Friday, February 10, 2006

Aroused about Roundabouts

As lawmakers debate the necessity of raising taxes to the tune of $1 billion a year to fund more transportation improvements, the Road to Ruin project has been systematically exploring alternatives to Business As Usual road-building practices. In his latest article, reporter Bob Burke explores the roundabout option.

In the right locations, roundabouts, like those you may have seen in England, Australia or continental Europe, can move up to 50,000 vehicles a day through an intersection. They're cheaper to maintain than traffic signals, and they're safer. They're just beginning to catch on in Virginia, and they may have broad applicability -- especially in green-field development where they can be built from scratch.

Needless to say, roundabouts are not a single-shot solution to the Commonwealth's traffic woes. But they're part of a solution. Combine roundabouts with a dozen other solutions -- better land use planning, outsourcing maintenance, tele-work, HOT lanes and congestion pricing, traffic light sequencing, and many others we've explored in this blog -- and a tax hike may not be needed.

I can only wonder why our lawmakers aren't devoting more energy to identifying creative solutions like these than devising ways to raise our taxes.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Growth Politics Comes of Age

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's election to Governor of Virginia is attracting attention as far away as Michigan. Keith Schneider, with the Michigan Land Use Institute, has written an article for local consumption about the political signficance of Kaine's victory. In "Could Smart Growth Tip the Next Presidential Election?" Schneider argues that growth issues in America's fast-growing suburbs are changing the dynamics of U.S. politics.

Gasoline prices are rising fast. Roads are jammed. Construction costs are out of sight. Incomes of working people have fallen for five straight years. Government deficits drain public spending on infrastructure. America’s population is climbing at the fastest rate in our history, and so are obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other indicators of our behind-the-wheel way of life.

The old foundations of the economic development strategy that produced thriving suburban communities and successful American lives are crumbling. The fortunate circumstance of cheap energy, inexpensive land, rising incomes, moderate population increases, and massive government spending for roads and water systems yielded a prosperous way of life in the 20th century. But in the 21st every one of these trends has been transformed.

Schneider argues that Kaine's winning margin came from appealing to sprawl-related quality-of-life issues "in the fast-growing, conservative counties of northern Virginia, particularly Loudon County." (Nobody outside Virginia ever spells "Loudoun" correctly.)

I think that Schneider exaggerates the extent to which "sprawl" was a central issue in Virginia's 2005 gubernatorial campaign, but find his perspective to be intriguing nontheless. Especially cogent are his thoughts on rethinking the meaning of "economic development":
Conventional views about the benefits of a business-at-any-cost economic strategy are colliding with the reality of ugly sprawl, congestion, cracked roads, obsolete schools, fiscal deficits, escalating energy prices, and rising civic discontent about how communities grow. Advocates now have the best opportunity in a generation to make the case that Smart Growth’s proven economic principles and popular cultural values represent a national economic development strategy that has real merit.

Trouble All Over

Lots in this morning's papers, including:

The Senate Finance Committee is facing industry opposition to its transportation funding plan, says The Free Lance-Star. Senators who back the package are pushing back.
'..Sen. Charles Hawkins, R-Pittsylvania, said it will be impossible to fix the state's transportation problems without providing a reliable funding stream to do so.
"When I go to a restaurant and I order a meal, no, I don't want to pay for it. But I've got to pay for it if I want the meal," Hawkins said. "Worst-case scenario, we put a Band-Aid on transportation, declare victory and go home. A Band-Aid does not fix this. We need long-term funding."'
Gov. Tim Kaine turns columnist for a Times Community paper and hits on a theme that got him elected:
'Our current system, in which local governments make land use decisions, and the state follows behind with transportation planning and funding creates a situation where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. And every Virginian is paying the price for that failed arrangement, in terms of longer delays and growing frustration.'
And The Washington Post lets the chronically divided GOP know that it's time to put up:
'Republicans may prefer user fees, tolls and a collection of the state's most obscure taxes, or any combination thereof, to pay for the improvements that Virginians demand. But squirming uncomfortably is not an option. Del. L. Scott Lingamfelter, a Prince William Republican, acknowledged that the other day, telling The Post that Republicans planned (at last) to offer a "very robust" plan.
We're waiting.'

