Faculty “Cost per Enrolled Student” Varies Widely

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the "cost per enrolled student."

Average pay for professors is one important determinant of the “cost per enrolled student.” Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities.”

More fascinating data from “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” co-authored by University of Virginia economics professor Sarah Turner….

Best paid fields. A key finding of her research is that average faculty salaries vary widely from department to department, depending upon supply and demand considerations specific to each field. Disciplines in which Ph.D.s are employed outside of academia tend to fare better than those with more restricted options. Also, departments that generate outside research dollars pay more as universities engage in bidding wars to recruit star faculty.

Consequently, at UVa’s College of Arts & Sciences fields, computer science and economics professors tend to earn a lot more than English, history and philosophy professors. As a history major, I’m disappointed, but there’s no surprise here. We’re seeing market forces at work.

Cost per enrolled student. Turner and  co-author Paul N. Courant then calculated the faculty cost per enrolled student for each of ten departments. They saw two main variables at work here: (1) how much faculty members are paid, and (2) how many students they teach. As noted in the previous blog post, the more highly a professor is paid, the fewer students he or she is likely to teach.

I must confess that I have long thought that the “hard” sciences were more expensive to teach — their faculty were more likely to engage in research and teach less. But that’s not the case at all. A critical variable I had overlooked is how writing-intensive a course is. Fields like English, history and philosophy require a lot of discussion and writing, and the tasks of teaching and grading students are extremely time-intensive. By necessity, their class sizes are smaller.

By contrast, other disciplines have courses that better lend themselves to lecture-hall teaching, and their answers have more clear right/wrong answers that are easily graded. Faculty can teach larger classes without a diminution in quality.

Thus, we find that teaching English (the most expensive discipline) entails more than three times the faculty cost per student than computer science (the least expensive).

Bacon’s bottom line: It is ironic that it takes two economics professors to generate these numbers. This is precisely the kind of analysis that universities should be undertaking themselves — for every academic department. If we think of English degrees, philosophy degrees, chemistry degrees, computer-science degrees and the like as different product lines, universities should know exactly how much (1) each degree costs to deliver, (2) how much each degree generates in revenue, and (3) how much each degree generates in surplus revenue (or operating profit).

Now, I’m not saying that we should start cutting the English department just because it is “losing” money. Perhaps English writing and reading comprehension is a foundational skill that justifies maintaining writing & critical thinking courses regardless of cost. (There may be less justification for poetry, Medieval literature and post-modern literary criticism.) But when it comes to reallocating resources within a university, administrators and department heads should know at a minimum whether different departments and programs within those departments are money sinks or money generators.

Do universities ask these kinds of questions? Highly dubious. Turner and Courant would not have felt compelled to do their research had UVa and University of Michigan administrations conducted the analysis themselves. The lack of such analytical rigor and the ignorance of underlying costs, I would suggest, is a huge contributor to the rising cost of tuition. How is intelligent cost control even possible? When it comes to university administrations, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance contributes to runaway tuition, student over-indebtedness and the degradation of living standards for an entire generation.

Steve Bannon: Richmond Boy Made Good… Er Bad

Steve Bannon

Steve Bannon

by Les Schreiber

Virginia has contributed much to the political growth of the United States: George Washington as leader of the Revolutionary Army and first president; Patrick Henry as fiery supporter of the Revolution; Thomas Jefferson as author of the Declaration of Independence and third president. More recently, Doug Wilder became the first African American to be the elected governor of a Southern state since Reconstruction.

Now, the most famous Virginian at the national level is Steve Bannon, a graduate of Benedictine High School and Virginia Tech. Some national publications have indicated that he has more influence with president Trump than even even the Veep. His role has been magnified by his elevation to the National Security Council, the  only political operative in U.S. history to be given such a distinction.

Bannon also is also an avowed anti-Semite. According to divorce papers filed in California vited by the New York Times, Bannon wanted to remove his children from the Archer School in Los Angeles because he thought there were too many Jews there and they were all “whiny brats.” According to this deposition, he was offended by a collection of books that explained the Jewish festival of Chanukah.

Bannon’s website Breitbart News referred to a conservative columnist as a Renegade Jew and in writing about famous investor George Soros that “Hell hath no fury” like that of a Polish American Jew when he senses that he has not received appropriate deference.

The Anti-Defamation League has written that Bannon, through the Bretibart website, has advanced ideologies that are antithetical to American values by including, ant-Semiticsm, misogyny, racism, and Islamaphobia.

The New York Times reported recently that in 2014, Bannon attended a conference of conservative clergy where he referred consistently to the writings of an obscure Italian philosopher, Julius Avola. Mussolini based his 1938 racial laws restricting the rights of Jews in Italy on Avola’s writings. The Times further reports that last March Bannon’s website, Breitbart, stated that Avila provided the foundations for the Alt Right movement that Bannon champions.

Bannon does not seem to be fit to hold so lofty a post in government.

Virginia’s Republican members of Congress such as Rep. Dave Brat must vocally disavow Bannon’s repulsive ideas and work to remove him from any role in the Republican Party. Their continued silence in the face of this information that they are morally and intellectually bankrupt. Their failure contaminates what true conservatism is about.

Faculty Productivity Paradox: Get Paid More, Teach Less

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid, the less they teach.

Faculty productivity paradox: The more professors are paid at UVa and the University of Michigan, the less they teach. Source: “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities. (“Click for larger image.)

Newly published research by Sarah Turner at the University of Virginia and Paul N. Courant at the University of Michigan sheds light on a critical factor driving the cost of attendance at public universities: faculty productivity.

Turner’s and Courant’s findings buttress a point we have made repeatedly on this blog: that higher-paid faculty members spend more time on research and teach fewer students than lesser-paid faculty members. Depending upon the academic department, a $50,000 increase in salary results in 5% to 30% fewer students taught (as seen in the chart above).

The analysis is restricted to tenure-track faculty. It does not compare the teaching loads to non-tenure-track “instructors” who get paid less and take on even heavier teaching loads than the professors.

Sara E. Turner

In a paper recently published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, “Faculty Deployment in Research Universities,” Turner and Courant ask if faculty  members are deployed efficiently at research universities. They base their findings on an in-depth analysis of the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia, which are consistently ranked among the top public research universities in the country.

The authors conclude that UVa and Michigan are indeed “efficient” in the sense that they are economically rational in allocating faculty time and effort.

Tenure track faculty in research universities teach and they do research. Over the past several decades, the relative prices — in terms of wages paid to faculty — of those two activities have changed markedly. The price of research has gone up way more than the price of teaching. Salaries have risen more more in elite research institutions than in universities generally. …

Departments in research universities … must pay high salaries in order to employ research-productive faculty. These faculty, in turn, contribute most to the universities’ goals (which include teaching as well as research) by following their comparative advantage and teaching less, and also in teaching in ways that are complementary with research — notably graduate courses. The university pays these faculty well because they are especially good at research. It makes perfect sense that they would also have relatively low teaching loads (along with relatively higher research expectations) …

If we accept that the value placed on research in elite research universit[ies] is warranted, we conclude that the deployment of faculty is generally consistent with rational behavior on the part of those universities. Faculty salaries vary, for a variety of reasons, and the universities respond to that variation by economizing on the most expensive faculty….

Bacon’s bottom line. Note the caveat above: “If we accept that the value placed on research at elite research universities is warranted…” This goes to the heart of the debate over college affordability. UVa and other Virginia universities place an extremely high value on research. Why? Because the publication of research has an outsized effect on a university’s prestige, and the research dollars brought in enables departments to employ more faculty and graduate students, also markers of departmental prestige. By contrast, the cost of attendance is incidental to departmental interests.

Students and parents have a different perspective. While an institution’s prestige is clearly a factor in deciding where to attend college, the cost of attendance typically is a central concern as well.

In sum, universities can emphasize faculty productivity in research or in teaching. As the Turner/Courant data confirms, the system pays the most to the faculty members who teach the least. While the authors don’t go the extra step and say so, it seems clear to anyone outside of academe that undergraduate students are paying ever-higher tuition for the privilege of being taught increasingly by junior professors and instructors so tenured faculty can spend more time on writing and research.

Owens & Minor Goes for Millennials, Walkable City

Owens & Minor wants Millennials,and Millennials want 15-minute, livable communities. Graphic credit: Institute for the Future

Good economic news for the Richmond region: Medical supply giant Owens & Minor Inc. announced plans Thursday to open a client engagement center in downtown Richmond that will employ 500 people. Jobs will average about $53,700 in annual pay.

In making the announcement Governor Terry McAuliffe made much of the fact that Richmond competed against 60 other cities in a year-long search process. Less was made of the fact that Owens & Minor, which is located in the Mechanicsville suburb of Richmond, chose to locate in the central city rather than one of the region’s outlying counties.

The reason? “We want to attract the millennial generation,” CEO Cody Phipps told the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “We did our research. The millennial generation is going to be 50-plus percent of the workforce in the next few years, and they want to live in urban areas. They want to be downtown. They want to work in a state-of-the-art space. We like that we can draw from the universities around here.”

Owens & Minor will make Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond its newest home.

Owens & Minor will make Riverfront Plaza in downtown Richmond its newest home. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

I don’t know who conducted Phipps’ research, but I know of one outfit in town that does specialize in generational marketing — The Institute for Tomorrow, which is affiliated with the Southeastern Institute of Research (SIR). (I worked for SIR about ten years ago.) Two days before Owens & Minor’s announcement, Managing Partner Matt Thornhill tweeted presciently, “Winning communities of tomorrow are 15-minute livable communities.”

By way of elaboration, he blogged about recent research conducted for the Virginia Secretary of Transportation. In a survey of 600 people around the U.S. who had just moved or were considering moving more than 100 miles, four out of five agreed with the statement, “Having access to stores, restaurants, and services close to my home (within about 15 minutes) is very important to me.” Almost as important was living withing a 15 minute commute of work.

It is often said that Millennials want to live “downtown” where it’s hip and cool and there are coffee shops and microbreweries. According to a recent Urban Land Institute study, though, only 37% of Millennial consider themselves to be a “city person,” wrote Thornhill; 36% classified themselves as “suburbanites” and 26% as “small town/country” people.

While there is nothing inevitable about Millennials wanting to live and work downtown, they are “hard-wired to be in community with each other,” Thornhill observed. “Thanks in part to doing school projects in teams from their middle school years onward, Millennials like to collaborate and trust in decisions made by the wisdom of the crowd. … They want neighborhoods where they can walk, bike, and use transit to get around.”

This community mindset, opined Thornhill, will drive the growth of “activity centers” of 15-minute livable communities. Activity centers don’t have to be in traditional cities (although most are).  “Builders, developers, urban planners, and government officials are now catching up to the changing preferences of consumers and looking for ways to in-fill activity centers across their metropolitan landscape.”

Thornhill stops his analysis there. But as I think about the Owens & Minor decision, it’s not clear that urban planners and government officials actually have gotten the message. While most of the City of Richmond fits the definition of a 15-minute walkable community, there are only flyspecks of walkability in neighboring Henrico and Chesterfield counties. In Henrico County the one area that potentially has the critical mass to compete with downtown Richmond, the Innsbrook Office Park, was rezoned for urban mixed use back in 2010. But re-development has stalled for more than six years due to inflexible application of the zoning code.

Absent a dramatic change of thinking and practice in the suburban counties, it looks like the future of the Richmond metropolitan region belongs to the city. Everything old is new again: Richmond possesses the key elements of walkability — moderate density, mixed uses, grid streets and timeless architecture — inherited from a past era of urban grandeur. The counties are stuck with suburban sprawl. Expect to see more headlines like Owen & Minor’s in the region’s future.

