Monday, February 13, 2006

The House Transportation Package

As noted in my most recent column, "Breakthrough," the press accounts of the House of Delegates transportation plan are grossly -- nay, negligently -- deficient. There are three main pieces to the plan: a financial component, a VDOT reform component and a land use component. You can disagree with many of the specifics, as I do, but you have to give the House leadership credit for thinking seriously about transportation. In my humble opinion, this package represents real progress. The House is grappling with substantive issues.

As I've argued previously on this blog, the House is playing a much stronger hand than it did in 2004. Kaine's charge that using General Funds to pay for transportation improvements amounts to "raiding the budget of William and Mary or any other college" (see "Surplus Wars" below) is transparently ludicrous -- a rhetorical device with no basis in fact whatsoever. As long as the state is running a $1 billion revenue surplus, no one's going to buy it.


At 2:03 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

so we don't know if it is $400 million or a billion, but it is going to be outsourced through a plan that has yet to be devised and supervised by persons unknown.

The money stream is not guaranteed and the profits from new roads may be concessioned to companies rather than to the people that pay for them.

And maybe land use hasn't got the play it deserves because no one knows what it means. But I would suggest that if communities get more authority to wrest proffers from developers, they will find they have less control over development, the argument being that, "Hey, I'm paying what you asked for, now what's your problem?"

At 7:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The constant claims of a billion dollar revenue surplus as equally a rhetorical flourish with no meaning. Point to it Jimbo. When the dust clears Sunday on the House budget you will see very little dedicated to transportation, and over the long haul virtually none of it. The House is spending it just like it always has, on other things.

At 9:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

We ought to have a mass recall to throw the bums out and get some who will do the job.

At 10:57 PM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

9:46 Voters in Fairfax County would love the ability for recall, most especially for the Board of Supervisors, but also for some legislators too. The issue would be over-development in each and every race. Whether some officials could save their seats in a recall election is beyond my prediction.

No solution for transportation that does not also contain additional restrictions on development will be politically acceptable in NoVA. Tim Kaine's decision to tie land use to transportation (whatever that means) pushed the development issue past the tipping point. While things can change between now and the next election, I expect challengers from both political parties to campaign as anti-development candidates in 2007. Democrats can approach the issue from an environmental perspective and raise the crowded classrooms issue as well, while Republicans can argue that development is forcing large increases in government spending and taxes. I'll even go out on a limb to predict that some challengers will argue that over-development is creating an incentive for illegal immigration!

I'm not arguing either the fairness or rationality of these arguments. I'm just offering my prediction of what happens unless there's some movement on growth control legislation. Lobbyists may well be able to prevail in Richmond this year, but if they do, they face many new faces in 2008 that will be openly hostile to developer arguments.

Transportation solutions without development restrictions simply will not be accepted in NoVA.

At 5:14 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

The plain fact is that the average residence generates about 10 auto trips a day. Many folks don't believe this number.. but

This is not a number that is at dispute with transportation experts such as AASHTO and the Texas Transportation Institute or even the federal agencies such as FEHA.

The field itself is known as "traffic generation" and classifieds a wide range of land-use activities ranging from commercial retail, hospitals, package distribution centers, .. and residential in terms of how much traffic their activities will generate.

This is not rocket science. It's a known and accepted principle and while one can argue whether the number itself might be 9 or 11...
it's certain.. it's not 5 or 3 or 2.

So when folks claim that it's difficult to characterize the connection between land-use and transportation, they are apparently unaware of basic traffic generation data - which is a problem because many elected officials at the local level are intimately involved with growth and development.

And, I would posit that this fundamental calculation - ten trips per day per home - tells a LOT of the transportation-land-use story that we are currently experiencing.

Folks can argue about "restricting development" (which I think is futile and engenders dysfunctional side-effects) but the simple reality is that when many localities approve new development
they are also agreeing to accept ten new auto trips a day per new home.

But the real bear in the proffer situation is that while localties focus on the costs of new schools, they, in most cases, virtually ignore the costs of upgrading transportation infrastructure to serve new development.

They simply collect - literally pennies on the dollar to fund transporation infrastructure needed to serve the approved new development.

In years past, it was typical to hear elected officials, in the process of approving rezones, to publically state that roads were not their concern but instead VDOT's - despite the fact that VDOT's so-called 6yr plans were, instead 20yr plans or worse.

The bottom line is that new growth requires transportation infrastructure and if localities do not collect the necessary monies then upgrades are simply not done - and instead deferred for decades.

I call this - evading responsibility.

The answer is quite simple - the localities that accept new growth must also accept the financial responsibility to provide the infrastructure that needs to be built to serve that growth.

