Friday, February 17, 2006

Thin Gruel

Road to Ruin reporter Bob Burke has weighed in with an analysis of 2006 legislation designed to align land use and transportation planning. His conclusion: It's better than nothing, but it's only a start. As usual, Bob is the only reporter in the Commonwealth digging beneath the press-release rhetoric of Virginia's transportation debate.

I agree with Bob's analysis -- the bills coming out of the 2006 session are only a first step. But I'm an optimist, and I like to think that the glass is half full. I find tremendous significance in the fact that the General Assembly is thinking about land use at all. Clearly, there is a growing recognition in the Governor's office and both chambers of the legislature that land use is part of the transportation equation.

Here's the problem. The major players offer a remarkably consistent critique of the disjunction between transportation and land use planning. But a lot of distrust has built up over the years, and they're talking past each other. Someone needs to lock the key constituencies into a room, hire a facilitator to look for areas of agreement, and not let them out until they've hammered out some meaningful proposals. No one is going to "solve" the problem in one session, but it's not unrealistic to hope that our lawmakers can move the ball a few more yards down the field.

It will take someone with a lot of stature to pull off such a meeting. It's really a job for the Governor's office. I humbly and respectfully suggest that the Governor might more profitably spend his time trying to find common ground than devoting his energy to another round of public hearings that will add nothing new to what's already been said.


At 5:03 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

It is no wonder they are talking past each other. I certainly haven't been able to understand what it means or how it will work.

Road planning seems to take a long time, sometimes a very long time. If land use gets tied to that schedule it is going to make it harder than it is to accomplish anything. You champion less zoning regulation. This isn't necessarily more regulation, just longer.

I think getting the state involved in land use is a mistake we will regret.

Kevin Mannix is the chair of the state Republican party in Oregon, and here is what he has to say about the state's 30 year experiment in land use.

But one of the areas in which Oregon has been a leader, "the idea of land use planning" has gone off-track and, he said "we've lost our way. We've layered on state mandates. We've tried to micromanage the process." That, he said, has "empowered the nay-sayers to trump local management in decision-making," helping spark the property rights revolt.

"If you've got a business that wants to bring jobs to a community, and it gets a positive land use decision, but then there's two or three years of appeal, the business will give up and go someplace else. Measure 37 gave us an opportunity to reinvent the whole process. People said, something is wrong, let's fix it.

Newport News Times


Maybe what happened in Oregon isn't germaine here. But they started off with a pretty clear idea of what they wanted and it took thirty years to figure out the price was too high. The people voted overwhelmingly to change the system twice in four years, and it is still held up in court.

Here in Virginia we have nothing that represents an identifiable plan, beyond a slogan: it is very thin gruel. What makes us think we can do better than Oregon?

You are right: nothing new can come out of more public hearings. We have been around on all the arguments here and beat them to death. What concerns me is that so many of these proposals are designed to get the other guy instead of being designed equitably to begin with.

All I can see coming out of this is more government and more bureaucracy. It is going to be the yearly creeping crud of continuously incremental conditions for permission to conduct commerce. Yeccccccch!

At 7:21 PM, Blogger Jim Duncan said...

Who would you say are the key constituencies? NoVa because they have the bulk of the population? The tri-cities area? Whose voice/opinion would be deemed less valuable?

At 9:41 PM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

From what I've read, the Oregon situation has not worked well for most anyone and spawned more bureaucracy and regulation. However, Virginia will probably, but not necessarily, move in that same direction.

The problem in Virginia arises from the fact that too many people see themselves as losers from the current "set of rules" for development & that's probably not just suburbanites and exurbanites. There are probably landowners who feel the current situation stinks as well.

Those who view themselves as winners are, at least tacitly, still more powerful politically, and can and do take the position that no changes are warranted. They effectively offer other Virginians the solution of "just pay more and be willing to put up with less quality of life" in order to retain this "great prosperity and high level of growth." Today's winners will hold on as long as they can politically because the the current situation is economically advantageous.

However, if we've not reached the tipping point on land use issues, we are very close. In the foreseeable future, the General Assembly will be controlled by those who won or kept their seats based upon open hostility to development. Development problems are spreading to more and more Virginia counties. The General Assembly will begin to pass laws that head in the direction of Oregon and other heavily regulatory-focused states. It might not be a good direction, but, for for those who see themselves as paying the price for development, the Oregon path will be viewed as better than today's traffic jam. Moreover, the new regulatory process will become entrenched and will be supported by its constituents, including the land use lawyers who stand to make a lot more money as the process becomes more complicated.