How Higher Ed Is Failing Faculty and Students

by Reed Fawell III

Higher education is corrupt. Each year the rot degrades the system’s ability to educate our kids. The problem is not criminal activity, malfeasance, or bad intentions. Rather, the system is losing focus on its core mission.

Last month I suggested on this blog that higher education needs a total overhaul, especially in elite undergraduate institutions. Here, and in posts to follow, I will explain why this overhaul is critically needed.

My intent is not to blame particular individuals, groups or institutions, but to highlight how a once-great system of elite higher education is failing its students and undermining all that it touches. The ramifications extend to students, parents, faculty and administrators, as well as the outside interests (public and private) that feed off the system or unduly influence it.

Even as the sector grows into a massive commercial enterprise accounting for an ever-larger share of the nation’s economy, the capacity of higher ed to fulfill its historic mission of educating undergraduate students is crumbling. Nowhere is the problem more evident than at the nation’s foremost colleges and universities once led the world in teaching liberal arts, sciences and humanities upon which Western Civilization depends.

While the threat is real, there are heroes in this story. A dwindling minority of students, faculty, and administrators fight the debilitating system every day. Too often, though, they labor at great cost to themselves and their careers. Their battles usually take place outside the public view. Yet more of them are going public, describing their struggles in books and articles. Even a few institutions are fighting the tide by focusing sharply on the mission to educating their students in an efficient, cost-effective way.

But we are losing ground overall. All too often the career and work of Col. John Boyd, a preeminent military strategist, theorist and educator in last decades of the 20th century, typifies how today’s real “educators” wage lonely, uphill battles. Boyd wrote how those caught in dysfunctional institutions are forced to do “counter productive work” instead of the real and transformation work. Higher education needs far more John Boyds. (See Robert Coram’s biography Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War.)

Each year teaching and learning get harder. Leadership failures and destructive cultural forces are overwhelming undergraduate programs at an alarming pace. Higher education inflicts pervasive, long-lasting, and often devastating harm upon many of its undergraduate students. As the corruption spreads into families and communities, it poisons everyone’s future. Elite institutions, which educate a disproportionate share of the nation’s leaders, can most do the most harm.

William Deresiewicz’s 2014 book, “Excellent Sheep, the Mis-education of the American Elite,” tells of “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation” experienced by large and growing numbers of undergraduates at elite schools. He describes how undergraduates are too often the left overs from “stressed out, over-pressured high school student(s)” that elite institutions now demand.

The American Psychological Association summarized a recent survey under the headline The Crisis on Campus: “Nearly half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness while almost a third spoke of feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past twelve months.”

Excellent Sheep also reports that college counseling services are being overwhelmed. Nearly of half of students seeking help now suffer from “severe psychological problems,” triple the number two decades ago. A Stanford Provost who convened a task force on student mental health in 2006 wrote: “Increasingly we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behaviors.” A college president wrote: “We appear to have an epidemic of depression among young people.”

Many pathologies arise in high school among students striving to meet the admission requirements of elite colleges.  Many are overwhelmed when they get there. Many never recover. Said one student: “For many students, rising to the top means being consumed by the system.”

Why? Why is the mental, emotional, and physical health of so many of America’s elite students in apparent collapse? Why is this phenomenon so under-reported?

Professors and instructors tasked to mentor these undergraduates in college often suffer the same maladies as their students. Evidence mounts that today’s higher education system inflicts emotional, professional and financial harm, and related injustices, upon the tenured and non-tenured faculty teaching at America’s most prestigious institutions. Here, too, we find toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression, emptiness, aimlessness and isolation, particularly among those most vulnerable: the graduate and post graduate instructors, non-tenured track professors, and younger professors seeking tenure.

When those who do the bulk of teaching and mentoring of undergraduate students experience undue stress, dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive behavior, hysteria, and depression, something is terribly wrong. The next few articles will delve into the central drivers of this dysfunction within America’s elite educational system and how they combine with cultural forces to threaten to collapse not only our elite undergraduate education but our society that depends on well educated citizens.

