Monday, March 13, 2006

The Politics of Indifference

Part of the reason for the current standoff over transportation funding is that many parts of the state don't have the same traffic woes that Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads face - especially NoVa - and voters there don't much care, says Steve Ginsberg of the Washington Post.
'In the land beyond the Beltway, well beyond the reaches of Metro and far past the carpool lanes, there is a whole lot of Virginia without a whole lot of traffic. Nelson County in Central Virginia, for example, got its first traffic light just a couple of weeks ago.'
So, how do you convince the rest of the state that it has a stake in the mobility of its biggest urban regions? Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Pittsylvania, tries to make a case:
'"I understand that although my area of the world is not directly affected by what we're doing here, long term, it will be," Hawkins said. "In order for Southside and southwest Virginia to be part of the economies of this century, they have to be tied in with an efficient transportation system."'
Even if you agree with Hawkins, that still sounds like a really weak selling point for rural voters.


At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nobody expects rural legislators to vote for transportation taxes and fees. The key are the legislators in the heart of the congested areas themselves, urban and suburban -- the folks who's constituents are already living this nightmare or can see if on the near horizon. The Post should be talking to Albo, Hugo, McQuigg, Lingamfelter, May, Gear, Rapp, Welch, etc. Some of them got re-elected promising to do something and right now there is a whole lot of nothing getting done, and nothing is something their voters will not ignore.

At 8:49 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

The places with less traffic are also the places with fewer people and fewer jobs, yet some people persist in thinking that the answer to congestion is more density. Opposition to more density is why we hear calls for "growth management", yet planners are still pushing more density on the one hand and preventing growth on the other.


At 9:31 AM, Blogger Toomanytaxes said...

8:24 Keep in mind that NoVA voters strongly rejected a similar plan to raise taxes, allegedly, for transportation in 2002. One of the motivating factors in voters minds was the belief that the additional money would go to fund projects that open more land to development, rather than to address specific transportation problems based on sound engineering and economics. In sum, many voters in NoVA are not on the same page as those actively promoting higher taxes for transportation improvements that would facilitate more development in NoVA. Right, wrong or indifferent, that's the situation.

The recent report of the state auditor confirms that the CTB's transportation decisions in Virginia are not based on sound economics and engineering, but rather on politics and lobbying. I strongly suspect that many NoVA voters feel the same way today.

Also, keep in mind two other salient points. One, only 42% of the Metro D.C. citizens work in local businesses. That means the rest do not. They do not benefit or suffer economically based on the performance of the local market. These "other market" people have no economic incentive to support transportation plans that fuel more development for the benefit of those in the local market. Also, keep in mind that most of the "tax benefits" from development in NoVA flow to Richmond where they are parcelled out to the rest of the state.

More people would rather see APF legislation passed than see more funding poured into a broken system that is dominated by the development industry.

At 11:19 AM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

One way of looking at the problem is should money go to providing transportation based on maintaining a strong economy or to transfer money to areas of the state with lagging economic development?

The economic development folks in areas with a strong economy look at congestion as a growth limiting factor. In areas with a lagging economy they are looked at as a growth enabling factor. The legislative debate reflects this division. The voters looked at the Northern Virginia bond issue and saw a tilt to the growth enabling in the outer areas and not eliminating congestion in the areas where growth is being limited. Until this debate is solved, throwing money at the problem is wasting taxpayer dollars.

At 11:41 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I vote for anon8:24, TMT, and Wamsley, for GA. Maybe you guys can bring some sense to the place.

I don't know what you do about the road/development problem. Right now congestion and home prices in NOVA and DC are causing many to look or stay elewhere. If you relieve congestion and make things easier, more people will want to live here, and, while your invetment serves more people, it serves them less well. for those that already live there, the end result is more of the same at higher cost. No wonder they are opposed.

For years money has gone downstate to promote roads for economic development (or pork, if you feel that way). Now the problem is to prevent economic stagnetion in NOVA that could kill the goose that lays the golden eggs for the rest of the state. ROS might now have to send some bird feed north.
They will see that as unfair, but waht they will send is chicken feed anyway, most of the money will come from NOVA anyway, only this time some of it needs to stay there.

At 12:03 PM, Blogger Jim Wamsley said...

Accessibility is a development criteria. You will hear it expressed in many ways. One I heard was that businesses were only considering locations within 20 miles of an interstate. If you assume that an interstate should carry more traffic then a four lane highway you are describing a highway that carries over 30,000 trips a day. This can be translated to population by subtracting long trips. Rural areas with low population will not qualify.

When you use accessibility as a criteria, you will fund transportation in the areas which congestion limits growth. These will be areas where the current highway system is overburdened. If you want to strengthen Virginia’s economy you reduce housing prices by creating more housing where people want to live. Raising taxes in areas of high housing demand may create a situation where areas of lower demand become more attractive. Spending the taxes on projects that limit accessibility creates a situation where other states become more attractive.

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Alright Jim, now you have lost me. Isn't what you are saying that no matter wht we do, the market will compensate?

Say we use accessibility as a criteria, and we fund areas where congestion limits growth. If we assume that people should pay for what they get, those areas will face higher taxes (fees, tolls, whatever you call them). These higher costs cause people to look elsewhere, as happened in PW county. Eventually the place becomes populated enough that businesses want to locate there, as is happning in PW. And eventually there are enough businesses there that accessibility goes up, and eventually they qualify for road funding, but in the meantime, there is a lot of pain.

