Friday, March 10, 2006

Now THIS is Transportation Planning

House Republicans have picked out 22 transportation projects and are pledging that if their no-tax-increase approach prevails these projects will be done, says this morning's Washington Post.
'"By picking out individual projects, it takes some uncertainty out of what the path forward is," said Del. Joe T. May (R-Loudoun), one of the House members who came up with the list. May said the project designations came from lawmakers in consultation with local planners.'
The resident Wise Man of Virginia transportation planning says, bad idea:
'"Earmarking projects is an extremely poor idea, one of the worst ideas," said Philip A. Shucet, who resigned as commissioner of the Virginia Department of Transportation last summer to take a job as president of a development firm in Virginia Beach. "Once you begin doing it, it's difficult to stop, and it erodes a reasonable process."'

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Don't Be Fooled By Talk of Land Use "Reform"

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and the General Assembly are likely to pass legislation under the rubric of "land use reform," including bills that require more traffic-impact studies and permit counties to enable Transferable Development Rights. Undoubtedly the Axis of Taxes will trumpet these worthwhile-but-minor reforms as assurance that the billions of dollars in new transportation funding they want will be well spent. But the Smart Growth lobby is not impressed.

“Far too much emphasis has been placed on increasing transportation funding and far too little on better growth management or transportation planning reform at VDOT,” said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in a prepared statement with the Piedmont Environmental Council (which underwrites Road to Ruin).

Schwartz makes the following points:
  • The planning changes will be incremental, and the one voters care most about -- clarifying the ability of their communities to say no to development that would overwhelm their roads – apparently has been dropped from the reform package.
  • Transit would receive a smaller percentage of the new money than it currently does.
  • Much of the money is going to projects that won’t relieve congestion.
  • Instead, VDOT is expected to use the highway money to build projects that will further scatter development and clog roads, instead of providing people with traffic relief and more transportation choices.

Many of the major projects favored by legislators either would not address congestion or would fuel sprawl. For a list of the projects and a critique of each, click here.

Two Out of Three Not Bad?

Dan Telvock with has a lengthy story on the flap between. Gov. Tim Kaine and Del. Bob Marshall over land use legislation. All key details in Bob Burke's story yesterday are confirmed, plus Telvock talked to a couple of additional legislators.

Kaine press aide Kevin Hall said, in Telvock's paraphrase, "the governor still is pushing his controlled growth legislation and two of the three main proposals are still alive."

Two out of three sounds pretty good. Only one trouble: The one proposal that is not alive is the one that Kaine campaigned on, and that his supporters in the Smart Growth wing of the Democratic Party wanted the most.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kaine's About Face on Land Use

Road to Ruin reporter Bob Burke has been digging into Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's apparent abandonment of the land use legislation he championed during the fall gubernatorial campaign. He confirms the account provided by Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, and columnist Patrick McSweeney.

Bob did get a response from Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall. Hall's response: Kaine still backs the measure but regards it as “part of a more comprehensive transportation package. ... We are probably more in a posture of [trying to] fight the battles we have a reasonable chance of winning.”

In other words, Kaine is putting all his muscle behind the $1 billion-a-year tax increase -- a tax increase he never mentioned during the campaign. Still unresolved: Whether the Governor caved into pressure from the home builder/real estate interests.

Read Bob's story here.

More Statistical Grist for the Mill

Some of the most useful transportation statistics are compiled by the Division of Motor Vehicles and updated annually. I haven't taken a look at them recently, and I haven't seen the 2004 numbers reported anywhere, so I thought they'd be worth replicating here.

2001 population... 7,196,800
2002 population... 7,293,500... +1.3 %
2003 populaton... 7,386,300... +1.3 %
2004 population... 7,458,900... +1.0 %

2001 licensed drivers... 5,100,631
2002 licensed drivers... 5,128,497... +2.3 %
2003 licensed drivers... 5,257,516... +2.5 %
2004 licensed drivers... 5,313,167... +1.1 %

2001 vehicle miles driven... nmf (different methodology for calculating VMT)
2002 vehicle miles driven... 75,263 million...
2003 vehicle miles driven... 76,830 million... +2.1 %
2004 vehicle miles driven... 78,877 million... +2.7 %

In summary, the population is increasing a bit faster than one percent per year, the number of licensed drivers is increasing at the rate of nearly 2 percent per year, and the Vehicle Miles Driven is increasing at the rate of roughly 2.5 percent per year.

Population growth reflects the superior economic opportunities in Virginia (a good thing).

The increase in number of licensed drivers reflects two things: spreading affluence and the ability of more people to afford cars (a good thing), and the autocentric design of new development, which forces people -- even poor people and students -- into cars as opposed to other modes of transportation (a bad thing).

The increase in Vehicle Miles Traveled reflects the scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development that makes people drive greater distances to reach their destinations (a bad thing).

