Friday, January 06, 2006

Metro Can't Keep Up

The D.C. Examiner today has some astonishing data on the increases in the number of passengers at some key stations. Says the paper:

'Metro expects some 344 million riders in fiscal 2007 - 20 million more than used the system in fiscal 2005 - and is working on plans to absorb the growth.

The Gallery Place station, where three lines meet, had the greatest growth with a 161 percent increase ridership since 1995. The King Street station, in a neighborhood with a lot of residential development, grew 104 percent.

The stations were not designed for the number of people the system already handles and will face problems in the future, said Edward Thomas, Metro's assistant general manager of planning and technology.

Metro Board Chair Dana Kauffman, a Fairfax County supervisor, said "more than a shuttle bus" will be needed at the Franconia-Springfield station once a planned nine-acre town center is built and thousands of defense and military jobs move to Fort Belvoir and the Engineering Proving Grounds.

"We are a little bit late in terms of mobilization around station access," admitted Metro CEO Richard White.'

Then White describes what Metro is doing:
'Metro is working to get "a microscopic understanding" of each station and develop a plan to manage even more riders in the future, according to White. The plan will focus on station improvements and pedestrian, bike and bus access to stations - not just parking.'

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Wary Reaction to the Homer Appointment

A roster of environmental and conservation groups has responded to Gov.-elect Tim Kaine's announcement that he would reappoint Pierce R. Homer as Secretary of Transportation. In a press release issued this afternoon (but not yet posted to the Web), Martha Wingfield, president of the Virginia Conservation Network declared: “Pierce Homer needs to demonstrate real reform at VDOT to deliver Kaine’s agenda of linking transportation with development decisions, providing more choices and financial accountability.”

While the Warner administration improved efficiency and financial accounting at VDOT, it didn't reform transportation planning and prioritization, stated the press release. Recent decisions by VDOT and the Commonwealth Transportation Board have favored expensive bypass highways that create new development corridors instead of addressing existing transportation needs. The challenge for Homer is "to end the pattern of long wish-lists of unaffordable projects" that create more problems than they solve.

Pithy quotes...

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth: “The new Secretary must ... address the fact that new funding won’t make a difference to traffic congestion without changes in development patterns and transportation demand reduction strategies.”

Lisa Guthrie, executive director of the Virginia League of Conservation Voters: “Secretary Homer must give the public, not the development industry, a stronger say in project priorities."

Christopher G. Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council: “It is time to break from the old pattern of land speculation and influence that drives far too much of our transportation spending.”

Kaine Taps Homer for Sec. Transportation

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported this morning that Tim Kaine would announce today that Pierce R. Homer would be re-appointed Secretary of Transportation. Homer, as I observed in my latest column in the Bacon's Rebellion e-zine, has spearheaded the Warner administration strategy of inviting public-private partnerships to submit proposals for adding new transportation capacity and paying for it with tolls.

Presumably, Kaine's selection of Homer signals a desire for continuity with the Warner administration policy. Reporters Michael Hardy and Jeff E. Schapiro, who cite "advisors to Kaine," also list the following reasons why Kaine favored Homer:
  • The continuity provided by Homer frees Kaine to conduct a national search for a Virginia Department of Transportation commissioner to replace Philip Shucet.
  • Hiring the commissioner soon would "help make his case for an expensive transportation-improvement plan," which probably will include tolls and increased vehicle fees.
  • Homer's background as a lobbyist for Prince William County gives him familiarity with local land-use policy. Kaine has insisted that any long-range solution to the transportation crisis must address the disjunction between transportation and land use planning.
I've had the opportunity to speak with Homer on a couple of occasions, and I've heard him deliver at least two speeches. That doesn't qualify me an expert on his thinking, but it does give me some insight. My impression is that Homer's emphasis is lining up private investment public-private partnerships, raising revenues through tolls, and increasing the capacity of the state's most congested transportation corridors -- Interstate-495, the Dulles Toll Road, I-66, I-395/I-95, Route 460, and I-81.

I haven't heard him express any concern about the potential land-use implications of these projects. That's not to say he doesn't have any concerns, just that I haven't heard them. It will be interesting to see how the Homer toll-and-build strategy reconciles with the Kaine land-use strategy.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Gridlock on Transportation Policy?

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine has now held 10 town hall-styled meetings around the state to discuss the transportation crisis, but nothing resembling a consensus has emerged. That's the conclusion of Washington Post reporter Steven Ginsberg in an article filed today.

"Everyone agrees there's a problem. No one seems to agree what the solutions are, and these meetings haven't gotten us there," Ginsberg quotes Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R), as saying.

