Thursday, March 23, 2006

Rail-to-Dulles Costs Swell, Project Faces More Cuts

The lead of today's Washington Post article says it all:
The contractors on the project to extend Metrorail to Dulles International Airport are proposing to slash several key features -- including the number of rail cars and pedestrian bridges for those boarding in Tysons Corner -- to rein in a new spike in costs, a project director said yesterday.

The contractors' latest estimate for the first phase of the extension, through Tysons Corner to Reston, has risen from $1.8 billion to $2 billion. That is the absolute maximum the project's managers believe it can cost and still win approval from the federal government, which is footing half of the bill.

MetroWest One Step Closer to Approval

MetroWest, a mixed-use project that would build 2,250 dwelling units and perhaps up to 6,000 residents on 56 acres near the Vienna Metro station, has received approval by the Fairfax County Planning Commission. The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing March 27.

The MetroWest project, designed by Pulte Homes, is one of the most significant real estate developments in Virginia, representing a new model for how local governments can deal with traffic congestion. In exchange for permission to develop at greater density, Pulte has agreed to create a pedestrian- and transit-friendly community that will significantly cut local traffic congestion.

Keep your fingers crossed!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Tradeoff in Housing and Transportation Costs

As a follow up to the KSI story, it's worth noting a Brookings Institution initiative, The Affordability Index, which explores the trade-offs between housing and transportation costs. The conventional definition of "affordable" housing includes down payment, mortgage, interest, taxes and insurance. But that narrow definition omits the reality that houses in certain locations impose higher transportation costs upon their owners. While housing costs typically run around 30 percent of household income, transportation costs vary widely, from 10 percent to 25 percent.

Says the report: "Even among wealthy households, neighborhood characteristics such as density; walkability; the availability and quality of transit service; convenient access to amenities such as grocery stores, dry cleaners, day care and movie theaters; and the number of accessible jobs shape how residents get around, where they go, and how much they ultimately spend on transportation. Neighborhoods with the above characteristics are considered 'location efficient', providing convenient access to shopping, services, and jobs, and low-cost transportation alternatives to the auto."

It seems clear that KSI's marketing efforts will focus on housing + transportation costs. If so, it could represent a paradigm shift in real estate marketing and citizen's understanding of their self interest.

The Land Use Debate Shifts to Conservation Easements

State and local leaders have mobilized to voice support for Virginia's conservation tax credit program, which they claim is jeopardized by state Senate legislation. The Senate proposes to cap individual credits for landowners to curb the cost of the program and halt perceived abuses. A competing House bill seeks to augment the program, according to the Charlottesville Daily Progress, by extending the duration of the tax credits, clarifying the credits’ transferability and ensuring that the credits are inheritable.

More than 150,000 acres have been put into conservation easement since the tax incentives were put into place five years ago. “This is a program that works, and we have to do everything we can to support it, sustain it and reinforce it,” said Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council.

House Speaker William J. Howell aligned himself with the conservationists, portraying the tax credit incentive as a "proven free-market tool against sprawl and for land conservation. "

Personally, I'm agonistic on the issue of conservation tax credits. I don't know enough about them to make an informed judgment. But I do have some concerns about the program, and I think it bears watching. As Ed Risse pointed out in one of his Bacon's Rebellion columns, the conservation credits may have an unintended consequence: Once a parcel of land is protected from development, it increases the attractiveness of neighboring parcels for development. The knowledge that the original parcel will not be developed, and that the landscape will not change, makes housing in the neighboring tract all the more desirable. Thus, in theory, conservation easements could serve to accentuate the scattered, disconnected pattern of development.

That concern is theoretical. It may not be happening in practice. If conservation easements are grouped in large, contiguous blocks, they are less likely to act as magnets for unwanted development. But I do think it is important to keep a close eye on the real-world impact that the conservation credits have on development.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

KSI Announces Eight New Transit-Friendly Projects

In the latest sign that the developer community is responding to Virginia's transportation "crisis" with innovative thinking, KSI Services Inc., a major Vienna-based developer of mixed-use communities, has announced plans to build eight new communities near multi-modal public transportation nodes, including rail and bus routes. The company also will offer Flexcar shared car services to homeowners. (See press release.)

"Traffic congestion is quickly becoming a major social and political issue, and there are no simple solutions to the problem," said John Chappelear, KSI's senior vice president of condominium operations. "We are offering residents an alternative to switching on the ignition and battling other drivers during the morning and afternoon rush hours, by offering homeowners easy access to public transportation."

The average motorist in the Washington metropolitan area spends 69 hours stuck in traffic congestion, while the cost of automobile ownership nationally averages nearly $7,000 per year. By creating transit-friendly communities that accommodate Flexcar, which allows people to lease automobiles on an hourly basis, KSI is positioning itself to sell real estate by reducing the cost of automobile ownership. KSI didn't state so outright in its press release, but the subtext is clear: A major selling point of KSI communities will be the ability of households to get by with fewer cars.

KSI's commuter-friendly Virginia neighborhoods will be located in Midtown Alexandria Station, West Village of Shirlington, The Residences of Lorton Station, Harbor Station, Potomac Club and Midtown Reston Town Center. Midtown Alexandria, to take one example, will be located adjacent to the Huntington Metro Station. The project consists of of 369 high-rise condominiums expected to sell from the mid-$300s.

