Wednesday, March 29, 2006

End of the Road (to Ruin blog)

To our readers: We are undergoing major reorganization at the Road to Ruin project. Among the changes that will affect you, we are consolidating our efforts with the Bacon's Rebellion blog.

Our goal here always has been twofold: (1) to stimulate a lively exchange of views, and (2) to influence Virginia's political decision makers. Bacon's Rebellion has a significantly higher readership than Road to Ruin, and we are missing an opportunity to influence people by limiting our exploration of transportation and land-use issues to this blog.

We will continue posting on transportation/land use as before, but we will do it on Bacon's Rebellion. (See this morning's post "Want to Invest in Mass Transit: How About Bus Stations?")

I extend my heart-felt thanks to the hearty band of Road to Ruin participants who kept up such a lively flow of commentary on our posts - much of which was more insightful and entertaining that the post themselves. We invite you to visit Bacon's Rebellion and join the larger blogging community there.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

New Transportation Thinking in Old York

The ancient city of York, England, may have some lessons for congestion-plagued cities in the United States. Englishmen like their cars, but York, with its historic buildings and Medieval street layout, has limited options for expanding capacity. An academic team led by professor Mike Smith, a mathemetician at York University, is producing "mathematical models of traffic flow, working from calculations based on the width and length of road and the number of vehicles passing per minute." (See the article in the Yorkshire Post.)

These mathematical models are used to guide the city's traffic light signalling system. According to the Post, "The new system spreads the traffic load more widely across the city's road network to ease pressure on the most congested areas, and upgraded technology enables much faster communication between traffic controls."

Highway engineers from as far away as Australia, Japan and the United States have visited York to watch the traffic lights in action. Virginia has experimented with traffic light synchronization, mainly in Northern Virginia, but has hardly maximized the potential. Ironically, the Old Dominion has some of the most advanced Modeling & Simulation capabilities in the world. Surely we can apply the lessons of old York to our own congested streets and highways.

(Thanks to Jim Wamsley for forwarding this article to me.)

Metro West Approved - A Victory of Statewide Import

The Fairfax County Board of Supervisors has approved a proposal by Pulte Homes to build 2,250 townhouses, condominiums and apartments near the Vienna Metro station, overriding vocal opposition by neighbors who feared an increase in localized traffic congestion. (See the WaPo account here.)

The MetroWest project will replace 65 single-family homes on 56 acres with 2,250 townhouses, condominiums and apartments, plus stores and offices. Pulte has argued that pedestrian access to the Metro station will enable many residents to ride the rails to work, alleviating some of the inevitable congestion. The developer also has committed to creating a smaller traffic footprint by organizing van pools, making Flexcar rentals available and providing a wide range of goods, services and amenities within the 13-building complex.

MetroWest presents an paradox. High density development will put more cars on the road locally. Traffic congestion undoubtedly will increase locally. But the mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly, shared ridership-friendly project will generate less automobile traffic regionally than almost any alternative. Given the fact that Northern Virginia's economy is booming and newcomers are moving to the sub-region by the tens of thousands every year, people have to live somewhere. If the housing stock isn't expanded in projects like MetroWest, it will be expanded in the non-controversial but incredibly inefficient alternative -- cul de sac subdivisions on the metropolitan periphery.

Traditional subdivision development generates far more automobile traffic than will MetroWest -- potentially twice as much for the same number of people. Had the Fairfax supervisors rejected MetroWest, they would have displaced the development and associated traffic somewhere else, presumably to a location not served by Metro and developed in a scattered, disconnected pattern that makes buses and ride sharing less feasible.

Most important of all, Pulte's MetroWest project will raise the bar for mixed use development across Fairfax County and, indeed, all of Virginia. Pulte's unprecedented plan to reduce the development's traffic "footprint" will demonstrate what can be accomplished when developers and local governments collaborate to reduce traffic congestion.

Kudos to the Fairfax County supervisors. They did the right thing.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Washington and Richmond New Urban Regions Meet in Caroline

Caroline County is the new frontier for what the Washington Post calls "sprawl," what Ed Risse terms "dysfunctional human settlement patterns," and what I describe as "scattered, disconnected, low-density development." Whatever you call it, it's heading south from Washington down Interstate-95 where it is meeting north-bound "sprawl" from Richmond.

Here's the WaPo's take. The WaPo features Gail and Brent Heppner whose neighbors usually commute to jobs in the Washington New Urban Region (NUR) but shop in the Richmond NUR.

Scary quote:
"I don't know," said Brent Heppner, a Marine Corps pilot, sitting in his freshly painted, potpourri-scented living room the other day, considering his whereabouts. "Is Richmond part of Northern Virginia? Maybe the question is not what we think we are, but what do we want to be?"

If You've Got to Raise Taxes, at Least Do It Right

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine made an interesting remark Saturday to a gathering in Rockingham County, according to the Daily News Record:

Kaine said his proposal will put the burden of payment on users of highways by raising auto-sales fees, car-insurance premiums, registration fees and license-reinstatement fees for what Kaine termed "abusive" drivers: motorists with poor driving records, including habitual offenders.
It is encouraging to see that the Governor believes that the burden of maintaining and building Virginia's roads (and transit projects) should fall upon those who use (and abuse) the roads -- as opposed, say, upon the non car-owning population. It's a baby step toward a rational transportation funding formula. But....

Read the rest of the commentary at Bacon's Rebellion.

Land Use and Water Quality: Studying the James River

Most discussion about Virginia's dysfunctional land use patterns emphasize their negative impact on traffic congestion and housing affordability. But scattered, disconnected, low-density development also degrades the environment. Now VCU, UVa and Virginia Tech are joining forces to study the impact of land development on the James River and adjoining streams. According to a Virginia Tech press release:
To protect the river as new housing and commercial developments are constructed, the James River Association has organized this collaborative study to launch Building a Cleaner James River. The project will initiate a dialogue among local governments, universities, conservation organizations and developers to reduce water pollution impacts by encouraging environmentally friendly development practices and codes.
The universities will mobilize multi-disciplinary teams spanning environmental policy and planning, biological systems engineering, agricultural and applied economics, environmental science, fisheries and geography. The findings will be shared April 21 at a watershed-wide symposium at the Omni Charlottesville Hotel.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Elegant Degradation

Former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles has introduced an interesting description to describe the decline of Virginia's transportation in the absense of the tax increases he says it needs:
"elegant degradation." As he wrote in a Daily News op-ed:
That is what happens to machines that are subject to constant repetitive stress. The machine continues to look the same while it is slowly becoming weaker and weaker. Finally, unable to withstand the stress, it breaks down. I fear that we're on the slippery slope of elegant degradation.
That's a fair description of what Virginia's transportation system faces. We just differ on appropriate remedies. Baliles wants to replace the lost buying power of the revenues made available by his 1986 transportation funding reforms -- 40 percent erosion due to inflation, plus 79 percent increase in traffic. He makes a legitimate point: Transportation revenues have lost buying power, and the system eventually will need more money.

I have argue ad nauseum, however, that there are many alternatives to building more highways that should to be explored before raising taxes. If Gov. Baliles and his allies talked about implementing some of those alternatives as a complement to higher taxes, as opposed to discrediting or ignoring them, they would have much greater credibility. But they demonstrate little interest in land use reform, mass transit reform, telecommuting and telework, intelligent information systems, or creating a fund plan with a rational nexus between those who pay and those who benefit from improvements.

A transportation policy whose sole remedy is raise taxes, build more projects just isn't credible.