In all likelihood, the future Governor will default to the proposals he articulated in the fall during his campaign. Similarly, the state Senate, whose START task force has completed its four hearings, also failed to come to an agreement. Any bills bubbling up from Senate probably will reflect the thinking of those who write it, not necessarily the entire body. Meanwhile, the House is entertaining some interesting ideas on transportation, but the leadership is approaching the problem from a radically different perspective than the Senate.

2006 may be the year of transportation, but it's anybody's guess as to whether Virginia's political leadership can line up behind a coherent set of policies.

The Impatient Electorate

Ten days to inauguration, just a week till the General Assembly session begins, and 'about two weeks' before Gov.-elect Tim Kaine presents his proposals for revamping the state's transportation program, says the Wash Post.

Kaine continues to push the land-use link at his 'town hall' meetings (yesterday's meeting in Falls Church was his 10th) but exactly what does he mean? At a November town hall in Manassas Kaine suggested that he wouldn't push for a true adequate public facilities ordinance, but just 'clarify' existing state law to let localities consider a new development's transportation impact as one factor in deciding whether to approve a rezoning.

One thing that is clear, though, from these mass meetings Kaine's been hosting: frustrated commuters want something done NOW, or sooner if possible. That's a wholly unreasonable expectation, so I hope Kaine et al have a strategy for dealing with the disappointment the electorate will feel in a year.

From a Wash Post article this morning:
'About the only thing the crowd of about 500 commuters, politicians, activists and others shared was a sentiment that something needs to be done -- and quickly -- to ease the daily frustration of getting around in Northern Virginia.
"We need to address this issue and address it early," Kaine told them. "We just can't wait, because it gets tougher and tougher."'
Some plain talk would be helpful now to cool off expectations. In this fast-growing state (with all the already-approved developments on the books) it's going to get 'tougher and tougher' for awhile.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Barbarians at the Gate

The January 3, 2005, edition of the Bacon's Rebellion e-zine has been published. Click here to read it.

Columns of possible interest to devotees of transportation and land use include:

Roads and Reason
Virginia is evolving toward a market-driven transportation system. Let's pick up the pace. Here's what an economically rational funding system would look like.
by James A. Bacon

Caught Between Extremes
Developers and environmental activists have one thing in common: a willingness to use government power to affect land use. Consumers are the losers.
by Patrick McSweeney

A Pricing Approach to Growth
Growth in Virginia is inevitable but sprawl is not. The key is not more government control but less -- in particular, an end to transportation subsidies.
by Patrick McSweeney

Babble Postscript
The use of confusing vocabulary in the discussion of human settlement patterns just won't go away. Here's an update of uses and abuses since our last column.
by EM Risse

Putting a Price on Mobility
Congestion tolls on Virginia’s highways would encourage motorists to engage in economic thinking, changing their behavior and reducing the rush hour crunch.
by Geoffrey Segal

Tim Kaine Feels Your Pain

Gov.-elect Tim Kaine's 'town hall' listening tour is the gift that keeps on giving - in the form of friendly stories beforehand, like this one from The (D.C.) Examiner, in which Kaine comes off as a thoughtful fellow already hard at work. Then come the follow-up stories, like this news-free article from The (Lynchburg) News & Advance.
"It's the most urgent issue," Kaine said.
“You’re helping me increase my learning curve,” Kaine said.
I think the idea is to lessen the learning curve, or at least climb it quickly, but nevermind. The details of what gets said don't matter so much at these events, though Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth delivers a nice framing-the-issue quote in the Examiner story:
"Too many in the development industry are expecting the General Assembly to write a blank check for transportation, and I don't think that's what the voters are prepared to do," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, which advocates for a stronger connection between urban planning and transportation growth. "They want to know there's a real plan for where and how we grow."
'Blank check' - that one will fit into a lot of sound bites, and it's a good point.

Culpeper Growing Up, Not Out

Running out of room to grow, Culpeper Town Council is considering an ordinance that would increase the maximum allowable height for buildings from 35 feet to 50 feet. Reports the Culpeper Star-Exponent: “We are basically locked horizontally,” said Town Councilman Tom Huggard, a member of the planning commission. “So the only way to expand is to go up. It makes sense.”

It is heartening to hear that the idea makes sense to Culpeper residents and officials, for many people have an irrational fear of "density." The new ordinance would allow greater development inside the town limits without, as Huggard put it, allowing someone to build a Washington Monument next door to a single-family house.

The change was prompted when local developer Greg Yates asked the Town to raise the height limit in commercial areas. Yates wants to build 53 condominium units and underground parking on a three-and-a-half acre site. Easing the height restrictions will allow him to build the condos in three buildings rather than four, freeing up space for gardens and sidewalks.

The broader lesson to localities: Letting property owners build at greater densities allows them to build in amenities and improvements they could not afford otherwise. As long as the scale of new buildings doesn't conflict with neighboring properties, everyone can come out ahead.