It strikes me that today's winners would be better served by acknowledging that the existing system is not working fairly in the eyes of many Virginians, such that some changes are warranted. Obviously, those changes would decrease profitability for those tied to the development industry -- at least to some extent. Developers would likely be required to contribute substantially more to infrastructure and might not be able to recover all of those added costs in their prices in every instance. (Some costs would likely be passed to landowners in the form of lower prices for their property.) Developers might walk away from more marginal projects and might even see their requests for zoning changes denied more often.

But I would submit that these concessions, if you will, would be less and the new rules more reasonable when made in today's "transitional" political environment than those that would occur in a political environment that is far more hostile to development.

At 4:44 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

I'm looking at various land-use laws that are being proposed and I'm hard pressed to see many where the state itself will become directly involved in the decision process. It appears to me that much of it is in the form of regulations to either enable localities to assume more of a role or to be forced to do certain things with respect to land-use decisions.

Perhaps others can point to legislation where the state will assume a more Oregon-like role.

Myself living in a community 50 miles south of the Wash Metro area, where growth has continued unabated at 5% plus for more than a decade resulting in a tripling of our population in little more than 15 years, my perspective with respect to the dynamics is this.

Virtually all of our growth is due to folks who work in the Wash Metro Area but want more home for the money and the land prices in our area, while much more expensive than it used to be is still relatively by comparison cheap with respect to areas north of us.

I'd posit that Loudoun has similiar dynamics.

While our local jurisdictions for years have collected proffers, virtually all are for schools and virtually none are for transportation impacts beyond the immediate locale of new development, usually, in the form of upgrades at the entrance - i.e. right-turn tapers, and left turn lanes, and new signals.

For as long as I can remember - and to this day - the question of whose responsibility it was to figure out what to do with the traffic beyond the subdivision entrance was considered to be VDOT's and VDOT's alone - whether it was the major arterials and primary roads or I-95 itself.

I don't know what percentage of the Wash Metro area traffic is commuting traffic from areas like ours but would suspect that it is a significant amount.

In other words, if you took away all the traffic resulting from folks commuting from remote exhurbs like ours and Loudouns, etc what would be left?

How much traffic would be ... say from Fairfax to Montgomery or vice-versa?

So, back to the land-use legislation itself.

It appears to me that what it does is enable to localities to be able to require higher proffers and/or the formation of CDAs and Service Districts to capture more money for more transportation improvements - beyond the new subdivision entrance.

This does not sound to me like the state is imposing itself at the local level but rather providing more tools to the localities to be able to collect the money necessary to upgrade their own transportation network to handle the massive influx of new residents.

Is this a bad thing?

I guess it depends on who you ask and whose ox is being gored but certainly there is no question that our local road network has suffered greatly from the influx of new folks - and no money to improve them.

Now, the bigger question to me is what happens after all of our northbound commuters get on I-95 in the morning and end up in the Wash Metro Area and the Beltway.

Who is going to pay to upgrade I-95 and the Beltway?

I'm looking at what kind of money the GA is going to generate for state-wide transportation and it seems to be on the order of perhaps a billion a year in new money.

A quick calculation will reveal that the Springfield Interchange cost in excess of 700 million and the new Wilson Bridge in excess of a billion dollars.

So.. the state.. VDOT will get perhaps a billion dollars a year in "new" money.

How far do folks think that money is going to stretch if it is to be spent on mega-type "fixes" like the Springfield Interchange and the Wilson Bridge - in the Wash Metro Area, Tidewater, Richmond, etc.

Methinks... not very far. VDOT itself says that the backlog is
100 billion and growing.

So, my "take" on the land-use issue is:

1. - The state is not going to be directly involved like it is/was in Oregon.

2. - I don't see where the land-use legislation is going to change commuting patterns on a macro scale.

3. - At best, the land-use regulations will allow some localities to collect more transportation money - which "might" make houses more expensive and push new growth to localities that do not enact land-use regulations.

4. - The "affordable housing" issue is really a bogus issue in many respects. Affordable housing in not a Single Family detached on 1/2 acre of land - never was.

