Category Archives: Infrastructure

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.

Virginia Is for Lovers, Not Lobbyists

by Christopher Mitchell

Pop quiz: Should the state create or remove barriers to broadband investment in rural Virginia? Trick question. The answer depends very much on who you are – an incumbent telephone company or someone living every day with poor connectivity.

If you happen to be a big telephone company like CenturyLink or Frontier, you have already taken action. You wrote a bill to effectively prevent competition, laundered it through the state telephone lobbying trade organization, and had it sponsored by Del. Byron, R-Forest, in the General Assembly. That was after securing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to offer an Internet service so slow it isn’t even considered broadband anymore. Government is working pretty well for you.

If you are a business or resident in the year 2017 without high quality Internet access, you should be banging someone’s door down – maybe an elected official, telephone/electric co-op, or your neighbor to organize a solution. You need more investment, not more barriers. Government isn’t working quite as well for you.

Rural Virginia is not alone. Small towns and farming communities across America are recognizing that they have to take action. The big cable and telephone companies are not going to build the networks rural America needs to retain and attract businesses. The federal government was essential in bringing electricity and basic phone service to everyone. But when it came to broadband, the big telephone companies had a plan to obstruct and prevent and plenty of influence in D.C.

When the Federal Communications Commission set up the Connect America Fund, they began giving billions of dollars to the big telephone companies in return for practically nothing. By 2020, these companies have to deliver a connection doesn’t even qualify as broadband. CenturyLink advertises 1000/1000 Mbps in many urban areas but gets big subsidies to deliver 10/1 Mbps in rural areas. Rural America has been sold out.

If you are a big cable or telephone company, you have a lot of influence in the federal and state capitals. But at the local level, your elected officials are more accountable to you because their decisions have a more immediate impact on their constituents’ lives.

Remember that as the General Assembly considers a bill from the telephone company lobbyists to limit your local governments from building networks. Places like Danville, Martinsville, and the Roanoke Valley have thoroughly upset the big cable and telephone companies by investing in new fiber-optic networks and opening them to any Internet Service Provider that wanted to compete for subscribers.

Danville and Martinsville have been doing this for years, with incredible results. The job gains are remarkable, particularly in areas hard hit by the decline of tobacco and manufacturing. Consider Danville, where the network was started with a loan from the electric utility. The network has made money every year for the community while also enriching the tax base. Existing businesses have become more competitive, new businesses came to town, and the community attracted more foreign direct investment.

They also created something else – a good example for communities that need better access. But the big monopolies are striking back using their strongest asset – lobbying. Virginia is already one of the 20 states that limit local authority to build networks. Now the state could make it even harder or impossible for communities to make these investments.

Consider the shareholders of CenturyLink and Frontier. They demand a good return on their investment. In return for some federal subsidies, they will invest the bare minimum in Virginia’s small towns. They count on the lack of choice in the market (i.e. monopoly power) to protect them from the frustration of local businesses and residents.

Local governments also have to listen to their shareholders – the businesses and residents that demand better Internet access to do business, get a quality education, and even enjoy modern entertainment. Local leaders actually live in these communities, unlike the executives or shareholders from the big companies.

If all of Virginia is to thrive, local governments must be free to invest in the modern infrastructure that their local businesses and residents need. Where existing providers meet that need, the local businesses and residents aren’t going to demand a municipal solution. But that decision should be made locally, not by powerful lobbyists swaying the legislature.

Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. He is on Twitter @communitynets.

You’ve Heard of Unfunded Pension Liabilities. Unfunded Infrastructure Liabilities Are Huge, Too

Lafayette, La., like many other U.S. cities, is running a huge hidden deficit in the form of backlogged infrastructure maintenance. Charles Marohn, founder of the Strong Towns movement, has done a brilliant job of illuminating the time bomb ticking away in municipal budgets around the country. This week he has honed in on Lafayette, a midsize city of about 125,000. His tale probably could apply to many Virginia localities.

In “The Real Reason Your City Has No Money,” he lays out the problem:

Lafayette had the written reports detailing an enormously large backlog of infrastructure maintenance. At current spending rates, roads were going bad faster than they could be repaired. With aggressive tax increases, the rate of failure could be slowed, but not reversed. The story underground was even worse. Ironically, this news had historically been the rationale for building even more infrastructure (theory: this is a problem that we’ll grow our way out of). …

When we added up the replacement cost of all of the city’s infrastructure — an expense we would anticipate them cumulatively experiencing roughly once a generation — it came to $32 billion. When we added up the entire tax base of the city, all of the private wealth sustained by that infrastructure, it came to just $16 billion. This is fatal. …

The median house in Lafayette costs roughly $150,000. A family living in this house would currently pay about $1,500 per year in taxes to the local government of which 10%, approximately $150, goes to maintenance of infrastructure (more is paid to the schools and regional government). A fraction of that $150 – it varies by year – is spent on actual pavement.