KSI is making a bet that there is a vast untapped market for housing in dense, mixed-use developments that provide homeowners with superior transportation options and lower expenditures on automobile ownership and maintenance. Road to Ruin predicts that we will see many more projects like this: high-density development using access to mass transit, flexcars and pedestrian-friendly design to reduce automobile dependency.

The Alternatives to Tax-and-Build

One of our goals in the Road to Ruin and Bacon's Rebellion has been to highlight alternative transportation strategies that don't entail spending a lot of money on mega-road and rail projects, and and raising taxes to pay for them. Over the past 10 months or so, we have explored quite a few.

In yesterday's edition of the Rebellion, I touched upon the potential to reignite mass transit ridership by giving the private sector a greater role. Municipal transit monopolies and taxicab franchises dampen the ability of the private sector to adapt to changing settlement patterns, implement new technologies and introduce innovations into the marketplace. By re-thinking the way we approach shared ridership, we could reinvigorate this alternative to One-Man-One-Car. (See "Liberate Mass Transit.")

In a similar vein, we've written about NuRide, an Internet-based service that allows commuters to identify other carpoolers traveling the same route at the same time -- a technology that offers the potential to revive the declining practice of carpooling. (See "Carpool Comeback.")

We've explored the potential for telecommuting (working from home) and telework (working outside the main office and staying connected through cell phones, BlackBerries and laptops). (See "Rush Hour Will Never Be the Same.")

We've shown how local governments can work with developers to create real estate projects with a smaller "traffic footprint" through better urban design and creative use of shared ridership. (See "Traffic Buster.")

We've shown how new zoning codes and new templates for urban design can reduce the length and number of car trips and reduce traffic on congested thoroughfares. (See "Albemarle Place," and "Street Cars and Zoning Codes.")

We've shown how it's possible, with modest investments, to significantly increase the capacity of existing thoroughfares without expensive widening projects. (See "Seeing the (Traffic) Light" and "Aroused about Roundabouts.")

We've argued in favor of congestion-pricing tolls as a way of rationing scarce peak-highway capacity and encouraging commuters to change their driving behavior, whether carpooling more, riding buses, or resorting to telecommuting and telework. (See "Congestion Pricing" and "Roads and Reason.")

There is no "silver bullet" for addressing Virginia's congestion woes. But there are many narrow-bore policies, each of which can address a piece of the problem and all of which can make a huge difference. Sadly, we have seen another session of the General Assembly come and go with none of these ideas being discussed seriously. Virginia's leaders are locked into a worldview that defines traffic congestion as a problem that can be solved only by adding more capacity.

While debate has raged over the necessity of raising taxes to pay for transportation improvements, virtually no one is questioning the idea that adding more capacity is the one and only solution. Even Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who campaigned on the slogan that we can't pave our way out of congestion, has abandoned efforts at meaningful land use reform and become an advocate of tax-and-build.

The failure of Virginia's political leadership -- even tax-averse Republicans -- to consider other strategies is most disheartening. But we'll keep plugging away.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Bacon's Rebellion: Bringing Digital Anarchy to a PC Near You

The March 20, 2006, edition of Bacon's Rebellion has been published. There are several columns of potential interest to followers of transportation and land us issues:

Liberate Mass Transit
As an alternative to funding mega-sized construction projects, Virginia should give entrepreneurs more freedom to devise creative shared-ridership solutions.
by James A. Bacon

Words Matter
There's no hope of making progress on Virginia's most intractable problems when our words only cloud understanding. Our goal in 2006 is to introduce a more robust Vocabulary.
by EM Risse

Unanswered Questions
GOP factions are grappling over how much more money to spend on transportation. But they're not addressing critical questions regarding spending priorities and the role of the private sector.
by Michael Thompson

Bottomless Pit
The Washington Metro is losing money and needs more than $1 billion in repairs. Why should anyone believe the Rail-to-Dulles project will perform any better?
by Philip Rodokanakis

Fix VDOT First
Tim Kaine wants to raise taxes by $600 per Virginia family to fund transportation -- even though the Virginia Department of Transportation is broken and leaderless.
by Paul C. Harris

The Power of the Developer Lobby

Christina Nuckols with the Virginian-Pilot has a story today describing how the powerful home builder/developer lobby defeated Timothy M. Kaine's proposal to give local governments more power to deny rezoning requests when local roads are inadequate.

Writes Nuckols: "In a January blitz, more than 100 builders and real estate agents trooped into legislators' offices urging the measure's defeat. They argued that the measure would cause housing prices to skyrocket, upend the real estate market and damage the state's economy."

When the builder/real estate lobby talks, politicians listen. The industry gave $10 million last campaign season to political candidates -- including $3.2 million to Tim Kaine.

Car Culture Wars

With plans for new Metrorail stops in car-oriented Tysons Corner in Fairfax County, the pressure is on for the big-lot car dealerships there to sell out and give way to transit-oriented development.

The Wash Post has a story on it, which says that Fairfax officials "envision turning Tysons' entire charmless mix of office buildings and shopping-strip retail into a thriving downtown for Northern Virginia, with high-rise housing, big city blocks and a vibrant night life."
'But few will probably be as affected as the auto dealers. There is the symbolism; one of the goals of bringing rail through Tysons to Dulles International Airport is to reduce reliance on vehicles. A row of auto dealerships doesn't exactly fit with the new ethos of a transit- and pedestrian-friendly Tysons liberated from the car culture.'
The business owners who sell their land will make some money; even more if the stick around until rail is in place.