Lesson of the story: Virginia transportation policy needs to do more than raise taxes: It must address the autocentric design of our communities and the scattered, disconnected, low-density pattern of development.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Kaine's Credibility Problem

It took Gov. Mark. R. Warner more than two years to break his promise not to raise taxes. It took Tim Kaine less than two months.

Kaine won the gubernatorial election last November partly on the basis of two critical planks in his campaign platform:
  • He would not raise taxes for transportation until a constitutional amendment protected the Transportation Trust Fund from budgetary raids by the General Assembly.
  • He would fight for legislation that would clarify the power of local governments to block certain development projects that would generate more traffic than the local transportation system could handle.

Kaine quickly did an about-face on the tax issue, recommending tax increases of nearly $1 billion annually -- increases that he never hinted at during the campaign. He wasn't breaking his promise he argued, because he would personally guarantee, through his veto power, that the legislature didn't touch the Transportation Trust Fund.

But the "trust me" gambit hasn't worked out so well for the Smart Growth activists who supported Kaine, trusting him to fight for tighter land use controls. According to correspondence from Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas cited earlier in this blog, Kaine abruptly withdrew his support last week for an amendment he'd asked Marshall to champion in the House.

The legislative maneuvering isn't over yet, and Kaine may redeem himself. Further, there may be more to the story than what has been revealed so far. But Kaine had better ponder his moves carefully, or he will shed his image as a straight-shooting Mr. Clean and come across as just another pandering, backroom-dealing politician.

Update: Del. Morgan Griffith called Kaine's personal credibility into question on an unrelated effort, the nomination of former state AFL-CIO President Daniel LeBlance to Secretary of the Commonwealth. According to the Virginian-Pilot:

House Majority Leader Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, said he did not trust Kaine’s pledge to uphold the right-to-work law. He said Kaine already has broken a campaign pledge not to seek tax increases until he won passage of a constitutional amendment that would protect transportation money from being diverted to other services.

“If he doesn’t keep one promise, how can you expect him to keep a promise to protect the right-to-work law?” Griffith said.

The Pork Ploy

As the Senate and House of Delegates get down to serious negotiations over the transportation funding package, Sen. Marty Williams, R-Newport News, has detailed the amount of money that would be funneled into each VDOT district under the competing Senate and House plans. Read the details at the Bacon's Rebellion blog.

Also worth reading: Jim Bowden digs into the assumptions behind Marty Williams' numbers.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Permit Me to Introduce the Concept of Return on Investment

Philip Shucet, Virginia's former VDOT commissioner, has published a column in today's Richmond Times-Dispatch making the case for more transportation spending. In a nutshell, he argues that traffic congestion carries a high price tag for Virginians: about $580 million per person in Northern Virginia, $240 in Hampton Roads, and $155 in Richmond.

"Without additional money for transportation," Shucet writes, "your tax-payer dollars will be used to maintain the system we have, while your cost of sitting in congestion goes up year after year."

I have respect for a lot of Philip's ideas for increasing the efficiency of Virginia's transportation system, which we've highlighted on this blog, but I don't think he's thought his argument through here. The Road Gang wants to raise taxes by about $1 billion per year. Based on the state's share of population and income, Richmond taxpayers would pay roughly one-eighth that amount, or $125 million. What bang for our buck do Richmonders get for that $125 million? (If you're from NoVa or Hampton Roads, plug in your own numbers.)

How much of that $1 billion in extra transportation revenue, after it gets filtered through an arcane funding formula that favors rural areas, will wind up in Richmond? What projects will it finance? And by what percentage will those projects reduce traffic congestion? Will they reduce congestion by one percent? Two percent? Ten percent? Will the congestion savings to Richmonders be $1 per person? $10 per person? $20 per person?

No one knows. No one has even made the calculation (or if they have, they've chosen not to release the results to the public).

But the numbers matter. If Richmonders spend pay $125 per person in higher taxes, congestion mitigation of $1 per person is a lousy investment, less than a one percent return -- we'd all be better off sticking the money in a money-market fund. If Richmonders get $10 in congestion mitigation, that's equivalent to what they could get from investing their money in a diversified stock and bond portfolio. If Richmonders got a $20 per person benefit, then there's an economic case to be made for raising taxes.

We don't have the faintest idea what the return on investment will be. Asserting that it makes economic sense to tax Richmonders $125 per person a year to offset traffic congestion is a pure act of faith. I'm sorry, but that's just not good enough. The private sector doesn't make billion-dollar investments on the basis of a wild stab in the dark, and either should the Commonwealth of Virginia.

The Transportation Debate Heats Up

The Richmond Times-Dispatch offers three perspectives on the transportation debate in today's edition:


"Transportation Challenge Carries Steep Cost..." by Philip Shucet, former VDOT Commissioner

"...Stalemate Places Drivers in Jeopardy..." by Martha Rowe Mitchell, lobbyist for AAA Mid-Atlantic

"...Fortunately, There's Time to Craft a Compromise" by Trip Pollard, with the Southern Environmental Law Center

I shall comment on these as I have time.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Poplar Terrace Travesty

I've often argued in the abstract that the solution to dysfunctional human settlement patterns is not giving local government more power, it's removing that power, especially when it trumps private property rights. Now comes a concrete example from Fairfax County to prove my point.

