Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Worst of All Conceivable Solutions

After studying transportation for more than a year, Virginia’s state Senate has passed one of the most atrocious pieces of legislation in recent history. The Senate transportation package, which passed 34 to 6 yesterday, did not have one redeeming virtue. Not one. It’s a transportation plan utterly so devoid of merit that only Virginia’s editorial writers could love it.

Let’s grant the Senate the charitable assumption that the solution to solving Virginia’s broken transportation system is to indiscriminately pour more money into it. Even by that standard, the legislation is a loser. According to Virginia Department of Transportation figures – the same figures used to justify a tax increase – the state will need $108 billion in new revenue to pursue a Business As Usual transportation policy over the next 20 years. That averages out to $5.4 billion yearly. By providing less than one-fifth that amount, the legislation falls far short. The Senate proposes no other solution for covering that gap.

But that’s only the first of the legislation’s many failings. The logical way to raise revenue would be to raise the retail gasoline tax, on the grounds that raising the cost of driving would have the salutary effect of encouraging people to drive less and reduce the stress on state roads. Instead, the Senate proposes collecting $210 million by increasing the tax on real estate transactions. Why the Senate chose not to raise taxes on, say, hair stylists or the sale of cucumbers as well, I can’t begin to imagine. The Senate also would raise the motor vehicle sales tax by three quarters of a percent, which would achieve the remarkable result of increasing the cost of car ownership without encouraging anyone to drive less!

Throw in a $10 registration fee and a tiny increase on the sale of diesel fuels, and there you have it. Oh, I nearly forgot the most ludicrous proposal of all: Raising $570 million a year by imposing a 5-percent wholesale tax on gasoline. Virginia’s esteemed Senators must think voters must be pretty stupid to see that as any less onerous than a tax on retail sales. But just in case motorists do see through the subterfuge, the Senate decided to “soften the blow,” in the words of Jeff Schapiro in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, by allowing them to file their gasoline receipts twice a year for a rebate.

Here’s a piece of unsolicited advice to the genius who came up with that idea: Those who think it's too much trouble to file -- half of all Virginians, according to your estimates -- will curse you. Even those who do file their receipts will curse you -- twice a year -- for putting them through that nonsense in the first place!

But the thorough-going abdication of common sense does not stop there. Unless it plans to introduce companion legislation not mentioned in the press accounts, the Senate does absolutely nothing to address the transportation-land use connection. Gov. Timothy Kaine has advanced a proposal. So has the House. But the Senate has nothing to say on the subject.

Neither does the Senate consider any of the many alternative transportation strategies that have been articulated: telework, traffic-demand management, traffic-light synchronization, Bus Rapid Transit and many, many more. The philosophy of the Senate can be summarized thusly: Don’t reform land use. Don’t change VDOT. Don’t try anything new. Don't change anything about transportation policy except the amount of money dumped into it. Tax, tax, pave, pave. Even the Road Builders lobby would be embarrassed to advance a legislative agenda so backward!

The Senate package is, arguably, the most reactionary legislation to come down the pike since the days of Massive Resistance. Indeed, massive resistance – as in, resistance to change – is an apt description of what the Senate has wrought. If Virginia voters had any sense, they would vote 34 senators out of office in two years -- if they didn't laugh them out first.

(Note to readers: I have deleted the concluding paragraph of this post on the grounds that it did not meet the editorial standards of the Road to Ruin blog. In my zeal, I resorted to name calling of those who disagreed with me. Insults, even if obviously hyperbolic, are not arguments; they only diminish from arguments. I apologize to anyone who took offense.)

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.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The House Seizes the Initiative on Transportation

The House of Delegates looks like it has its political act together. In marked contrast to the 2004 session, in which tax-hike foes repeatedly backtracked and compromised, the House has passed its transportation package lock, stock and smoking barrel. Many measures passed unanimously, which means that even House Democrats are on board, and even the most controversial measures won approval by comfortable margins.

There will be no repeat of 2004, in which a Democratic Governor successfully triangulated between two Republican-controlled chambers of the General Assembly.

Here's an update from the House Republican Caucus:

HB 527: Passed House 82-18. Imposes civil penalties on chronic abusive drivers and dedicates from collected revenues, $35M to the Local Revenue Sharing Fund, $25M to the Transportation Partnership Opportunity Fund, and the remainder to the Local Congestion Mitigation Fund.

HB 666: Passed House 95-0. Eliminates current limitations on the use of design-build contracts by VDOT, allowing greater utilization of an innovative procurement process that provides greater efficiencies, lower costs and better results.

HB 667: Passed House 99-0. Requires the contracting out of all maintenance of the Interstate Highway System, allowing more efficient practices in maintaining Virginia’s Interstate roads at a lower cost to taxpayers.

HB 671: Passed House 95-0. Grants authority to counties, cities and towns to award design-build contracts for local transportation construction projects.

HB 673. Passed House 61-39. Provides for election of district representatives of the Commonwealth Transportation Board by the General Assembly, providing necessary oversight and responsiveness.

HB 676: Passed House 95-0. Requires the Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner to report on the actions of the Department of Transportation regarding efforts to privatize, outsource and downsize.

HB 677. Passed House 100-0. Requires an annual report from the Commonwealth Transportation Commissioner on efforts to outsource asset management and intelligent transportation systems.

HB 681: Passed House 100-0. Increases to $50 million the state match of revenue sharing grants to cities, counties and towns for the maintenance, improvement and construction of local road projects.

HB 821: Passed House 100-0. Expands the roads eligible for the Rural Rustic Roads program.