Corey Stewart Defines Himself through the Fights He Picks

Corey Stewart (left) appeared last week with Jason Kessler, a conservative blogger-activist, after Kessler petitioned to remove the vice mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, from office.

Corey Stewart (left) appeared last week with Jason Kessler, a conservative blogger-activist, after Kessler petitioned to remove the vice mayor of Charlottesville, Wes Bellamy, from office. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

I met Corey Stewart, Republican candidate for governor, for the first time last night and interviewed him outside a public hearing about coal ash disposal. The Prince William County board chairman came across as a genial guy. But he’s not one to run away from a fight. Indeed, he’s more likely to be the first one to charge into the fray.

With Ed Gillespie as the perceived front-runner in the Republican race, Stewart evidently has decided that the best way to get attention and define himself as a tribune of the people is to pick the right fights. That strategy certainly was on display last night when he lambasted Dominion Virginia Power to the cheers of many in the audience for its closure-in-place proposal for dealing with coal ash at its Possum Point Power Station.

“Dominion has been less than honest with Prince William County,” Stewart said. Then, referring to a series of local controversies over the impact of coal ash on surface and ground water, he said, “Dominion lies. You have to be very skeptical of what they tell you.”

I wasn’t paying attention to Virginia politics in 1973 when Democratic candidate Henry Howell took on Dominion’s predecessor company, vowing to “keep the big boys honest.” But I can’t imagine that he was any more blunt in his denunciation. The issue back then was electric rates, not the environment, but Howell nearly rode the slogan to victory.

Stewart is best known for his hard line approach to illegal immigration. His campaign website boasts that under his leadership, Prince William County turned over 7,500 criminal illegal aliens for deportation. He says he will work “side-by-side with the Trump administration” to oppose amnesty and sanctuary cities in Virginia.

Along similar lines, he has aligned himself with a far-right group in Charlottesville to protest, among other things, City Council’s decision to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee from the public square. Mobbed last week by counter-protesters who drowned out his words, Stewart reportedly handled himself with aplomb. But his views seem pitched to the same kind of disaffected white working- and middle-class voters who voted for Donald Trump, for whom he acted as Virginia campaign chairman. Just wait until next week, he told me. He’ll be back in Charlottesville.

Stewart also joined conservative activist-blogger Jason Kessler in calling for the removal of Charlottesville Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy from office. Bellamy had posted misogynistic, homophobic and anti-white comments on Twitter before his election to Charlottesville City Council in 2015.

I asked Stewart to elaborate upon his view of Dominion. He said it’s wrong for a monopoly utility to insert itself so deeply into the political and regulatory process. “This is what happens when every member of the General Assembly is taking thousands of dollars from Dominion. DEQ (the Department of Environmental Quality) rubber-stamps every thing Dominion wants.”

If he becomes governor, Stewart said, “Heads are going to roll” — starting with the chief of DEQ, David Paylor. Then, alluding to Denver Riggleman, one of his three Republican rivals for the governorship who also has campaigned against Dominion, he quipped, “I’ll put Riggleman in there.”

Prince William Supervisors Demand Coal Ash Studies

Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chair Corey Stewart speaking at the coal ash public hearing.

Four members of the Prince William County board of supervisors appeared at a public hearing last night to express concerns about Dominion Virginia Power’s plan to pursue the “closure in place” option for disposing the coal ash at its Possum Point Power Station.

The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) held the hearing as part of its evaluation of Dominion’s request for a solid waste permit. More than a hundred citizens appeared at the hearing at Potomac High School, frequently erupting into jeers and cheers throughout the evening.

Describing the coal ash disposal as “the most important environmental issue facing our county in decades,” Woodbridge Supervisor Frank Principi called upon DEQ to engage in intensive information gathering before issuing a permit. His request, repeated by numerous citizens, echoes legislation backed by Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, that would require owners of coal ash ponds to assess closure options and demonstrate their long-term safety before DEQ grants a permit.

