to occur where there is already a road/utility/services infrastructure in place. The responsible reaction is not to halt growth or steer it to outlying counties, but to enable a more efficient, more urban pattern of growth to occur in locations connected to existing development.

Home to the University of Virginia, the Charlottesville area is an emerging center of the Knowledge Economy. It's going to grow. Kaine's proposal could be a win-win if localities used it not to halt growth, not to redirect growth, but to transform growth from an economically inefficient pattern to an economically efficient pattern.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Legislative Jockeying on Road Funding

Legislators are careening toward "the political equivalent of a multicar wreck," suggests Jeff Schapiro at the Richmond Times-Dispatch in his latest report on the maneuvering that's taking place in advance of the 2006 General Assembly session. In the latest developments:
  • Gov.-Elect Tim Kaine "repeated that he will not back higher taxes for roads and mass transit unless lawmakers put transportation funds off-limits to other cash-hungry programs.:
  • Kaine also said he is "prepared to stand up to his major contributors in the real estate industry on his pledge to pair road building with land-use planning."


  • The gap widened between the state Senate, which wants to keep preserve the option of an increase in the gasoline tax, and the House. Del. L. Preston Bryant Jr., R-Lynchburg, said a fuel-tax increase is "not a practical or a political possibility."
  • Transportation options under consideration by the House include: "directing a portion of the growing surplus to highways and mass transit, and selling leasing rights -- perhaps for billions of dollars -- to private companies that would operate and maintain major roads."

Tim Kaine's Plan

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine said yesterday he'll keep a campaign promise and push legislation to give localities more authority to restrict development if local roads can't handle it. The Wash Post did a story, though this isn't really news. Kaine's been saying this for a while. He doesn't seem to be talking about an adequate public facilities law, but what he called a 'narrower' approach: making clear that localities can consider traffic impacts when they're reviewing rezoning requests.
The Home Builders Association of Virginia gets quoted as the apparent opposition.
'[Exec VP Michael] Toalson said his organization is preparing legislation that it will offer as an olive branch to Kaine in lieu of the enhanced authority for local governments.The home builders' proposal would require better coordination between local land planners and the Virginia Department of Transportation and a traffic impact statement for all proposed developments. Kaine called for both of those ideas during the campaign.
Toalson said going further would increase the cost of housing and force developers to spread to outer counties in search of land. He said home builders will find a way to meet the demand for housing from new workers.
"Those jobs have to have a place to go rest at night," he said. "If we can't build them in the place where the jobs are being created . . . we're just going to be building them farther and farther away."'
Meanwhile House Speaker Bill Howell says Kaine's proposal won't get passed, and that localities already have the power to turn down development.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Seeing the (Traffic) Light

If there's one thing that nearly every side of the transportation debate agrees upon, it's that synchronizing traffic lights is a cost-effective strategy for combatting traffic congestion. It's only one small piece of the total puzzle, of course, but it's a partial solution that offers a very high rate of return compared to adding new lanes of highway or laying new railroad track.

Bob Burke takes a look at the "traffic light synchronization" option in his story, "Seeing the (Traffic) Light."

The Gunst Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Sidney Gunst, the developer of the Innsbrook office park, is probably the best-known developer in the Richmond region. Innsbrook encompasses 850 acres, 100 buildings and seven million square feet of commercial office space; 25,000 people work there. Financially, it was a tremendous success. But Gunst says that if he knew then what he knows now, he would have done things very differently. (See my latest column, "The Gunst Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness," in Bacon's Rebellion.)

The problem is that Henrico County's zoning code, like that of most other counties, mandates low densities and the separation of land uses. The resultant scattered, disconnected, low-density development is very expensive to serve with roads and other infrastructure, Gunst says. If he had to do Innsbrook over, he says, it would have a more balanced mix of housing, stores and offices. He would have built a definable town center. And, in places, he would have built at greater density.

Gunst's critique is nearly identical to that of the "smart growth" advocates. But his proposed remedies are very different. Rather than giving more authority to local government -- such as adequate public facilities ordinances -- he says we need to create more flexibility for developers. Builders should be allowed to create a wider range of real estate product, including higher-density projects that make more efficient use of infrastructure.

