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.

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.