Expecting the state to bail them out is ... really expecting other taxpayers in Virginia to bail them out - because they cannot keep their own financial house in order to start with.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Larry, you take note of an interesting metric -- the 10 automobile trips per day for the average household. I agree with you that in a mobile and affluent society, people are going to take a lot of car trips, and there's no way that we can knock that number down to, say, five trips per day.

But that is an average number. It would be interesting to see how much it varied from setting to setting. I would hypothesize that households living in compact, pedestrian-friendly communities with a finely grained mix of land uses generate fewer and shorter trips than households living in scattered, disconnected, low-density settings.

If that hypothesis is correct, it suggests that changing the pattern of development/urban design will change the number and distance of trips, significantly reducing the stress on the transportation system. If we could reduce the average number of trips per day from 10 to 8, say, and if those trips were shorter on average than they are now, Virginia could go a long way to taking the "crisis" out of the transportation crisis.

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...


I don't disagree with your position that smarter growth would help reduce traffic demand. So would aggressive teleworking. Addressing the demand side is important.

But smart growth and added density in places that do not have sufficient infrastructure to support today's population, such as in Fairfax County, is no solution. For example, we still have Tony Griffin's memorandum warning the BoS that any development in addition to what is already contained in Fairfax County's Comprehensive Plan will necessitate building a larger wastewater treatment system. It doesn't make any difference whether we put more oranges, apples or tennis shoes in the ten-pound sack that is already full. The capacity issues extend to local streets, schools, parks, Metrorail, etc. No one wants to address these issues, but they remain screaming at anyone living or working in Fairfax County.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Some people that have actually gone out and measured this trip generation thing now conclude that some small reduction might occur in certain communities, like from 10 to 8.5, maybe. Other researchers have studied similar situations and find that when local trips are possible they are additive to the ten trips generated otherwise, and do little or nothing to reduce total travel.

The idea that fewer and shorter trips can solve the problem is mostly a myth because shorter trips implies more density and more density always yields more congestion slower travel times and more pollution.

Also remember how they count those trips. If you go to work and stop at the bank and cleaners on the way home, that's four trips.

AS TMT points out, even if EMR is right and there is plenty of "room" in Fairfax, much of the infrastructure is maxed out. It costs much more to construct anything in Fairfax than it does in Charlottesville, and so encouraging more density there will be horribly expensive, won't solve the transportation problem, and will result in lesser living conditions at higher prices and with more local pollution, energy consumption, and congestion.

That plan cannot work.

At 12:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...,0,4955334.story?coll=dp-opinion-editorials

Has a scathing opinion of the House package for "Pretend Roads"

At 10:47 PM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

I still haven't read anything in the press that tells me what all this additional money will really buy. Let's have specific proposals for identified infrastructure & some form of service level agreements. What roads would have their LOS raised from X to Y? How long could we expect to see the better LOS continue?

Neither the federal nor state government lets businesses raise capital from investors without making specific disclosures in a prospectus or offering memorandum. One generally needs to explain the planned uses for the capital and to disclose the various risks associated with the investments. Why should we let the General Assembly, the Governor and VDOT raise money from tax- and toll-payers without first making similar disclosures about the ?

The editorialists are calling for more investments in public infrastructure. OK, let's treat transportation as an investment. Make the disclosures & include the impacts of additional development that would be fostered by our new and expensive infrastructure.

At 6:32 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Toomanytaxes, You argue that Fairfax's infrastructure is bursting at the seams. Add more people and the county will have to build a water treatment plant. Undoubtedly true. But put those same people in Loudoun or Fauquier or Stafford, and someone still has to provide water treatment and other services to them. Restricting development in Fairfax simply displaces the problem to another jurisdiction.

Ray Hyde, you say, "The idea that fewer and shorter trips can solve the problem is mostly a myth because shorter trips implies more density and more density always yields more congestion slower travel times and more pollution."

I don't know anyone who has argued that denser development will reduce travel time. That's a straw dog. What you reduce is the number of lane miles of roadway that must be constructed and maintained. What we're trying to address in Virginia is a fiscal crisis derived from the inability to build and maintain the kind of road network that you would like to build.

You note that different development/design patterns would result in a reduction in the number of average trips per day from 10 to "only" 8.5. That's a 15 percent reduction in the number of trips. That sounds like a lot, especially when you compare the cost of adopting more efficient development/design patterns (nothing) to the alternative (billions of dollars).

At 8:16 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...


I don't disagree with your argument. As my late father-in-law used to say: "A feller needs to live somewhere." Restricting growth in Fairfax moves it somewhere else, which could well be Fauquier, Loudoun or Stafford County. But why should residents of Fairfax County "pay" to protect the lifestyles of its neighbors? Why should we incur even more traffic, more trailers for classrooms, more overused parks, more jammed Metro platforms, and ever-rising taxes to boot?

While few people relish the thought of more growth in their backyard, whether sprawl or density, many more people would be receptive if the win-lose equation were to be altered. I'll address that at two levels -- local and state.

Let's take something very simple -- soccer fields or "rectangular fields" as our parks planners call them. If we add density to Vienna (Metrowest), we will generate more genuine demand for soccer fields, both from children and from adult males. There are no plans whatsoever to place a single additional rectangular field in that development. Therefore, we (nearby residents) have even more demand for existing fields and more traffic (which all this smart growth is designed to reduce -- ha! ha!) as the new people drive to nearby fields. Then take all other types of infrastructure affected by dense development and one quickly finds that smart growth diminishes the quality of life and raises taxes for existing residents of Fairfax County. For the life of me, why would anyone expect the residents of Fairfax County to accept this level of sacrifice to protect the lifestyles of neighboring counties?

Turning to the state level, one can make a decent argument that growth in Fairfax County helps the Commonwealth. It pours more money through sales and income taxes into Richmond, where an unfair share is sent to keep services up and taxes down throughout much of the state -- and not just in poor areas. According to the State Senate Finance Committee, Warner's net tax increases cost Fairfax County residents about $108 M in 2005. According to Fairfax Schools, we received less than $14 M in brand new state money (sales tax) from Richmond. While some additional state spending went to public safety and Medicaid, which benefits Fairfax County residents, Warner sold his tax increases as benefiting K-12 education -- he just forgot to say "not in Fairfax County." Meanwhile, Fairfax real estate taxes have gone up by double digits for the last five years, faster than average family income (which, incidentally, has actually decreased in Fairfax County some years). We have no hot water in many schools, but 7th graders eating lunch at 9:45 am.

Let's change the rules to make density more acceptable to residents of Fairfax County (& other jurisdictions as well). Require local governments (especially Fairfax County) to determine the impact of development on infrastructure and require that sufficient infrastructure be added while development occurring. Require development to pay reasonable impact fees and/or proffers to cover the capital costs for such infrastructure. At the state level, rebate a sizable portion of new income tax revenues generated by development in Fairfax County to Fairfax County, even though it would also require real estate tax hikes in many other parts of Virginia. Reward us financially for accepting the development necessary to be the Commonwealth's cash cow & there might be less opposition to that development.

At 6:00 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

re: trip generation

AASHTO and FHWA and TTI (Texas Transportation Institute) all recognize differences in trip generation according to the 'kind' of development including mixed-use communities, empty-nest communities, and communities that have shopping located nearby.

Smart Growth and/or New Urbanist type communities in "theory" would generate less traffic.

Not that a "trip" is one origin and one destination so there are two "trips" associated with travel from home to work and then work to home.

But the idea of locating jobs near to where people live so as to reduce "trips" sort of ignores the reality that folks will actually choose the combo arrangement which is out of kilter with data showing that folks change jobs on the average of once every 7 years and it's pretty certain that once folks get locked into a mortgage that if the new job is still within a perceived acceptable commuting distance that they'll not move necessarily just to keep their commute shorter.

Also not likely is the scenario where both husband and wife work but not in the same location and certainly not both in the same immediate area where they have chosen to live.

Society is much, much more mobile than the Smart Growth template that suggests that tinkering with settlement patterns is actually a fundamental solution.

However, on the other side of the coin, as long as people do not suffer direct financial impacts of their decision to live, sometimes, far from where they work then two things happen. First there is no incentive to save money - as long as roads are considered to be public and paid for by taxes and second, when roads become congested, these same folks join the clarion call for MORE roads to make their commute easier.

Finally, the "problems" are mostly "peak hour" problems caused by the need for business to have "regular hours" ... ergo.. their staff needs to "be there" for regular hours.

Check out the Washington Post this morning. Not the moans and groans about the unrelenting and worsening congestion - but, instead, what the Top Transportation Planner says is the solution - not more roads - but... voila... read on:

"Kirby said the best short-term solution for Washington area commuters lies in express toll lanes, which are planned on almost all major commuter routes. Transportation officials are drawn to the concept because tolls could be adjusted according to traffic levels, allowing them to control congestion.

Express toll lanes "are the single biggest opportunity on the horizon to make major improvements within the next five to 10 years," Kirby said."