To maintain just the roads and drainage systems that have already been built, the family in that median house would need to have their taxes increase by $3,300 per year. That assumes no new roads are built and existing roadways are not widened or substantively improved. That is $3,300 in additional local taxes just to tread water.

That does not include underground utilities – sewer and water – or major facilities such as treatment plants, water towers and public buildings. Using ratios we’ve experienced from other communities, it is likely that the total infrastructure revenue gap for that median home is closer to $8,000 per year.

Freaking out? We haven’t even talked about schools and unfunded pension liabilities yet.

Can we find the information in local government’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports to make these same calculations ourselves? I don’t know. But every local government officials are living in La La Land if they can’t calculate the unfunded maintenance backlogs for their community.

There is a solution to the problem, by the way, but it isn’t raising taxes, and it isn’t unleashing infrastructure spending in Washington — it’s changing the land- and infrastructure-intensive pattern of development commonly called suburban sprawl. A few localities in Virginia get it. But most will have no appetite to make the necessary changes until they reach a Lafayette-level of desperation. Too bad.

FERC Finds Pipeline Impact “Less than Significant”

FERC finds that the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline impact can be readily mitigated.

Pipeline impact: Federal regulators say steep slope construction, like that shown here, should not be a problem.

  • FERC’s pipeline impact study says proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline will have minimal lasting effects on the environment.
  • Dominion claims the study confirms it can build the pipeline while protecting the environment and public safety. 
  • Foes contend the study ducks the question whether the pipeline is a public necessity that justifies the use of eminent domain to acquire rights of way along the route. 

A draft federal assessment has concluded that the environmental impact of the proposed 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would be mostly temporary and largely offset by extensive mitigation measures.

The staff of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded that approval of the project could have “some adverse and significant environmental impacts. ” However, damage to water resources, wildlife habitat, and property values would be reduced to “less-than-significant levels” with the implementation of plans filed by the ACP and additional measures recommended by the staff.

Dominion Resources, managing partner of the pipeline, hailed the document as “another major step forward” in the lengthy federal review process. “While we have to review the draft further,” said Leslie Hartz, vice president-pipeline construction for Dominion Energy, “we believe it confirms that the project can be built in an environmentally responsible way that protects the public safety and natural resources of our region.”

However, the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIA), released yesterday, is not the last word. FERC expects to publish the final draft in June. That document, FERC spokeswoman Tamara Young-Allen told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, will address a critical issue not touched upon in the draft EIS: whether the project is a public necessity, a designation needed to invoke eminent domain in order to acquire property along the proposed pipeline path.

Foes of the project lost no time in denouncing the study, arguing that its focus was too narrow. As the authors clearly stated, “Alternative energy sources, energy conservation, and efficiency are not within the scope of this analysis because the purpose of ACP … is to transport natural gas.”

Eminent domain can be justified only if there is a public necessity. But existing natural gas pipelines, opponents contend, can meet the demand for natural gas in Virginia and North Carolina without creating the same environmental risks or taking peoples’ land against their will.

“Dominion’s Atlantic Coast pipeline … is unnecessary,” said Greg Buppert, senior attorney with the Environmental Law Center (SELC). “The current route carves through the mountains in an area the U.S. Forest Service calls, ‘the wildland core of the central Appalachians’, for a pipeline that will lock generations of Virginians into dependence on natural gas. We already have the gas needed to bridge us from dirty to clean energy — existing infrastructure can meet our demands for natural gas for at least the next fifteen years. This is a Dominion self-enrichment project, not a public necessity.”

“In what world does the rapidly increasing, cost-effective contribution of wind and solar not figure into the need for gas-powered electricity generation and, by extension, the justification for taking private property via eminent domain?” asked Jim Bolton, a Lovingston resident quoted in a Friends of Nelson press release.

FERC did evaluate 14 other alternative pipeline routes, including routes that would follow existing highway and electric-transmission rights of way and otherwise minimize crossing of Natural Park Service lands. The study compared total pipeline length, acres affected, the number of residences within 50 feet of workspace, and crossings of wetlands, waterbodies, forested land, public land and recreation features. “We … conclude that the major pipeline alternatives and variations do not offer a significant environmental advantage when compared to the proposed route or would not be economically practical,” the EIS states.

Topics addressed by the pipeline include:

Karst terrain and steep slopes. Portions of the ACP would traverse karst terrain characterized by sinkholes, caverns, underground streams and springs. The vast majority of the pipeline, using standard construction techniques, would limit land disturbance to between six and eight feet below the surface, the FERC document said, whereas sensitive groundwater resources and cave systems are generally found at greater depth. Continue reading

Washington Metro Needs another $1 Billion… Fast

The Washington Metro train wreck keeps piling up.