According to the Washington Post, Centex Homes offered to purchase the houses of residents in the Poplar Terrace neighborhood about a 10-minute walk from the Vienna Metro station. The developer has offered about $700,000 for roughly 70 single-family houses, which are aging brick ramblers worth about $400,000 on average -- a handsome premium for existing property owners.

Centex asked Fairfax County to build 30 homes-per acre -- a mix of condomiums and townhouses -- on the 40-acre site instead of the one or two per acre there now. Proposed density actually would be less than the Metro West project suggested by Pulte Homes south of the Vienna Metro station. A "residents task force" raised hell -- apparently representing someone other than the residents of Poplar Terrace -- and Centex eventually gave up.

There are two points worth making here. First, government here is the problem, not the solution. As long as property rights are respected, and in this case they would have been, neighborhoods should be allowed to evolve towards their highest and best use. The so-called "rights" of residents living nearby should not trump the rights of the landowners of the property directly affected. Furthermore, it is economic insanity for Fairfax County to thwart the natural evolution of property near Metro stations to higher and better uses.

The second point is this: Fairfax County wants to raise billions of dollars to extend Metro rail to Dulles Airport. But if the County stands in the way of re-developing the land to higher density in the immediate proximity of the Metro stations, thereby undermining the effectiveness of the Metro as a transportation solution, it forfeits any right to sympathy from anyone else in the state. If I, as a Richmond resident, saw Fairfax planning to maximize the benefit of existing and proposed Metro stations along the lines of Arlington County, I would be inclined to support the multi-billion dollar expenditure. But as long as the County persists in making self-destructive decisions like this one, I have no desire to pour my good tax money after bad.

As Mark Anstine, a broker in the Poplar Terrace deal, told the Post: "It's a travesty. Where else can you get 40 acres this close to Metro? You can't, and you will not ever again. The opportunity will be gone forever."

Another Broken Promise

Normally, I save Pat McSweeney's columns for publication in Bacon's Rebellion, but his most recent report is too important and too timely to sit on. According to McSweeney, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine has yanked support for a bill that embodied his winning campaign issue: giving municipalities more power to block rezoning projects that would overwhelm the surrounding transportation system. This story has gone unreported as far as I can tell (in another example of the ongoing failure of the Mainstream Media to cover land use issues).

Here is McSweeney's account of what happened:

Just last week, Kaine had another opportunity to honor his campaign promise to give localities greater authority to control growth. He was pursuing an amendment that would add his legislative proposal to a House-passed bill dealing with the use of cash proffers for road improvements.

That House bill had been reported by the Senate Local Government Committee on a unanimous vote and had strong support in the full Senate.

Kaine abruptly withdrew his support for that tactic after actively pressing forward in that direction for more than a week.

The chief patron of the House-passed bill, who agreed to let Kaine use his bill as a vehicle to keep the governor’s growth proposal alive even at great risk to his own bill, felt let down by Kaine’s change of heart. Slow growth advocates expressed great disappointment upon hearing of the governor’s reversal.

Kaine’s official explanation was that he felt that the amendment might ultimately be rejected by the House of Delegates. Slow-growth advocates were more than willing to press ahead because they consider a recorded vote in the House on this measure a victory in itself.

The real reason for Kaine’s unexpected abandonment of this central element of his growth control strategy may be his desire to appease developers...
I don't know if Kaine cut a deal with developers or not. I'm open to the possibility that there's more to the story than McSweeney reports. And I'll be the first to say that I had problems with Kaine's campaign proposal, which I thought, if handled improperly, would have make development patterns more dysfunctional, not less. But if McSweeney's report is accurate, Kaine has some 'splainin' to do. First, he broke his promise not to raise taxes until after a constitutional amendment protected transportation funds from budgetary raids. Now, he is betraying his Smart Growth supporters on their core issue.

Kaine may get away with this maneuver in the short run because Virginia's political reporters have defined the transportation debate as a budgetary issue, all but ignoring the land use dimension, and the editorial writers in the major daily newspapers (save Richmond's) are salivating for tax increases. But betraying the constituency that gave him his winning edge over Jerry Kilgore -- and there is widespread acknowledgement that tapping the Smart Growth sentiment in Northern Virginia's suburbs put him over the top -- will not help Kaine govern in the long run.

Update: James Young at the Skeptical Observor has posted correspondence from Del. Robert Marshall, R-Manassas, who carried Gov. Kaine’s legislation in the House. A Marshall letter to Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, confirms the basis of McSweeney’s column and, indeed, may have been the basis for it. For some strange reason, blogger is not accept a direct link to Young's article. Cut and paste this URL to your address line: