Category Archives: Infrastructure

Call Before You Friggin’ Dig!

What’s Dominion’s slogan? “Call before you dig.”

Well, pay attention people, and call before you friggin’ dig! Some lame brain failed to call before he dug today, and he knocked out the power for much of my neighborhood, including me, for four hours. Thanks a lot, dude!

How to Build Strong, Resilient Cities and Towns

Chuck Marohn

Cities and counties across the United States are experiencing chronic fiscal stress, and the reason has nothing to do with Republicans or Democrats and everything to do with what Chuck Marohn calls the “growth Ponzi scheme.”

“Why are cities going broke?” he asked at a forum hosted by the Partnership for Smarter Growth, Coalition for Hanover’s Future, and the Virginia Conservation Network at Randolph-Macon College last night. “We can’t we keep the grass in the parks mowed? Why can’t we keep the library open past 5 o’clock?”

After World War II, the United States embarked upon a massive, society-changing experiment that departed from the accumulated wisdom of millennia of experience of building cities. That experiment, commonly referred to as suburban sprawl, changed the growth paradigm from building places with a pedestrian orientation to building places with an automobile orientation. Over the course of just two or three decades new zoning codes and highway construction transformed the character of cities across the country. Initially, that experiment seemed to work out well. Now the fiscal flaws are evident for all to see, and the system is on the verge of collapse.

In the post-World War II era, developers and government struck a deal: Developers would build a subdivision or shopping center, including roads and utilities, and then would turn over the infrastructure for local government to maintain. Early on, the arrangement seemed like a great deal for government. Taxes on the houses and commercial buildings generated loads of cash flow while the infrastructure cost almost nothing to maintain. In a typical cul de sac development in the mid-1990s, infrastructure would cost the builder $6,600 per development. Less visibly, localities had to spend thousands more on infrastructure outside the subdivision, such as arterial roads and highway interchanges. Everyone ignored the fact that it would take, say, 37 years to recoup the cost of all that infrastructure through property tax revenues. Because infrastructure costs little to maintain when it’s new, new subdivisions proved to be revenue gushers. But over time, roads required more and more maintenance and subdivisions began operating tax-wise at a net loss.

What was the solution? Build more new subdivisions and use the surplus revenues to cover deficits from the old subdivisions. Use good money to cover bad, like a Ponzi scheme. But at some point it’s impossible to build enough new subdivisions (strip malls, office parks, etc.) to cover the deficits. That’s where the nation is now, said Marohn. For thirty years, local governments enjoyed the “illusion of growth.” Now they’re facing the reality of chronic fiscal stress. Absent changed policies, they’ll follow Detroit into the abyss. For many, it is too late.

“We need growth so bad today that we’ll do all sorts of crazy stuff,” Marohn said. “We’re lending money to people we know can’t pay it back. We’re desperate for growth. We have to have it or everything falls apart.”

The United States is hitting the limits of its ability to fund more growth. There is no rabbit to pull out of the hat to rescue the nation from its predicament.

As an example, Marohn cited Lafayette, La., a city that is reasonably well run administratively yet experiences chronic fiscal stress. An in-depth analysis of its development patterns revealed that its downtown and older neighborhoods, which are compact and densely developed, net out fiscally positive but that the majority of the city, especially newer areas built according to suburban zoning codes, net out negatively. The median family in Lafayette makes $45,000 a year and pays $1,500 in local taxes. To cover the cost of the its growing infrastructure liability, the city would have to raise taxes to $9,000. “That will never happen,” he said. “Lafayette will have to make some very hard decisions about what to maintain and what to let go.”

Not all cities are in equally bad shape. Some grew more slowly and built less hop-scotch, low-density sprawl that inflated the expense-to-revenue ratio of its neighborhoods. Some have more flexible zoning codes that allow more adaptive reuse. And some are more willing to change than others.

“We should not accept decline as normal,” Marohn said. The answer is not some top-down Marshall plan. It’s the opposite — a bottom-up approach that emphasizes small, low-risk, high-return investments based on intimate local knowledge. Over time, small incremental improvements — bike lanes, cross walks, tree plantings, sidewalk widenings — can go a long way to rebuilding the tax base. The highest-return investments, he suggests, are those that enhance pedestrian and bicycle mobility. They make places feel safe and inviting. Their scale is a single block or intersection at a time.

The advantage of making small, safe bets is that if nothing gets better, you haven’t squandered much money. You haven’t mortgaged the farm, so to speak. But if the small bets do work out, you learn from experience and replicate the successes. In every community, Marohn says, there is a abundance of “pennies, nickels and dimes laying on the ground.” Over time, small improvements, leveraged by private investment, can create enormous value. “This is how we build wealth: slowly and incrementally.”

Marohn also abhors the rigidity of zoning codes and preaches the virtue of flexibility. Municipal planners suffer from the illusion that they can divine the future and anticipate the proper mix and location of residential, commercial and industrial property for the foreseeable future. But markets are too dynamic for anyone to predict long-term demand for different categories of real estate with consistent accuracy. A resilient city, he says, is flexible. A big-box building surrounded by a huge parking lot, typical of suburban development, is difficult to recycle into a different use. A single building set in a downtown street grid is very easy to switch from one use to another. Flexible development patterns like those found in downtown areas will prove more resilient in times of change than inflexible patterns. “Zoning codes are some of the most destructive things we have,” he said. “We need to rethink them.”

Thirdly, Marohn suggests that cities need to make it easier for entrepreneurs to bootstrap new businesses. While some 240 cities and regions across North America decided to chase the Amazon second headquarters, the economic-development deal of the decade, only one can win. Will Amazon HQ2 be a net gain to a community after a realistic accounting of costs and tax revenues and adjustments for incentives? Color him skeptical. It is more prudent, he says, to foster new business formation, which can be helped through a prudent relaxation of building codes, zoning codes and other regulations.

“If we play the Wall Street game, if we play the Washington game, we’ll get wiped out,” he said. By embracing new fiscal analytics, relaxing zoning codes, and embracing a philosophy of making small, low-risk, high-return public investments, America’s cities and towns can prosper.

A 40-Year Lease on Life for Transmission Tower Foundations

James River transmission-line towers near Newport News sporting new foundations. Photo credits: Dominion Energy.

In 1968 Dominion Energy Virginia erected a series of 18 towers across the James River to carry two transmission lines from south of the river to points in Newport News. The company built the tower foundations with marine-grade, corrosion-resistant steel that was billed to last for decades. By the 1990s, however, it was evident that the steel foundations were eroding. If they deteriorated sufficiently, one of the towers would collapse, putting the Virginia Peninsula at risk of disruption to its electric service.

The utility encapsulated the steel “H pile” foundations with a fiberglass jacket under the waterline and with a putty-like compound above in the hope of preventing further corrosion. The fix didn’t work. A 2013 inspection revealed rust still eating away at the foundation.

“While the 2013 inspection revealed we had a corrosion problem, further investigation found that we had a bigger problem than we thought,” says Mark Allen, Dominion’s director of transmission construction. There was no way of knowing precisely when, he says, but “eventually the towers would have collapsed.”

One remedy would be to build parallel towers and power lines, but that option would cost $50 million. It would be far preferable to repair the foundations in place. But Dominion could not take a chance of knocking the transmission line out of commission by cutting out the bad steel beneath the water and replacing it with good. In 2013, Dominion was under orders to close the two main coal-fired boilers at its Yorktown plant and was struggling to gain regulatory permission to build a new transmission line upriver near Jamestown. There were only two sets of transmission lines serving the Virginia Peninsula, so taking down the Surry-Winchester and Chuckatuck-Newport News lines would have left the entire region vulnerable to blackouts.

Dominion’s engineering staff came up with a solution that wound up costing rate payers only $25 million. The story was chronicled by local media but never given attention elsewhere in the state. When the project garnered recognition by the Southeastern Electric Exchange earlier this year, Bacon’s Rebellion thought it worth re-telling as an example of the trials and tribulations of maintaining an electric transmission grid.

Previous efforts to protect the H piles had not stopped the corrosion.

No one had tackled a job like this before. The foundations of the 18 towers varied in depth between four feet near the riverbanks to 40 feet near the navigation channel, and the company had to cap the foundations to about 15 feet above the waterline, says Allen. The company also had to maneuver around restrictions on time and location due to protections for osprey and cormorant nests on multiple towers, a peregrine falcon nest on the nearby James River Bridge, and fish migrations from Feb. 15 to June 30, not to mention weather conditions.

Divers entered the water, which was so dark at times that they couldn’t see their hands in front of their faces, to install clips on the side of each H pile. To these clips they fastened rebar cages. Around the rebar cages, the construction contractor put in an epoxy-fiberglass jacket to facilitate the pouring of a “cementitous grout” that would become the new foundations for the towers. The design, which fully shielded the old “H-pile” foundations from the concrete caps above water to four feet below the water line, eliminated the need to cut out existing steel below the water surface.

“We were able to use what was there,” says Allen, who commends the creativity of the engineering team. “Instead of an H pile supporting the tower, we have a rebar cage and concrete encapsulation.”

The retrofit, which was completed in 2015, should last another 40 years.

Building on Virginia’s Data-Center Boom

Data centers are the hottest trend in Virginia economic development these days. But the state is only beginning to think through the implications.

Loudoun County, home to 75 facilities, has developed the largest cluster of data centers in the country (and perhaps the world), and next-door-neighbor Prince William County is rising fast. Rural Mecklenburg County has attracted nearly $2 billion in investment as the location of Microsoft’s East Coast hub for online services. QTS has retrofitted an old microchip factory in Henrico County to open a data center, while DP Facilities, Inc., opened a $65 project center in Wise County. Soon, Virginia Beach will enter the data-center sweepstakes when construction is complete on a 4,000-mile transatlantic cable connecting Virginia to Europe.

According to Paula Squires writing in Virginia Business magazine, Virginia boasts more than 650 data processing, hosting and related establishments that employ more than 13,900 people. Since 2006, the industry has announced more than $11.8 million in new investment and 6,600 jobs. The jobs, while relatively few in number, pay well (more than $100,000 a year in Northern Virginia), and generate a gusher of local taxes.

Billions of dollars are flowing into the sector as the global economy embraces cloud computing to handle the massive surge in data collection and storage. A Markets and Markets research report estimates that the cloud storage market will grow from $23.76 billion in 2016 to $74.94 billion by 2021 — a compounded annual growth rate of 25.8%.

Loudoun County was one of the first localities anywhere to see the economic development potential. The county had a built-in advantage — a massive network of fiber-optic cable built by AOL and WorldCom during the heyday of the 1990s Internet bubble. WorldCom went bust and AOL has a much-diminished presence, but the cable infrastructure remained — and high-capacity connectivity is an essential prerequisite for a data center. Loudoun claims that 70% of the world’s Internet traffic passes through the county. The concentration of data centers is so pronounced that economic developers refers to a six-mile radius around Waxpool Road and Loudoun County Parkway as “data center alley.”

The county has built on its infrastructure advantage by learning how to expedite zoning, permitting and construction. CyrusOne completed construction of a 220,000-square-foot data center in Sterling in 180 days — reputedly the shortest construction time fever for a center that size, reports Squires.

To incentivize investment, the state exempts computer equipment bought or leased for a data center from the retail sales and use tax. Henrico County has dropped its business property tax rate on computers and related equipment from $3.50 to $.40 per $100 of assessed value.

Also, Dominion Energy has emerged as a significant partner. The endless racks of servers inside data centers consume electricity and generate heat, which must be cooled by massive HVAC systems. Dominion charges 5.2 cents per kilowatt hour for large facilities, and a slightly higher rate for small ones. “We’re very competitive,” says Stan Blackwell, director of customer service and strategic partnerships for Dominion. “We have some of the lowest data-center rates in the nation.”