Specifically, Principi asked the DEQ to release the data for testing water quality at Pond D, where the coal ash is being consolidated and capped with a synthetic liner, and release test results from a surface water sampling plan. Further, he demanded that DEQ conduct an alternatives analysis to see if recycling and landfilling coal ash would be safer.

Principi also said he wants to see documentation of measures to prevent a “catastrophic failure” of Dominion’s cap-in-place proposal. “Nobody here wants to repeat the mistakes of Buffalo Creek, Kingston or Dan River,” he said, citing three notorious examples of coal ash spills.

Board Chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican candidate for governor, appeared midway through the hearing and ramped up the rhetoric. It was unacceptable to leave four million tons of coal ash in place, he said, especially given Dominion’s track record of dealing with the County. “Dominion has been less than honest with Prince William County. Dominion lies. You have to be very skeptical of what they tell you.”

Dominion did not respond to the criticisms leveled against it. Cathy Taylor, Dominion’s senior environmental officer, delivered prepared remarks at the beginning of the hearing that repeated the company’s talking points.

Coal ash has been stored safely at Possum Point since 1948, Taylor said, but new EPA regulations require the company to close the ponds permanently. The company is de-watering the coal ponds now. The company has made proactive improvements to the dewatering process to “make the system better, more effective,” and it is posting water-quality testing results “so neighbors know that Quantico Creek is being protected.”

When the de-watering is complete, the next phase will be consolidating the coal ash from five ponds into the 64-acre Pond D. Under the requested solid waste permit, Dominion would cover the pond with “a high-density polyethelene cap to prevent rainwater or any moisture from coming into contact with the ash; a drainage layer designed to drain water away from the cap; then 24 inches of soil and vegetation.”

The company has already installed a monitoring network of 24 wells around the coal ash ponds, Taylor said. “If groundwater monitoring indicates that further action is needed, then both state and federal requirements mandates that additional measures will be put int place.” Pond D will be inspected on a regular basis to maintain integrity of the cover system, she added, and a professional dam-safety engineer will inspect the facility once a year.

While citizen comments were overwhelmingly opposed to Dominion’s plan, two women opposed the alternative of trucking coal ash to a landfill. Possum Point Road is a narrow, winding, two-lane road not constructed for truck traffic, said Eileen Thrall, who lives on the road. She is worried about congestion and the potential for traffic accidents.

Greg Buppert, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC), warned that Pond D “will not have two basic features that all modern landfills are required to have in Virginia to protect groundwater: a synthetic liner under the ash and a leachate collection system.”

Recent monitoring shows that heavy metals emanating from coal ash at Pond D are getting into the groundwater, Buppert said. “Will Dominion’s closure plan stop this pollution? The answer is that we don’t know. Dominion is required to demonstrate that groundwater is not in contact with the ash at Possum Point. But the company won’t provide that information until October 2018, at which point the cap-in-place construction could be complete.”

“Is Dominion’s plan the best solution for dealing with the coal as at Possum Point? Again we don’t know,” he said. “DEQ and Dominion should not rush forward to cap ash at Pond D  at Possum Point before assessing the full range of alternatives for dealing with this legacy waste.”

Prince William County has well-established authority to regulate landfills within its borders, Buppert said. Given the sentiments expressed by county supervisors at the hearing, he said, county intervention is a real possibility.

Coal Ash Clean-up: Duke’s Bill Exceeds $5 Billion

A truck embarks upon coal ash clean-up at a Duke Energy.

A truck embarks upon coal ash clean-up at a Duke Energy. Photo credit: Charlotte Observer.

Cleaning up coal ash in North Carolina will cost Duke Energy $5.2 billion, 50% more than previously estimated, and the electric utility has indicated it will seek rate hikes beginning next year to recoup its costs.

Duke has spent $770 million so far on the clean-up, which entails recycling and landfilling more than half its coal ash ponds, and the utility wants to charge the cost to North Carolina rate payers, reports the Charlotte Observer. Clean-up in the Carolinas could total $2.5 billion by 2021, and would continue accumulating beyond that.