So what Kirby is saying, in essence, is to match the COSTs of transportation to those that use road capacity. The more you use,the more you pay.

What a concept!

He caveats his view with the phrase "short term" solution but think about this.

What is the likelihood that the Washington Metro Area (or any other Virginia Metro Area) will get enough money to build more Springfield Interchanges at $700 million a 'pop' - which is what it will take to truly upgrade and improve urban area roads - very, very expensive.

We're not talking about 10 million dollars a mile to build a new rural interstate lane but instead talking about right-of-way costs that involve existing businesses and homes that START at 1/2 million dollars for a modest home on 1/4 or less acres. If that sounds "doeable", consider how much it will cost to obtain existing businesses where the cost is expressed in terms of dollars per square foot.

I'd posit that "short term" is very much a relative term that likely, if it works, will become the de-facto standard for dealing with peak-hour congestion.

Folks will say this is "unfair" to commuters who have "no choice" but I would point out that they DO have choices - and they have made them - based on the mindset that since they pay taxes, they should be able to use as much road capacity as they need at any time of the day regardless of congestion levels - which is a lot like saying if you pay social security taxes - no matter how minimal - that you're entitled to a retirement income sufficient to support you in the style to which you are used to as a salaried worker. NOT!

I simply don't think much of the hype associated with Smart Growth or New Urbanism will deliver anything significant as compared to placing the actual commute costs on those that choose to commute will.

One the actual cost of the commute comes home to roost - those paying those costs will start to make decisions that will affect what kind of commute that they choose.

In other words, let's operate the roads like the marketplace operates and let demand dictate the price of the product.


At 11:19 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I can't tell you how happy I am that TMT and Larry Gross are here to make some cogent arguments. When I first came here EMR claimed that I was "almost alone" in my thinking. I'm starting to feel like someone is listening.

Jim: you are changing the subject by claiming that travel time is a straw dog, and you are entirely missing the point. What people care about is their time: time away from family, time away from hobbys (that create commerce) etc. Not only that but time spent idling in traffic creates far more pollution burns more fuel, and concentrates the pollution where it can do the most damage. Im sorry, but I see that argument as senseless: pave a few more lanes, they will more than pay for themselves.

You are right 15% is a huge number: if it can be achieved. But that is the outside and most real researchers, as opposed to EMR, think the number is far smaller. It is going to cost a fortune and take decades if not centuries to get that 15%, if ever. I'm not saying we shouldn't make an effort, but we should do it when we know what the results will be, and how to proceed. Right now it is total and utter fluff.

I've got a letter from the car dealer telling me it is time to come in for my oil change. Sure enough, my service light went on yesterday. According to the letter, I average 41 miles a day, almost exactly 15,000 miles per year, almost exactly the national average. And I live 40 miles west of nowhere. During farm season I drive my tractor 150 miles a day, but my day job mileage produces 1500% more money. What activity do you think I should rationally give up?

Furthermore, I know from my own records that my mileage was not much different when I lived in Fairfax, when I lived in Georgetown, when I lived in NC, or when I lived, for God's sake, on an island. I don't buy it.

Every time I moved it was an expensive event that I fought like crazy to not repeat. Surprisingly, every time I did, I made money in the end. And every time, I moved from a more dense to a less dense location. It turns out, surprise!, that you make the most money with the cheapest houses.

And Larry is right. The economics of moving are such that I can drive for decades without seeing a similar loss. I am living testimony to his comment that preventing development has deleterious side effects.

I'm sorry, but shorter trips don't make a hoot of difference if they take more time. Not owning a car doesn't improve your life if transit takes twice as long to travel, costs more, and you can't chain trips. This is utter lunacy. It doesn't make sense, and it is economically backwards.

You can postulate whatever you want about fewer and shorter trips, but the evidence is not there, and those neighborhoods are going to coast many times the proposed current highway budget to rebuild.

At the same time, Fauuier is less than 1% developed. Many new homes will be there for decades before water and sewer come. Schools are the big cost, but guess what? They cost less in Fauquier than in Fairfax. One reason they cost less is that our teachers live even farther west, and they drive to work on (mostly) congestion free roads and they live in houses they can afford. Some of them live in farm cottages like the one I'd like to build but can't.

TMT is dead on. No one has said what this plan will buy. Part of the reason is that no one knows. As far as I can tell, it is a total crap shoot: everyone has theories and no one has proof. No one can predict what the LOS will be or for how long. And TMT is right again: it is going to take a little bit of every initiative to gain anything in transportation. It is enormously complicated, terribly expensive, and eminently wothwhile.