HB 1000: Passed House 99-0. Provides penalties for violators of toll payments, including linking the issuance or renewal of vehicle registration to paying off all tolls, fees and penalties.

HB 1257: Passed House 79-20. Creates the Northern Virginia Transportation Investment Fund and the Hampton Roads Transportation Fund revolving bond programs and provides new, on-going revenue streams for these regions with the worst congestion in the Commonwealth.

HB 1365: Passed House 60-38. Creates a Joint Commission on Transportation Accountability to exercise appropriate legislative oversight of state agencies with transportation responsibilities.

HB 1426. Passed House 100-0. Provides the framework for the Commonwealth to pursue innovative concession agreements with the private sector in order to expedite transportation infrastructure improvements.

HB 1506: Passed House 100-0. Expands the number of localities that may accept cash proffers to those that have experienced a population increase of more than 5%.

HB 1513: Passed House 100-0. Requires localities submit their comprehensive plans and traffic impact statements to VDOT for input and review on zoning decisions.

HB 1521: Passed House 100-0. Promotes better managed growth by requiring localities to include road and transportation improvements when preparing their comprehensive plans.

HB 1528: Passed House 100-0. Requires localities to include cost estimates of road and transportation improvements in their comprehensive plans to factor into their proffer collections.

These bills are now on their way to the state Senate for further consideration.

Driven to Despair

The Metropolitan Council of Governments has done a major analysis of traffic congestion in the Metro region, says the Washington Post, and reached this conclusion: traffic is bad. Really, really bad.
'Drivers on some highways designed for mile-a-minute travel are lucky to make five miles in an hour. Freeways that were manageable three years ago, such as the Dulles Toll Road, are now bumper-to-bumper at peak times. Congestion on some highways has doubled in three years, when the last study was released.'
Doubled in three years? Maybe, just maybe, the pattern of growth has something to do with that. But it's not all bad news, says the Post:
'Sprinkled into this snapshot of a region traffic-choked at nearly every turn are a handful of success stories. An added carpool lane on Route 50 in Maryland has improved the morning rush, and revamped interchanges in Tysons Corner and Springfield have eased tie-ups on the Capital Beltway.'
No, wait, it really is that bad. Here's an over-the-top quote to prove it:
'Transportation experts said they knew the region's traffic was bad -- but not this bad.
"It's even worse than what we would have expected," said John Townsend, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. "This is a template to know where the problems are. For political leaders to have this report and do nothing is akin to doing nothing while Rome burns."'

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Density & the Inner Suburbs

The Brookings Institution has a report coming out today that describes the problems faced by older inner suburbs, says the Washington Post. The problem:
'The nation's "first suburbs," which began drawing people out of big cities in large numbers half a century ago, now have deteriorating roads, commercial strips and housing. Those problems, coupled with demographic changes, mean that the communities "are staring down a looming set of challenges that threaten their overall stability," according to the report.'
And part of the solution, says the report, is more density:
'Washington's suburbs are dealing with those issues better than most, said researchers at the Brookings Institution, citing Arlington County's policy of promoting dense development near Metro stops as a national model for how to stay vibrant.'
The Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech has its own report coming out as well, says the Post, which talks about the changes in political leanings in these areas.
'As Republicans stake claim to votes in outer suburbs, smaller metropolitan areas and rural America, these older, urbanized communities offer new opportunities to Democrats, the report says.
Fairfax County, for example, which includes communities inside the Beltway, voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, the first time it has done so in 40 years.
"The old division of city and suburbs doesn't hold up anymore," said Robert E. Lang, director of the institute. Now, "the more important divide is older and newer suburb."'

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.

The Rebellion Has Arrived

The Feb. 13, 2006, edition of Bacon's Rebellion has been published. You can read it here.

Columns related to transportation and land use include:

Newspapers treated the House transportation plan as a routine story about spending and taxes. It was so much more: House leaders are shifting the debate to land use and privatization.
by James A. Bacon

Another Legislative Impasse?
The usual suspects are pushing hard for another tax increase this year, but their position is weaker than it was two years ago.
by Patrick McSweeney

Thinking Outside the Box
House Republicans have released their transportation package. Unlike competing proposals, this plan would not raise taxes at a time of unprecedented budget surpluses.
by Philip Rodokanakis

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Surplus Wars

Gov. Tim Kaine says flat out no way is he going to go along with using general fund surpluses for transportation, as the House GOP leaders would like to do. Here's a Daily Press story on Kaine's reaction to the House GOP funding plan, which was presented Friday afternoon.

'"We will solve this problem but not by raiding the budget of William and Mary or any other college," Democrat Kaine said. "I will not let that happen."

Kaine handwrote the pledge onto his prepared text after Republicans in the House of Delegates proposed a $2 billion transportation plan Friday. It would use new debt, stiffer fines on drivers and surplus cash in the general fund. Kaine portrayed that plan as unrealistic and unfair to other state services that depended on the general fund.'

Here's the Daily Press account of the House GOP plan:

'House Republicans counter that their plan provides targeted relief by creating loan funds in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, where unchecked congestion threatens to strangle the economy.

"It seems the Senate and the governor have defined transportation crises in terms of raising taxes," said Del. Vince Callahan of Fairfax County, the House budget chief, "but not in terms of how we will specifically address choke points and other measures that voters can identify with."

The plan exploits two financial advantages that state government has going for it. First, the healthy economy has filled the budget with excess cash. Second, Virginia has a low debt capacity - in effect, there is room on the credit card.

The plan earmarks $552 million in the next fiscal year from the budget surplus, using it for one-time construction projects.'