One thing that Gunst and the Smart Growth advocates agree on: Most county zoning codes need to be re-written from scratch. If Tim Kaine wants to address the fundamental, underlying causes of traffic congestion and strained infrastructure in Virginia, that's where he needs to start.

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Rebellion Has Landed

The Dec. 12, 2005 edition of Bacon's Rebellion can now be read online. There is mucho content related to transportation and land use. Columns include:

The Gunst Guide to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness
Government regs have made a mess of real estate development, says the creator of Innsbrook. It's time to rewrite the rules and start over.
by James A. Bacon

At Last, a Debate on Sprawl
Inefficient patterns of development contribute to pollution, traffic congestion and local fiscal stress. With the election of Tim Kaine, suburban sprawl has finally become a statewide issue.
by Patrick McSweeney

A Better Way to Grow
Suburban sprawl is the product of government subsidies. A free market approach to development would be far more efficient.
by Patrick McSweeney

Deconstructing the Tower of Babel
The words "suburb," "urban," and "city" mean different things to everyone who hears them. Without a precise vocabulary, writers can't communicate clearly on the most pressing issues of the day.
by EM Risse

Here's Timmaayyy!
Gov.-Elect Tim Kaine has taken his transportation show on the road. The Blue Dog dishes the dirt on who said what in the Staunton hearing.
by Steven Sisson

No Easy Way Out
Rail improvements can do only so much to get trucks off the road. Fiddling with the state road funding formula isn't on the table. And the federal government isn't riding to the rescue. What's left?
by Steve Haner

Let's Get Moving!
Virginia's economy cannot grow without a sound transportation system. Our roads, rails and ports are increasingly overloaded. So, let's stop debating and start taking action.
by Samuel H. Kirby Jr.

Brave New World of Toll Roads

The Washington Post today has one of those what-it-all-means trend stories, this one on the rise of toll-funded roads in the D.C. region... It also has a nice graphic showing where the toll roads are planned. Says the Post:
'The vision of a regionwide network of these highways has suddenly come into focus just a year after Virginia and Maryland first showed serious interest in the concept. Maryland plans to begin construction on its first express lanes next year, while Virginia plans to build them on a 14-mile stretch of the Beltway within five years.
The projects, many of which will be built and operated by private firms, represent a radical shift in the way highways are financed and operated and promise to transform the way drivers in the Washington area and the nation travel.
"If you look at the full potential of this for the region, I think it's the biggest thing since Metro," said Ronald F. Kirby, transportation planning director for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments. "These are very significant and could be just the beginning. We haven't had highways of this magnitude in 20 or 30 years."'
Critics raise the "Lexus Lane" issue, which seems a fair point. Converting HOV lanes to HOT lanes is going to fill up that unused capacity there, which will help the general lanes somewhat, but continued growth in the outer suburbs is going to soon fill up that capacity. There's also the issue, says the Post, of having a number of different companies operating roads.
"There are some very real technological and pricing issues," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer. "One of the things the region and commonwealth are looking at is some sort of umbrella or oversight group to make sure all the different pricing serves the public good."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Virginia's New Urbanism Revolution

You know the "New Urbanism" concept is going mainstream when you read that developers are initiating New Urbanism-inspired projects in Lynchburg. According to Lynchburg's News Advance:

Plans call for the Thomas Jefferson Crossing neighborhood, located off U.S. 221 behind the Bank of the James’ Forest branch, to feature a mix of homes, retail stores, offices and apartments above shops. Developers of the project have said it will have wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, streetlights, large open spaces and walking trails. ...

“We’re in an age of convenience. We all want it close by,” said Gary Case, president of Gary W. Case & Co., a real estate firm on the project.

Nearly every major project being announced in the Richmond region purports to be inspired by New Urbanism principles. The Richmond Times-Dispatch ran an article a week ago describing four New Urbanism projects -- two of them designed by the architecture firm of New Urbanism guru and prophet Andres Duany -- in the Fredericksburg area.

Not all mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly projects are created equal. Those that take advantage of existing roads and other infrastructure are better than those that do not. Those that contribute to the creation of a balanced mix of homes/offices/shopping/amenities not only at the neighborhood level but the regional level are better than those that do not. But in almost all cases, mixed-use, pedestrian friendly urban design is better than the kind of scattered, disconnected, low-density development that preceded it.