Duke’s move is sure to be watched here in Virginia, where Dominion Virginia Power is under heavy pressure from environmental groups and elected officials with coal ash ponds in their districts. Citing the example of utilities in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, foes of Dominion’s cap-in-place approach have argued that the utility should instead recycle coal ash where possible and bury the rest in state-of-the-art landfills.

Dominion has argued that cap-in-place is both safe and significantly less expensive. Pursuing the recycling-landfilling approach at all four power stations would increase costs from a few hundred million dollars to $3 billion.

Bacon’s bottom line: If there was ever any question that recycling/landfilling is an order of magnitude more expensive than closure-in-place, the Duke numbers should settle the matter.

A higher cost doesn’t rule out pursuing the option, but it does give pause. Dominion’s closure-in-place plan does entail a higher risk of groundwater contamination, although the company’s containment basins will be monitored for 30 years and the utility will be required to ameliorate any damage. On the other hand, the costs will be highly localized and modest in magnitude compared to the alternative..

The cost of contamination isn’t modest to the homeowners living near the Possum Point Power Station, however, as evidenced by a large turnout and heated testimony at a public hearing last night in Prince William County. The main concern expressed was contamination of well water, although some citizens worry about the effect on aquatic wildlife as well.

Here in Virginia, we have yet to quantify the risks and potential costs to the public and environment of different coal ash clean-up strategies.

If, to pick numbers out of a hat, it would cost $10 million to compensate Dominion’s Possum Point neighbors for contaminated well water by hooking them up to municipal water, would that not make more sense than spending $750 million to remove the coal to a landfill? Of course, those numbers aren’t real. We need to get better numbers. But you get the principle: We need to weigh costs and benefits. Otherwise, we’re shooting blunderbusses in the dark.

Complicating the picture even more… According to the Charlotte Observer, Duke is treating coal ash clean-up costs as an operating expense. In Virginia, operating expenses are included in the “base” electric rate. And base rates are frozen through 2022 under a legislative deal worked out in 2015.

Dominion has said publicly that it has already eaten nearly $300 million in coal ash-related expenses. So, maybe the full $3 billion cost of the recycling/ landfilling approach wouldn’t get passed on to ratepayers after all. If that’s the case, Dominion would take the hit, not rate payers, although the exact amount of damage would depend on what costs the company could defer until after the freeze ends. If Duke is any guide, half the expense could be pushed out beyond 2022.

Dams in Virginia: How Many Are Deficient?

Location of Virginia's 2,919 known dams.

Location of Virginia’s 2,919 known dams. Map source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Inventory of Dams

Speaking of deficient bridges (see previous post), how about deficient dams? The potentially disastrous erosion around the Oroville dam in California, which prompted the evacuation of 188,000 people living down river earlier this week, prompted two correspondents to raise the issue with Bacon’s Rebellion.

John Butcher passed along an article noting that the Oroville dam is symptomatic of rampant neglect and deferred maintenance across the country. Writes the Peak Prosperity website:

The points of failure in Oroville’s infrastructure were identified many years ago, and the cost of making the needed repairs was quite small — around $6 million. But for short-sighted reasons, the repairs were not funded; and now the bill to fix the resultant damage will likely be on the order of magnitude of over $200 million. Which does not factor in the environmental carnage being caused by flooding downstream ecosystems with high-sediment water or the costs involved with evacuating the 200,000 residents living nearby the dam. …

Oroville is one of the best-managed and maintained dams in the country. If it still suffered from too much deferred maintenance, imagine how vulnerable the country’s thousands and thousands of smaller dams are. Trillions of dollars are needed to bring our national dams up to satisfactory status. How much else is needed for the country’s roads, rail systems, waterworks, power grids, etc?

The Smith Mountain Lake dam, owned and operated by Appalachian Power Co., rises 235 feet from its floor.