It looks like accessibility is a good way to allocate transportation dollars, but not necessarily a way to plan for transportation needs. On the other hand, if you build the roads before people and businesses arrive, you are building roads that won't be fully utilized and hence a bad short term investment. You will also be accused of pandering to developers who want to build in that area.

If instead you build only according to accessibility, you are building in areas with high road demand, as soon as you build it, it fills up with traffic. Then you are assailed with the argument that you can't build your way out, and you have done nothing for the housing problem.

The next step is to move to transit,but transit needs much higher accessibility in order to pay, so you are right back to the PW problem, but in a denser area, and you still haven't done anything for housing costs.

Around Albemarle mre than 51% of new construction is in rural areas. Evidently, this is where people want to live, and they are voting with their dollars. Either that, or they want to live closer in, but can't afford the costs. We don't owe them the right to live out there: let them live in condo's as Marie might have said, but we know what happened to her.

But let's assume that the housing cost problem is miraculously fixed, and lots of people then try to move in closer to avoid the travel costs. That will drive housing costs back up again, and some people will prefer to pay an equivalent amount to travel and get a less expensive home. Back to square one. Or else, all those people will show up and stay, and Fairfax will get hit with a huge new school cost, and other infrastrucuture as well. And probably you will still need to build the roads, for evacuation and/or weekend retreat.

No matter what we do, we pay more money and end up with the same or similar problems.


At 6:22 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

The accessibility dialogue is heavy WONK... and though I agree very relevant.. heavy on theory and quite esoteric in terms of the prospect of it being incorporated into transportation policy - at least in our lifetimes.

I think what's going to drive change is simple economics that have a direct and immediate impact on people's pocketbooks.

* Gasoline is not going to get cheaper and may well get much more expensive AND consumers WILL respond to increased costs.

* The gasoline tax - as a viable long-term revenue source is for all practical purposes DEAD because it only brings in enough money for maintenance and not new construction -

and the prospects are that as people drive more efficient autos.. to include hybrids, et al.. that even less gas tax revenues will become a reality.

This is the essence of the General Assembly debate.

This is the essence of the phrase "sustainable funding for transportation" which is GA-speak and shorthand for the demise of the gas tax as a viable source of transportation funds.

There are 3 schools of thought:

* - develop alternative and sustainable funding sources

* - tax all Virginians to pay for transportation regardless of their personal use - much like schools.

* - On a per GA Session basis... take a look at any surplus .. and devote all or part of it to transportation and wait until the next GA to see what happens next.

* - and I guess to be realistic - option 4 is a mixture of 1, 2 and 3.

Got an opinion...???

Good... add it to the thousands of others who happen to have one also.


At 8:08 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Is the gas tax dead only because so many people think it is their "right" to drive all over creation?

It seems to me if it was a sales tax based on dollars, then it would have gone up with the price of fuel. Also, if the GA had not waited so long to act, it wouldn't be such a heavy hit all at once.

At 4:40 AM, Blogger Larry Gross said...

re: gas tax

3 Problems:

1. - not indexed for inflation

2. - gas tax is structually doomed

3. - maintenance costs of roads

1. is self explanatory and the Senate bill attempts to rectify by indexing at the wholesale level.

2. is much more serious.

Basically - the higher the price of gasoline and the more efficient that autos get (even if only marginally) - the less gasoline that folks will use and that means less gas tax revenues over the long run.

So .. the dynamics over the long run are for LESS gasoline useage which means LESS gas tax revenue.

3. - The more roads you build - the higher the costs to keep them maintained. This is a DUH deal that ironically is overlooked by most folks.

Combine the down trend in gas tax revenues with the uptrend in new pavement (even if only marginal) and the two chart lines cross in 2012.

In plain English, in 2012 gas tax revenues will only cover maintenance of existing roads. Raising the gas tax only buys a few more years.. not decades.

Now.. throw in things like the potential of $3-4 a gallon for gas in the next decade AND the introduction of "plug-in" hybrids and other technologies that will allow consumers to exercise a wide variety of strategies to reduce their gasoline consumption

... and the handwriting is very clearly on the wall.

The gas tax will not "die" but it's ability to be a viable future funding mechanism for transportation is in question simply because efforts to increase the gas tax will actually result in less gasoline useage and thus less gas tax revenues and unless someone reinvents economics 101 - transportation policy wonks are in hot pursuit of whatever "plan b" is - to date - TOLLS and possibly useage of general income tax revenues - and that depends who is left standing at the end of the GA Budget wars.

At 8:25 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

But gas itself is indexed for inflation, if it were a true sales tax the dollars collected would go up with the price. While cars are more efficient, and higher gas prices will cause some to drive less, but there are more cars out there, and no sign that actual gas consumption is declining, let alone heavy truck use which gets off light on fuel tax.

Switching to electricity hasn't happened yet, and anyway, it is only switching fuels, we already tax electricity, and as its use increases we can divert the apropriate amount of that enery tax to roads. As far as I know F still equals MA.

And the reason we build more roads is to accomodate all those new cars, which should all be paying their own way. If the argument is that cars aren't paying enough then that is an argument for a higher gas tax - something that hasn't been done since what 1986? No wonder we are behind.

Is there really a down trend in gas revenues? If there is a down trend, is it associated with less mileage being driven, or more? I find that hard to believe. Or is it that gas revenues have not kept up with road costs?

Structureally, I don't see a problem with the gas tax. It is a pay as you go deal, except for truckers. The question is whether the price is high enough for what we get.

Politically it is widely hated because it interferes with what people see as their right to travel, and travel cheaply.

Traveling cheaply may be structurally dead.


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