Washington Metro needs another $242 million from Virginia and its localities over three years.

The train wreck of the Washington Metro keeps piling up higher. The Washington Post sums up the situation this way: Local governments are “alarmed” as Metro says it needs an extra $1 billion over the next three years from Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has earned credibility as an executive willing to make tough decisions, such as shutting down rail service at times and locations where maintenance and repairs are urgently needed. Now he’s telling local governments in the Washington area that fulfilling his goals for safety and reliability — needed to reverse a continued decline in ridership — will cost them an additional $1 billion over what they’ve budgeted for the next three years. That translates into a 36% increase in annual operating subsidies. Writes the Post:

According to Metro’s new forecasts, the District’s total contribution for operations and capital would jump from $467 million in the current budget year to $735 million in fiscal 2020. Maryland’s total would rise from $479 million to $727 million, and Virginia’s would increase from $332 million to $574 million. (Metro’s fiscal years run from July 1 to June 30.)

“We have a $40 billion investment [in Metro], and it’s 40 years old,” said Wiedefeld. “As we replace that, there’s big numbers going forward, and they grow with inflation. . . . Either we start to wrestle with this so it’s where we want it to be, or we just push it down the road.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Maintenance is a bitch, especially when you fail to properly fund it over 40 years. Politicians love the accolades for building new highways, bridges and transit projects. Of course, the ribbon-cutters are long gone when the infrastructure wears out and someone else has to pay to fix it. I wonder how many other Metros there are in Virginia, quietly racking up unfunded maintenance liabilities while nobody notices.

A Public Sector Success Story

Image credit: Motorola Solutions

Image credit: Motorola Solutions

When Richmond-area jurisdictions decided to collaborate in purchasing a region-wide radio communications system for police, fire and rescue, the project was estimated to cost about $165 million — with a chance of overruns. The final price tag: $114.7 million.

Henrico County led the procurement effort, leveraging “group pricing” with other jurisdictions to negotiate a lower cost from Motorola Solutions, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

It is encouraging to see examples of government run competently and efficiently. In this instance, taxpayers benefited to the tune of about $50 million.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record… government should focus on a few core functions and do them exceptionally well. Fire, police and rescue are a core government function. Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties along with the cities of Richmond and Colonial Heights handled the procurement of this critical infrastructure exceptionally well. Let them serve as an example for others to emulate.

Renewable Energy Outlook in Virginia Still Sunny

Sunny days ahead for renewable energy in Virginia.

Despite political developments in Washington, D.C., it looks like sunny days ahead for renewable energy in Virginia.

Progress toward an electric grid powered by renewable energy has been frustratingly slow to many Virginians. There have been two main obstacles to ramping up production of wind and solar power in the Old Dominion: cost and reliability.

Wind still has high hurdles in Virginia. There is a limited number of on-shore locations suitable for wind turbines, usually atop scenic mountain ridges, and projects run into stiff opposition from local residents. Meanwhile, the massive expense and risk associated with jump-starting an East Coast offshore wind industry looks insurmountable.

But solar is a different story. The cost per kilowatt continues to decline, making solar increasingly competitive with natural gas. Meanwhile, entrepreneurs are devising an array of strategies for coping with solar’s biggest drawback: the fact that utilities can’t turn it on and off in response to changes in electricity demand.

With the goal of advancing wind and solar, many states have embraced Renewable Portfolio Standards that mandate targets and timetables. Virginia’s goal of achieving 15% renewable production by 2025 is voluntary, however. Therefore clean power advocates have counted on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan to promote clean energy indirectly by compelling power companies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Politically, that approach didn’t work out well. The election of climate-warming skeptic Donald Trump as president and his appointment of Scott Pruitt, a Clean Power Plan foe, as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, suggests that the Clean Power Plan will be drastically weakened, if not killed outright.

But that doesn’t mean renewables are dead in Virginia. Market forces are shifting dramatically in favor of clean energy. Instead of pushing government-driven mandates, clean power advocates need to back entrepreneurial, market-driven solutions. Here are some examples of energy innovation here in the Old Dominion that make solar an increasingly attractive proposition.

AES Energy Storage. Arlington-based AES Energy Storage is building a global enterprise selling industrial-scale batteries to make the electric grid cleaner and more reliable. The low-hanging fruit is using batteries for “frequency regulation,” fine-tuning the frequency on the electric grid, but AES also is using batteries to offset the intermittent output of solar panels.

Dominion Voltage Inc. Richmond-based Dominion Voltage Inc., a non-regulated subsidiary of Dominion Resources, has developed a Conservation Voltage Reduction product that works in conjunction with smart meters to reduce voltage and conserve energy — up to 4% may be achievable — and provide the flexibility required to integrate solar into local distribution circuits serving homes and businesses. The company claims that it can boost the capacity to accommodate solar on distribution systems from 20% to 80%.

