Friday, February 24, 2006

The Emperor Has No Clothes?

The good news, says Sean Connaughton, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, is that the General Assembly is paying closer attention to growth-management issues than at any time in recent memory.

The bad news, he adds in an op-ed piece published in the Gainesville Times, is that the raft of legislation emanating from the legislature this year doesn't add anything to what Northern Virginia localities are doing already.
All these bills sound exciting and most are on their way to being enacted. However, there is a big problem: They are of no value to Prince William County and the other jurisdictions of Northern Virginia. The local governments of this region, as well as in many other parts of the Virginia, already do everything these bills authorize or require. The only bill that would actually have had an impact was HB 1610. This bill would have specifically authorized local governments to deny or modify rezoning requests that would overwhelm the local transportation infrastructure. That bill was unceremoniously killed in subcommittee without even the benefit of a hearing or recorded vote.

Once again, Richmond has not responded to critical challenges facing much of Virginia. The current crop of legislation, despite the merits of HB 1610, is largely unhelpful.

In previous posts, I've lauded the General Assembly is for addressing land-use issues, as watered down as their measures may be. My question now, after reading Connaughton's column, is this: Do these bills represent just a first step in seriously addressing Virginia's dysfunctional land use patterns, or are they sops to create the illusion of doing something substantive?

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Kaine on the Counter Attack

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine told Northern Virginians at a "town hall" meeting in Woodbridge yesterday that the extra $1 billion a year he proposes to raise in taxes would, in the words of Washington Post reporter Steven Ginsburg, pay for "a revamped road and rail network, powered by a 90 percent increase in local road funds and a doubling in funding for mass transit."

The Governor repeated the usual litany of problems that all Northern Virginians are familiar with. But by promising them congestion relief without fundamental change to development patterns -- the tweaks to land use he recommends do not constitute "fundamental" change -- he is deceiving them.

First, according to VDOT calculations, pursuing Business As Usual transportation policies will require $108 billion over the next 20 years, or $5.4 billion a year. Kaine's proposals would provide less than 20 percent of that number. Raising taxes while perpetuating Business As Usual will only slow the rate at which conditions get worse! It will not make things better.

Even crueler to Northern Virginians -- I believe I'm right about this, someone please correct me if I'm wrong -- that $1 billion in new tax revenue would be distributed through the same transportation funding formula that already short-changes Northern Virginia. So, NoVa could wind up with closer to 10 percent of its Business-as-Usual needs being met under the Kaine plan. In effect, Northern Virginia will be subsidizing transportation projects in other regions of the state that aren't even a priority for those regions.

Northern Virginians are supposed to be better educated and smarter than us yokels downstate. They're supposed to be the city slickers and we're supposed to be the bumpkins. But who's fleecing whom?

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Scottsville Nixes Planned Urban Development

In a microcosm of the challenge the land-use reformers face in Virginia, the tiny Town of Scottsville, 600 people, in Albemarle County rejected a Planned Unit Development ordinance that would have provided more flexibility for developers.

The Daily Progress describes the ordinance this way:
The PUD ordinance, similar to Albemarle County's neighborhood model, promotes higher-density development with a mixture of residential and commercial buildings, open space and pedestrian connections. Its passage would not have required the town to approve any development, rather, it would have given developers the option of filing a rezoning request for a mixed-use development.
The Town Council rejected the proposal by three votes to two. The article didn't say so directly, but it impliedthat citizens were worried by the prospect of "dense" development that would change the charming character of their hamlet. James P. Hogan explained his stance this way: "The Town of Scottsville is literally surrounded by development. I firmly believe the future of the town as we know it, as well as the quality of life, come first and foremost."

But as Harrison Rue, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, noted, "Without it, you'll see development by right, with mostly big lots and no usable open big space. That's being built all over the counties around here, and it's sure not the way to add on to a village."

Hamlets around Virginia are threatened by the tide of scattered, low-density development. No one that I've seen has yet put into effect a good way to protect them. The only "solution" is to change the market and regulatory dynamics that create sprawling development in the first place.

Us Versus Them

The Daily Press covers some of the jabs back and forth in the fight over transportation funding. Democrats are trying to split the GOP between urban and rural, and it sounds like it's working:
'"The House budget is fiscally irresponsible and shortchanges a range of vital needs," said House Minority Leader Franklin P. Hall, D-Richmond. "Most distressing, the House budget cuts transportation funding in seven of the nine transportation districts."
Hall released an analysis that purported to show that Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia would get the lion's share of new transportation funding and that rural regions of the state would be shortchanged.
Republicans fired back, sometimes cantankerously.
Del. David Albo, R-Fairfax, said he was angry that rural lawmakers would be jealous of increased transportation funding for Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia.
"To have rural Virginians complain about not getting enough in the budget really sets me off," he said.
He said that Northern Virginians pay 28 percent of all income taxes the state collects and 16 percent of the sales tax. Hampton Roads residents pay a similarly disproportionate share. And they are the people who most often sit in traffic, he said.
"Not one time did anyone from rural Virginia stand up and say 'That is not fair,' " Albo said. "Now, when the time comes to help the people of Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia ... people from rural Virginia say it's not fair."'