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Kaine's Long Hard Road

A House of Delegates committee today shot down one of Gov. Tim Kaine's key legislative proposals, which would have let localities reject development projects if the road network couldn't handle it. The Counties, Cities and Towns Committee defeated that bill by a 9-2 vote, says

Meanwhile, the House Rules Committee today also tabled a resolution backed by Shenandoah Valley legislators that would have pushed VDOT away from the $13 billion STAR Solutions proposal for expanding Interstate 81 to a more modest approach.

Where's the House leadership headed with all this? If the road/development lobby shoots them down at the committee level, they're going to have a harder time selling their funding plan, whatever that might be..

"Journey Through Hallowed Ground" Halted in its Tracks in Loudoun

The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has refused to endorse "The Journey Through Hallowed Ground," an initiative to designate the U.S. 15 corridor between Charlottesville to Gettysburg, Pa., as a national scenic byway and national heritage area.

The Journey doesn't require the board's approval to proceed with the application, but the County's support would have strengthened its case. Most other communities along the route have endorsed the proposal.

The Journey initiative has gotten embroiled in the volatile politics of growth in Loudoun, reports the Loudoun Times-Mirror: "Fears that federal designations would limit the board's ability to widen or make safer heavily trafficked U.S. 15 fueled the resolution's failure."

U.S. 15 truly is one of Virginia's -- and the nation's -- most scenic byways. It's a sad commentary that sprawling, leap-frogging growth from Metropolitan Washington is threatening this historic and cultural treasure located an hour's drive from the urban core. It's not as if there were a shortage of land in metro Washington. There's only an unwillingness of local governments to approve in-fill development and re-development at higher densities and in configurations that would be readily supported in the marketplace.

There have been limited moves to approve higher densities in recent years. They just appear to be too little and too late to save U.S. 15.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Transportation Debate Shifts to Land Use Reform

Rebounding from his defeat Tuesday, when the House of Delegates rejected his $1 billion-a-year proposal to fund transportation improvements, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine pushed the case this morning for connecting land use and transportation planning.

Addressing a rally of some 200 environmentalists and conservationists near the state Capitol building, he said, "I’ve held town hall meetings across the Commonwealth to talk about transportation, and the people of Virginia are sending a very clear message to their legislators: Don’t come home empty-handed on this issue.”

The rally was organized to show support for three measures designed to blunt the impact of new development on Virginia's overloaded transportation system.

-- Require traffic impact studies for comprehensive plans and new development proposals;

-- Clarify existing law to permit localities can turn down rezoning proposals that increase development on a parcel if the roads can’t handle it; and,

-- Allow counties to adopt policies to transfer development rights from one part of their community to another.

“These bills represent first steps and common sense solutions for our growth and traffic problems,” said Christopher Miller, President of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

“We are encouraged by bi-partisan leadership seeking to improve land use and transportation planning. We need a comprehensive state, local and private sector partnership to design communities to minimize traffic, to provide more transportation choices, and to use land use planning solutions to reduce transportation infrastructure needs,” noted Stewart Schwartz, Executive Director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

2004 Redux?

With the House of Delegate's rejection of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's tax plan, the looming conflict between high-tax and low-tax partisans in the General Assembly is shaping up much the same as it did two years ago. But I argue in a post over on the Bacon's Rebellion blog that the correlation of forces are quite different. Don't expect a repeat of 2004.

Tysons Corner: No Place Like Home

Fairfax County leaders are pushing a policy of high-density residential growth near its Metrorail stops, including the planned Metro stations in Tysons Corner, says the WashPost. But that doesn't mean the private sector wants to go along - the developer of a major project there has a different vision for Tysons.
'The plan approved three years ago called for Lerner Enterprises to build 540 condominiums, but the company now says it will build as few as 300 pricier ones...."The county obviously does not welcome this [change], but our ability to force them to do something they don't want to do is very limited," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D).
At stake at Tysons is Fairfax's fundamental philosophy about growth in a county that has more than 1 million people, thousands of available jobs and little housing left... The problem is that developers are not necessarily as keen as county planners on the notion of building large amounts of housing at Tysons, particularly for employees unable to afford $1.5 million condominiums.'
So, if we give the market its way and let Tysons become a home to the very wealthy, that puts the rabble out in the countryside, where housing costs less. But then they'll still need to get to and from their jobs in the urban core, where, like it or not, most of the jobs still are and will be in the near future.