Opower. Arlington-based Opower, purchased earlier this year by software giant Oracle for $532 million, sells data services that track energy-usage trends over tens of millions of homes. More recently, the company has developed services that help utilities engage with electricity consumers — notifying them by text, for instance, if their energy usage is spiking — in order to better manage the electric load.

Tesla Motors. The Department of Motor Vehicles ruling that allows Tesla to set up a retail operation in Richmond represents more than a victory for competition in the automobile retailing sector — it will bring Tesla’s broader strategy to transform the electric grid to Virginia. Batteries in electric vehicles represent a potentially massive source of energy storage that can be turned on and off at will (at least when the cars aren’t driving). Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s grand plan is to EVs with solar panels to make rooftop solar a more economically viable proposition than it is today. Continue reading

CTB Approves $4 Billion Interstate 64 Project

CTB approves $4 billion project to benefit Interstate 64, Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel

The CTB approved Option A, one of four options, to relieve chronic congestion on Interstate 64 and the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.

Wow! The Commonwealth Transportation Board  approved yesterday a $4 billion plan to expand the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel and widen twelve miles of Interstate 64 from four lanes to six. Said Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne after the vote: “Historic day for Hampton Roads and the state.”

The Virginian-Pilot provides these details:

The additional lane capacity in each direction would likely be high-occupancy toll lanes, which would require that a car carry three people to avoid a toll during peak hours. Vehicles with one or two people could choose to pay a variable toll based on congestion during peak hours. The Commonwealth Transportation Board will be able to weigh in later on the “managed lane” concept.

Buses would use the new lanes, too.

The existing lanes will remain free.

Funding will come from tolls and bonds, regional gas tax revenue, and federal loans.

Bacon’s bottom line: Northern Virginians have had to learn to live with HOT lanes, and now Hampton Roadsters will, too. Nobody likes paying the tolls, but the money to widen highways and build the tunnel has to come from somewhere.

Should Hampton Roadsters (or Virginians) pay higher gasoline taxes to improvements on Interstate 64? Nobody likes gasoline taxes either — especially if they’re not the ones benefiting from the project.

Should VDOT toll the new tunnel and its companion tunnels in order to lower the tolls? That, too, is a non-starter. No one likes paying a toll where they weren’t paying one before.

How about tolling just the new tunnel? That’s the plan! No one loses. If traffic is logjammed and you desperately need to get to the other side of the river, you can pay a toll (which will vary, depending upon demand) for an expedited trip. But you don’t have to pay the toll if you don’t want to. You can join the schlubs in the slow lanes, and you’re no worse off than before.

If you carpool or ride a bus, you’re better off. You can use the HOT lane for free, and you don’t wait in the schlub lanes.

Even if you’re a schlub, you’re probably better off. The slow lanes will be less congested than they would have been without the project. The HOT lanes will divert toll payers, carpoolers and buses who would have been clogging the slow lanes with you.

I haven’t seen how the deal or financing is structured, so I can’t comment on the soundness of the Interstate 64 plan. But construction of a HOT lane is both morally and politically defensible.

Alexandria’s Capital Spending Problem

Alexandria faces 10-year capital spending tab of up to $500 million more than budgeted.

Alexandria City Hall — city faces 10-year capital spending tab of up to $500 million more than budgeted.

Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks is right: It’s probably a good idea to put on hold the $1.4 million design work for a proposed $20 million expansion on the Chinquapin Recreation Center pool, as well as series of $25,000 “way-finding” signs. The city has massive capital spending commitments that are not so discretionary.

As reported by the Washington Post, Jinks has tallied up some major expenditures for the city of 150,000.

  • The city’s share of the escalating cost of the Washington-area Metro heavy rail and bus system will increase $90 million over the next 10 years.
  • Repairs to schools will cost $200 million, while repairs to other city facilities could add $80-$239 million over the $85 million already budgeted.
  • Storm and sanitary sewer projects will cost $150-$200 million, although the state may cover some of that expense. Households will be dunned an additional $120 to $180 per year to cover the cost.

Of course, none of these capital expenditures cover the cost of unfunded pension liabilities faced by the state and every Virginia locality — a shortfall that could well come due within the next ten years.

Questions: Alexandria is said to be one of the few counties in the country that maintains a 10-year capital improvement budget. Are other Northern Virginia localities taking their long-term Metro exposure into account? Are other Virginia localities planning for the long-term cost of facilities maintenance and storm-water improvements? Do governing bodies appreciate that when they build expensive new facilities that they are incurring maintenance/repair obligations down the road? Just asking.