So, what do we know about the dams in Virginia? Steve Nash sent me a link to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers National Inventory of Dams. That database identifies 2,919 structures in Virginia, mostly small (less than 50 feet high), mostly earthen, and mostly privately owned. Eighty-four dams date back to the 19th century, but a large majority were completed in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

Here’s the worrisome part: the Corps classified 468 dams as having “high” hazard potential and another 551 as having “significant” hazard potential, with another 612 undetermined. The classification of “high” hazard potential does not mean that there is a high likelihood of failure; rather, it means that failure , if it occurred, would probably cause “loss of life or serious economic damage.”

However, 2,035 of Virginia’s dams, like California’s Oroville, are made of earth, which is especially vulnerable to erosion.

According to the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, which regulates dam safety in Virginia, dams must be inspected periodically by licensed professionals. If a dam has a deficiency but does not pose imminent danger, the state may issue a Conditional Operation and Maintenance Certificate, during which time the owner is to correct the deficiency. It’s not clear what happens if the owner fails to correct the deficiency. Small loans and grants are available to help cover the cost.

Presumably, within the bowels of the Virginia bureaucracy, there is documentation that would allow the public to determine which high-hazard dams, if any, are in deficient condition. Where are they are located and who owns them? If I lived downstream from one, I sure would like to know.

If any Bacon’s Rebellion reader would be willing to root around the state archives to unearth this information, please contact me at jabacon[at]baconsrebellion.com.

More Hidden Deficits: Bad Bridges and Bad Metro

Virginia has its share of bad bridges.

Bad bridges. Image source: USA Today

Update on America’s hidden deficits: Nearly 56,000 bridges across the country are structurally unsound, according to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), as reported by USA Today.

More than one in four of the bad bridges are at least 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work, according to the ARTBA analysis. Thirteen thousand are along interstates that need replacement, widening or major reconstruction. Virginia falls in the middle tier of states where the percentage of bad bridges ranges between 5% and 8.9%.

Don’t county on the federal government for help — unless the Trump administration moves ahead on its fiscally unsustainable $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan. The U.S. highway trust fund spends $10 billion a year more than it takes in. The USA Today article did not say how much it would cost the country to remedy the structural deficiencies.

Bacon’s bottom line: Welcome to the American way of building infrastructure. Uncle Sam subsidizes the up-front costs and the fifty states eagerly jump on board. Forty or fifty years later, the bridges wear out. The states haven’t salted away any money to fix them, and the feds say,” So, sorry, we only fund construction, not maintenance and repairs.”

If you want to build roads, bridges, highways, airports, and mass transit, you need a plan for long-term financing. Otherwise, you’re just creating a huge problem for the next generation. Eventually, the bills come due. If we can’t afford to fix what we’ve already built, we have no business building new stuff we can’t afford.

But we build new stuff anyway. A case in point comes from Loudoun Now: New estimates suggest that Loudoun County’s payments to the Washington Metro could run as much as $27.9 million higher than expected — double what was expected. (The number may be somewhat overstated because it includes the cost of a bus service, which Loudoun is already providing.)

Loudoun doesn’t have a station on the Metro Silver Line yet, but it will in a couple of years when Phase 2 is complete, and it will have to start paying its share of operations and capital costs. Unfortunately for Loudoun — and this was entirely predictable because METRO’s fiscal ills have been well known for years — METRO needs much more money than in the past to compensate for decades of under-funding and scrimped maintenance.

METRO’s problem has been brewing for decades. Fiscal conservatives have been sounding the warning for years and years. Government officials been making financial projections that everyone knows, or should know, have no basis in reality. But everyone pretends everything is fine to keep the gravy train rolling.

If it’s any consolation, $28 million is no big deal in a county budget that runs $2.4 billion a year, says county finance committee Chairman Matthew F. Letourneau. who also represents the county on the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission. “We’re the jurisdiction that’s building $35 million in elementary schools ever year.”

Hmmm…. I wonder if the county is socking away any money for maintenance, repairs and replacement of all those elementary schools. I would be astonished if it is.