Friday, March 03, 2006

More Tolls in Hampton Roads' Future?

John M.R. Bull with the Newport News Daily News reports that a bill to establish tolls on five Hampton Roads bridges and tunnels easily cleared a House committee Thursday. The bill would create regional bridge-tunnel authority that would have the power to impose tolls with rates based on the time of day and day of the week -- presumably varying with the level of congestion.

Tolls would be imposed on five facilities: Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, the James River Bridge, and the Downtown and Midtown tunnels. An estimated $190 million a year in toll revenues would back bonds that would pay for a series of mega-projects favored by Hampton Roads political class. The tolls likely would remain for a generation or longer, legislators said. (Yeah, just like they did for the Dulles Toll Road -- whoops, make that two generations!)

Bull reports that legislators expect the bill to pass the House, then go back to the Senate for negotiations. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine supports the idea of a regional tolling authority in the abstract, but has not yet blessed this bill.

Transportation Authority Devolving to Localities?

Nature abhors a vacuum, and so does power. If the Virginia Department of Transportation can't fix Northern Virginia's transportation problems, expect municipalities in fast-growth sections of the Washington New Urban Region to fill the void. The Kaine administration, according to The Washington Post, appears to be resigning itself to the inevitable -- at least in Prince William County.

Prince William will ask voters this fall to approve road bonds for projects that include adding lanes to Routes 1 and 28 -- part of a larger plan to spend $1.6 billion in local money on transportation projects over the next 15 years. The couty would create, in effect, its own transportation division within the Public Works department. Senior Kaine administration officials appear to be OK with that.

"The growth of Prince William has outstripped the ability of the commonwealth to provide transportation infrastructure," said Virginia Transportation Secretary Pierce R. Homer, who served as a former deputy county executive in Prince William before moving to Richmond.

Said Dennis Morrison, Northern Virginia administrator for the Virginia Department of Transportation: "There just haven't been enough transportation dollars to deal with transportation in this region."

Perhaps VDOT should consider ways to devolve even more responsibility to the county. If the county assumed full responsibility for funding transportation within its borders, it would look very carefully at the transportation impact of its land use decisions. Judging by the experience in Arlington and Henrico Counties, two counties grandfathered long, long ago when VDOT consolidated control over state road programs, the idea of planning transportation and land under one roof has worked out pretty well. In my observation, both localities provide better mobility than their neighbors. I live in Henrico, and other than the royal screw-up at the Short Pump interchange, the county is pretty easy to get around.

At Last, an Editorial Writer Gets It

Kudos to the anonymous editorial writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch who penned the following (the link isn't working, so I replicate the entire editorial here):

Civic Strategies, an organization that promotes public-policy solutions to vexing societal problems, asks an interesting question about Atlanta that also pertains to Virginia:

"If, as Albert Einstein said, insanity is donig the same thing over and over while expecting different results, then Atlanta qualifies as the craziest region in the country. It keeps expanding highways, convinced that this time it will somehow solve its congestion problems, only to be puzzled when traffic gets even worse. What's weird is that leaders in Atlanta know that they old ways don't work, but yet they persists. Why"

The group proffers a couple of possible explanations: Perhaps transportation officials have given up on the hope of finding anythign that works better. Or perhaps government officials and the transportation department are too beholden to highway-construction interests. Hmmmm.

Civic Strategies notees that two years ago Atlanta-area leaders formed a Quality Growth Task Force that proposed an alternative to endless road building: "Intelligently link transportation to land use." Yet the regio persists in building "more dumb highway lanes" and giving top priority to projects that purport to ease congestion.

The result: more congestion. Why? Because "more freeways ... disperse population even farther.... [The approach] actually rewards places that don't do what the Quality Growth Task Force urged, which is to plan for fewer car trips." As one transit advocate explained: "The more congested you are, the more money you will get."

Sounds a lot like Northern Virginia, doesn't it?

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Patent Office "Hoteling" Experiment a Success

Once again the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star demonstrates that it's the only major daily newspaper in Virginia that recognizes that there are alternatives to the tax-and-pave transportation policy advocated by Virginia's Political Establishment. This morning, the newspaper highlights a successful experiment by the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office in "hoteling," a form of telework.
"Hoteling" began in 1997 in a trial run with 18 trademark attorneys. After the SPTO outfitted them with the necessary computer and other equipment, the lawyers began working at home. Required to come into the office just once a week, they shared space there, making a reservation for a workstation in advance in much the same way a traveler books a hotel room (hence the name).
The number of attorneys has since grown to 220. By September, the number of "hoteling" attorneys could increase to 500.