Monday, February 20, 2006

Defining the Issue

Defining the issue is the first step in winning the debate. And that's what the pro-tax camp has successfully done, with the happy complicity of the MSM. Del. Vincent Callahan, R-McLean, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, understands what's going on. Here's how Michael Hardy and Jeff Schapiro quote him today in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Unlike the Senate and the governor who have defined the transportation crisis in terms of raising taxes, the House plan specifically addresses choke points and other measures that voters can identify with.
Unfortunately for Callahan, the media also has defined the transportation "crisis" as a problem of insufficient spending and taxes, which means that the very idea of prioritizing transportation spending by addressing choke points will not get any more of a hearing than a throw-away quote buried deep in a story.

Stacking the odds against Callahan and his colleagues even more, in this particular article Hardy and Schapiro label Senate Republicans as "moderates" -- not "liberals" -- for wanting to raise taxes and pour more money into Virginia's failed transportation system. "Moderate," of course, is meant as a synonym for the political middle, or mainstream. The House by contrast is a "redoubt of conservative Republicanism," implying that they're out of the mainstream, for wanting to set spending priorities, reform VDOT, align transportation and land use planning, and not raise taxes in the face of a $1 billion surplus in the General Fund.

The failures of the media coverage of the 2006 transportation debate are scandalous.

The media refuse to examine the critical importance of land use in the transportation debate in any detail, even though Gov. Timothy M. Kaine made it a signature issue in the 2005 gubernatorial campaign, and though the House and Senate are moving closer to agreement on the issue.

The media continue to ignore the manner in which VDOT prioritizes and spends money on transportation, as if the undeniable accomplishments of former VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet were the final word on VDOT reform. Changing the way VDOT does business is a major thrust of the House legislative package, yet the House critique has gone largely unreported.

The media continue to ignore alternative strategies for reducing and/or coping with traffic congestion. Telework, traffic-demand management, traffic light synchronization, roundabouts, ramp metering, blah, blah, woof, woof, RTR readers know the drill.

When confronting President Bush over WMD, or making an issue over Vice President Cheney's hunting accident, the MSM claims it has the responsibility to "ask the tough questions" and "speak truth to power." But here in Virginia, the same editorial pundits who support speaking truth to power to George Bush only parrot the opinions of the local political elite. Reporters conduct he said/she said reporting within the parameters of the transportation-crisis-as-spending-shortfall storyline, and the editorial writers attack those in the House who would challenge the status quo.

I don't entirely blame the Capitol press corps, which is tasked with covering dozens of issues emanating from the General Assembly. General political reporters can't become experts on every issue. But I do blame the editors and publishers of the daily newspapers who fail to mobilize the journalistic assets to properly cover the most important public policy debate in Virginia this year -- an issue that affects virtually every Virginian. The coverage has been so breath-taking superficial that the journalism profession in Virginia needs to understake some serious self-examination.

Crisis or No Crisis?

The House of Delegates and the state Senate rolled out their full budget proposals yesterday, setting the table for... a big fight. Here's links to some of the coverage:
Washington Post
Associated Press
Here's a quote from the Post story that suggests how the GOP House wants to frame it:
'"Where does it stop? What's the crisis next year?" asked House Majority Whip M. Kirkland Cox (R-Colonial Heights). "Every time there's a perceived end-of-the-world crisis, we're going to raise taxes? Where does it stop?"'
I suppose the answer is, it stops anytime you try to drive somewhere.

Along with the budget work yesterday, somebody is doing some polling - I got called yesterday by some polling firm and quizzed for about 15 minutes on the particulars of the competing transportation budget plans. Among the questions: Did I consider the House budget a 'hidden tax plan' because it would eventually mean higher college tuitions? Do I favor a special legislative session if they can't reach agreement? Would I support legislators who backed Kaine's plan? And so on. Beats me which side wanted to know - the questions tried out sound-bite themes from both camps.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The State Senate on Land Use

Thanks to Steve Haner for pointing out evidence of thinking about land use that has been taking place in the state Senate. This comes from a press release issued by Sen. Marty Williams, R-Newport News:

"There has been a growing awareness that our land use policies and our transportation planning need to go hand in hand. A number of Senate measures move in that direction. They would make local governments submit comprehensive plans, rezoning applications and subdivision plats to VDOT for review when it is anticipated they would have substantial impact on state roads. Another Senate measure requires fast-growing counties and cities to have ordinances regarding clustering of single family homes. And we will establish a joint subcommittee to study additional ways to integrate land use and transportation planning."

Further, the Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance lists these Senate initiatives as of Feb. 16:

SB 373 (Houck)– Allows localities to transfer development rights from a parcel of property in one part of a locality to a parcel in another part of the locality. (Passed Senate 38-0)

SB 699 (Houck)– Requires localities to submit comprehensive plans, rezoning applications and subdivision plats to VDOT for review when it is anticipated they would have substantial impact on state roads. (Passed Senate 40-0)

SB 374 (Watkins)– Requires fast-growing counties and cities to have ordinances regarding clustering of single family homes. (Passed Senate 40-0)

SJ 88 (Quayle)– Establishes Joint Subcommittee to study integration of land use and transportation planning. (Passed Senate 38-0)It's a start. If the Joint Subcommittee could lead to a meaningful airing of ideas, we could be moving in the right direction.