I lived in an apartment and rental housing for more than 15 years before I could afford a starter home.

I would posit that "affordable housing" is the availability of apartments and rental dwelling as much or more so than it is SFD housing.

Many folks, and I don't blame them for trying, can't seem to reconcile the fact that living in an area that pays big buck salaries also means big buck housing costs so folks basically decide that a one-hour commute on an interstate will get them "more" house.

Well, when everyone and their dog uses that same strategy, quess what happens to highway capacity.

So, I don't see this whole issue as about land-use but rather about thousands of individuals trying to get the best paying salary that the can and then the best quality home for the least money - and everyone is counting on available highway capacity for that strategy to work.

How are land-use regulations whether imposed at the state or local level going to change this?

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Jim, TMT and Larry:

Good comments, every one of them. Ther is not enough clarity to knw what will happen, and it isn't clear that the state will get wrapped up in land use.

What I see is circular finger pointing. A developer comes up with a plan, VDOT toes a traffic study that says a development in Culpeper is going to overwhelm the bridge on Rte 28 in PW. Culpeper uses the traffic study to slap on a big proffer, or else they say it has to revise the comp plan to get the new proffers included. PW doesn't get the money to fix the bridge, state says its a local problem, and nobody is responsible.

I think TMT has a point when he says too many people see themselves as losers. There is no cost associated with inventing a scenario under which you claim to be a loser and going to the hearings to scream NIMBY. It's like the roads: if there is no cost it gets overused.

Bacon and I have gone around on the difficulty of getting metrics which describe accurately who the losers are. In graduate school I had case studies in environmental economics that were fascinatingly complex, and turned out to have results exactly opposite of what was intended.

Consider Fauquier. Enormous tracts of land are held off the market through easements and land use taxation. One analyst, publised in some tax journal, has pointed out that this results in a 28% increase in the tax rate for everyone else. In fact, because improvements to the land are taxed at full rate, some landowners pay more under land use than if it was abolished. Furthemore, because of watershed issues, a primary benefactor of all this is Fairfax. The analysts conclusion was that Fairfax should be paying Fauquier a rebate on the costs of programs Fauquier runs for Fairfax's benefit.

(The Analyst was a California Professor, so as far as I can tell there was no local political ramifictions to his study.)

I don't mean to personalize this ( and I bring up my own situation frequently) but things are easier to see when they are up close. This is not a personal issue really, but is intended as an example. We agree that people who use the roads should pay for them, and pay fairly, which is not the case today. But even people who never drive benefit, so what is their share?

If my land is being held off the market to benefit others, shouldn't they expect to pay rent? If that idea ever comes to fruition, it will be far into the future, but my life isn't.

We have a very long way to go before we can figure out what is fair for winners and losers. in the meantime the wealthy and those with political clout will continue to work the system to their advantage, fair or not.

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

got the monthly TPB Newsletter today - it's the newsletter of the Wash Metro MWCOG MPO. Hows that for alphabet soup.

Anyhow.. they make this statement:

"More people means more congestion, right? Not necessarily.
The TPB’s study of “what if” scenarios is showing that anticipated congestion in 2030 could actually be reduced if the number of future households in the region is increased from current
2030 forecasts. “It might seem counterintuitive that increasing
household density would decrease congestion,” said Jill Locantore of the TPB staff. “But this
scenario brings people who might otherwise commute from places like Pennsylvania or West Virginia closer to their jobs in the Washington area, significantly reducing the amount of driving on our region’s roads.”

This was the point I was chewing on in an earlier post....

MWCOG's TPB - Transportation Planning Board is one of the foremost in the nation with respect to their studies and models so I tend to believe them.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

MWCOG has been drinking their own cool-aid. I'd love to see tha basis for that analysis.

A primary driver of more traffic is that there are more and smaller households. If you put more of them in one place you will have more travelers in one place. Ten trips per household is the usual figure.

I think you had it right in your earlier post: traffic gets worse at the feeders, then the arterials, then the freeways, and when it gets downtown it stops.

We just cannot send everyone to the same place everyday. Neither can we expect them to all live there. If they try to live there living costs go up until it is cheaper to commute.

You have to have either bubbles on a string or a necklaces of beads. More places produce more goods cheaper and with less travel.

Of course, you could put them in transit, if you had unlimited money.


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