Do the math: 500 attorneys driving to work only once a week. That translates into 400 people on an average day who not commuting to work. That's only a drop in the bucket for the entire Washington metro workforce but it sure beats a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. And if every government agency and major private employer emulated Patent & Trademark's teleworking/hoteling experience, we'd be taking hundreds of thousands of commuters off the road.

How much does it cost to do what Patent & Tradmarks has done? That's the beauty. Organizations that adopt hoteling/mobile workforce strategies save money -- big money -- by cutting their office overhead! And that's not counting savings in worker productivity.

And to think there are people out there who think that raising taxes and laying asphalt is the only way to solve Virginia's congestion crisis. Once again, I shake my head in wonder.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

NO To A Gas Tax Increase, Unless....

Found this poll story in the New York Times (registration required) this morning, and it's got interesting data.
'Eighty-five percent of the 1,018 adults polled opposed an increase in the federal gasoline tax, suggesting that politicians have good reason to steer away from so unpopular a measure. But 55 percent said they would support an increase in the tax, which has been 18.4 cents a gallon since 1993, if it did in fact reduce dependence on foreign oil. Fifty-nine percent were in favor if the result was less gasoline consumption and less global warming...
Twenty-four percent of those polled said they would support a higher federal gasoline tax if the new revenue was used to help fight terrorism, and 28 percent would go along with a gasoline tax increase if, as an offset, their income taxes or payroll taxes were lowered.'

What's Happening at VDOT?

Bad news from VDOT... Peter Bacque with the Richmond Times-Dispatch tells us that VDOT has spent $40 million more on maintenance in the first seven months of the fiscal year than it had planned. Now the agency is trying to make up the deficit by cutting back on maintenance work and equipment purchases.

According to Whirley, VDOT has spent four percent more of its $1 billion annual maintenance budget than it had anticipated shelling out by Jan. 31.

"In December probably, we started notcing that on a statewide level our actual costs were beginning to clumb beyond our spend plan," he said. "What we're doing is what any good business would do. Monitor budget, monitor expenditure and make sure at the end of the year we bring actual expenditures in on budget."

What Bacque doesn't tell us is why VDOT is running over budget. Is this a sign that VDOT is losing budget discipline again and suffering a relapse to the bad ol' days before Eagle Eye Philip Shucet brought control over chaotic finances? Or are the cost overruns beyond VDOT's control, reflecting perhaps inflation in construction costs that exceed VDOT forecasts?

In either case, we have a problem. But we need to know what kind of problem, for the policy implications are very different for one than for the other.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Flames of Rebellion Are Licking at Your Door

The Feb. 27, 2006 edition of Bacon's Rebellion has been published. You can read it here.

Columns relating to transportation and land use include:

The Special Session Is Now
The outline of a compromise on transportation funding is coming dimly into view: Some new funds now, a full-fledged plan later (maybe).
by Doug Koelemay

Standing up for Property Rights
The House of Delegates has passed legislation that will protect property owners from unjust takings. Unfortunately, the Senate's version of the bill could do more harm than good.
by Patrick McSweeney

$650 Million in Hiding
There is a lot more new money for transportation projects than commonly realized -- if lawmakers would only count it!
by Michael Thompson

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Story Less Heard

When money's not the issue, concludes Bob Lewis with the Associated Press, there's actually fairly broad agreement on transportation policy. Says Lewis:

...Shift the topic from money to administrative reforms for the state's massive highway agency and there's plenty of agreement among the Senate, the House of Delegates, both Republican-run, and Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine. Bills on those issues have been overwhelmingly passed; kind words have actually
been spoken...

The systemic reforms could profoundly change the Virginia Department of Transportation, putting more of the development and, in some cases, ownership of Virginia's highway system under private control. Over time, it would trim VDOT's work force of 9,300 people and streamline its mission. ...

Two reforms that involve a greater private role are expanded use of "design-build" and "concession agreements," as they are known in industry shorthand. Under design-build, the state specifies a project and its route, such as a new four-lane bypass, then turns the design and construction over to a team of private engineering and roadbuilding firms. Traditionally, VDOT engineers or private firms do the designs, then put the specifications out for construction bids from contractors.