Larry is right. When you start talking about right of way in dollars per square foot, and engineered multistory buildings instead of out of the magazine shelf house plans, there is no comparison. The arguments you are making to save taxes are going to send us all into bankruptcy, either through lack of transit or enormous infrastructure costs.

And Larry is right again. Those that live in Fairfax (may) travel shorter distances or use transit. And the price they pay for that benefit is smaller homes, less space, more noise, more pollution, and higher taxes. The people wo are sitting motionless on 66 in Gainesville have a choice too.

The choice they made may have been a long time ago when conditions were different.

The people who live in Fairfax, had better thank whatever God they pray to that those commuters don't exercise that choice and move in closer. We know that congestion is exponential, depending on demand.

So are housing prices. It is only going to take a few people moving into Fairfax to escape gas prices, before the situation shifts dramatically, and we will be right back where we are now. The cost of moving in will be so high that paying high gas prices makes sense.

Jim, you can change the focus of your argument all you want. None of them have a leg to stand on. Larry is right. We have to let demand dictate the price of the product. What we need to recognize is that "the product" is a combination of roads, land, and opportunity.

I've got roads, that I have contributed to for years, both in land and money. I've got land. I can create opportunities, but the community won't let me. They have decided that it is to their benefit if I am restricted only to conventional farming, no matter what it costs me, not realizing that it is going to cost them, too.

I've got land in Fairfax, also. But let me tell you, to develop the same opportunity in Fairfax that I might here (absent restrictions), is outside my budget because it costs so much more in Fairfax.

I'm pretty sure Kirby is wrong. Express toll lanes won't reduce congestion, but they will raise a lot of money. Since they won;t affect Jim (directly) I would expect him to support the idea, as do I.

They won't reduce congestion though. They might eventually change the housing cost and travel dynamic, temporarily. Then the same property cost and travel dynamic will re-assert itself, with a differnet set of relative costs, but higher costs overall.

Higher costs overall can't be good for everybody, let alone anybody.

Jim, this is a dead end argument. Go find another windmill.

At 5:13 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

re: express toll lanes

It's an idea that has caught on and not yet demonstrated but as one who frequents a road geek newsgroup, can say, without equivocation that the trend is national in scope - and not without precedent as the Northeast has had toll roads for a long time.

What HAS changed is the technology that allows open road tolling WITHOUT toll booths. (Okay you need a few for the hard cases who refuse to get EZ pass transponders.)

"IF" the purpose of toll lanes is to "manage" road-use as they use tolls as the enforcement mechanism I would tend to agree with Ray Hyde if the toll fee is something that the average commuter can accommodate financially without serious consequences - and that doesn't count his employer kicking in an additional equivalent offset amount to make that transaction a zero-sum one for their employee.

(I wonder if the supporters of Express Toll lanes have thought about this aspect).

But if the tolls go up high enough - and again, that seems to be the idea behind express toll lanes, then sooner or later it will have an impact on commuters - and probably those at the lower economic ladders first - which
might have some interesting impacts in terms of the availability of lower-skilled labor.

We see some of this already with Northern Virginia localities dealing with a fairly new phenomena of 10-15 people living in a 4 bedroom home, sometimes people not related or sometimes multiple families and/or both.

Or we might see folks on the lower end that do commute to start using van pools - perhaps van pools sponsored by employers of these folks.

But I don't see the Lexus drivers being affected even at $50 a trip when they probably earn 4-5 times that amount in an hour.

One can argue about the net result of tolls - Lexus Lanes - but I have no doubt we're going down that path in the next few years and it will take a few more years for folks to sort of the impacts - both expected and unexpected.

At 9:46 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Larry, it is a pleasure to have you here. I think you are right, some form of lexus lanes or congestion pricing is in the picture. It is the only short term workable solution, and it will raise a lot of money.

But you are right. We don't know the real ramifications yet. Same goes for land use taxation, PDR's, New Urbanism, Smart Growth, alternate fuels, telecommuting, and a host of other proposed policies with little or no data to back them up and, hence, unknown outcomes.

One thing we do know is that business hates uncertainty, and business affects state revenues.

I'm conviced that congestion pricing is a mechanism to force what I have claimed is the only workable solution to congestion: use more space.

Jim says we should support fewer miles of road and use them more heavily, but we haqve hundreds of miles of road that are barely used.

This morning on a hay delivery I drove 40 miles and counted 12 vehicles. 3 of them were farm trucks like mine, and four were bicycles. I assume they came on the back of a car from the city.

The idea that we can reduce congestion by increasing density is nonsense. Jims idea is just another way of saying the goverment should promote a lower standard of living. I agree that lower standards of living are more sustainable. Who wants to go first?


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