Unless we push those jobs out to the edges of the urban region, right? So we either force the private sector to do our bidding at Tysons, or in Loudoun (and beyond). Which is cheaper?

Monday, February 06, 2006

House Committee Kills Kaine Plans

Ok, no surprise here, but it's a step toward setting the stage for the bigger fight. The House Finance Committee today rejected a couple of key funding proposals backed by Gov. Tim Kaine - the increase of the sales tax on on automobiles, and doubling the tax on auto insurance premiums. Here's the Washington Post story on the committee's actions.

Now comes whatever strategy the House GOP has for transportation funding, which is expected this week. One challenge they face is that the Senate and Kaine have set the bar for funding at roughly $4 billion over four years. Think the House can come up with that total? If they don't, they will be asked to explain why they don't need to. That's the downside of letting the other guys go first.
'In defeating the bills, delegates cited the state's healthy surplus and their concern that the plan simply tossed money at a transportation system that needed fundamental reform.
"We don't have a revenue problem in Virginia," said Del. Jeffrey M. Frederick (R-Prince William), an anti-tax legislator, who has submitted bills that would tweak zoning laws that he said would better help localities plan for transportation projects. "We have a transportation problem."'

Halfway Through the Session and Little to Show for It

If the 2006 session of the General Assembly was supposed to be the "transportation" session, there's nothing much to show for it, observes Bob Gibson, columnist with the Charlottesville Daily Progress. Says Gibson: "If anyone has seen a big solution running around Richmond, he hasen’t caught it, bottled it and sold it yet."

In marked contrast to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who heard demands for congestion relief during his transportation listening tour late last year, GOP legislators aren't feeling much pressure to raise taxes, as Gov. Kaine and some state senators have proposed.
The boys and girls of winter, as Richmond scribe Jeff E. Schapiro likes to call state legislators, are not hearing thousands of folks back home saying, Tax us, please, so we can beat this sprawl, y’all."

"We’re not hearing much of anything about transportation" from the home folks, one GOP legislator said.

Transfer of Development Rights

The Virginia Senate last month unanimously approved legislation allowing localities to establish 'transfer of development rights' (TDR) programs, and the Virginian-Pilot likes it.
'Cities would designate areas where growth would be discouraged, and areas where it would be encouraged, and landowners would then be free to move the rights to build houses from place to place.
It would give cities far greater control over how much gets built where — allowing them to concentrate houses around light-rail stations, for example — instead of working through the sometimes cumbersome current process. It also allows cities to protect land that needs protection, like between a naval air base and a practice field, without making victims of the landowners or costing taxpayers an arm and a leg to buy property rights.'
Meanwhile, Arlington County this month is looking at creating a TDR program as part of its zoning ordinance, empowered by legislation the General Assembly passed last year. That enabling legislation expires in 2008, though.

Spread of the "Urban Village" Concept

Frederick County's planning officials are exploring the idea of including small, urbanized islands of development, or urban villages, in the county's master plan, according to an article in the Winchester Star (requires registration). The article does not explain exactly what would constitute an urban village, but seems to suggest they would be areas where the County would concentrate infrastructure development and allow a mix of residential and commercial development.

The idea makes sense. Increasingly, residents of "rural" counties demand "urban" services: water, sewer, neighborhood schools, and fire, police and rescue services. Those services are expensive to provide in a scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development. Planners in Frederick County and elsewhere are seeing the wisdom of concentrating development so that the services can be provided more economically.

It is also notable that planners are seeing the value in "mixed use" development. It makes no sense to rigidly segregate commercial and residential uses in an intimate, village atmosphere. Anyone who has visited a French or English "village" can see how mixed uses can co-exist in a harmonious, pedestrian-friendly environment.