Bacon’s bottom line: The rise of the data-center industry raises two pointed sets of public policy questions.

First, how can Virginia optimize this opportunity? What are the critical drivers? Obviously, the existence of high-capacity fiber networks is one consideration. It appears from the map atop this post that Virginia has one of the densest clusters of long-haul fiber capacity in the country. How crucial is that advantage? Does Virginia’s proximity to a relatively fiber-poor Southeastern U.S. give data centers serving that market an edge? Is the competitive advantage bequeathed by fiber-optic infrastructure such that Virginia should consider encouraging investment in more? Conversely, does it do any good for Virginia to invest in its own fiber infrastructure if connections to neighboring states are lacking? Many, many questions.

Electricity is one of the largest costs associated with operating a data center, accounting for roughly 10% of the total cost of ownership — and it is one of the largest costs that vary by location. Dominion’s electric rates confer a significant competitive edge for locations within its service territory.

Graph credit: Dominion Energy

One of the biggest challenges for Dominion — and the further expansion of the data-center industry — is delivering electricity to these data centers. In one particularly controversial case, the utility wants to build a 230 kV transmission line and substation from Gainesville to Haymarket to serve an Amazon data center. Locals have organized in opposition, claiming that the 100-foot-tall towers will disrupt views and harm property values to benefit a single industrial customer. They insist that Dominion bury the line at considerable expense. If Virginia wants to develop the data-center industry more fully, it may need to find ways to resolve the inevitable utility-landowner disputes fairly expeditiously. No company wants to wait years to find out whether a project will get the electric power it needs.

A second big public policy question centers on the implications of the data-center boom for electricity demand in Virginia. According to Virginia Business, data centers represent Dominion’s fastest-growing customer segment: About 7% of the company’s retail portfolio consists of data centers.

This feeds into the debate over Dominion’s future electric generating mix. Dominion’s 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) assumes that electric load will increase at a compounded rate of 1.5% over the next 15 years — considerably higher than PJM Interconnection’s forecast for the Dominion service territory. Dominion argues that PJM has not taken into account the phenomenal growth of demand by Virginia-based data centers. These projections matter because they influence how much new generating capacity — including nuclear, as I will explore in a forthcoming post — Dominion adds in the years ahead, with tremendous implications for rate payer and the environment.

The data center surge could prove to be an economic development boon for Virginia. But the industry’s growth impacts local zoning and land-use practices, tax policy, fiber-optic infrastructure development, and energy policy. The McAuliffe administration would be well advised to pull together a conclave to determine how to sort through these issues.

Retrofitting Alexandria: Another Office-to-Residential Conversion

This Stovall Street property within Alexandria’s Hoffman Town Center is due for a makeover, says the Washington Business Journal.

Washington, D.C.-based Perseus Realty has contracted to acquire a six-acre site in Alexandria’s Hoffman Town Center with plans to convert an obsolete, 610,000-square-foot building into a residential-dominated mixed-use project. Reports the Washington Business Journal:

The effort, if approved, will entail the addition of 25,000 square feet of ground-floor retail, conversion of two lower floors into parking and the construction of upper floor additions that raise the building’s height from 150 to 200 feet. Perseus representatives were not immediately available for comment. It is unclear how many units the building might include when complete. …

The Perseus project comes as Alexandria considers whether, and how, to encourage additional office-to-residential conversions. In Eisenhower East, for example, a 2003 small area plan sought a 50-50 split between commercial and residential. But now, city staff and the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership are of the belief that for the community to thrive, it will need 2 to 3 times more residential than office.

Conversions have had a net positive fiscal impact for the city, generated significant private investment, and changed obsolete office buildings to a “higher and better use,” according to a report produced by AEDP, city staff and consultant TischlerBise. These projects take excess office space off the market and shield aging office buildings “from potential years of high vacancy, special servicing, or foreclosure.” …

There is a downside to conversions, in that residential requires far more city services than office. According to the study, for every dollar of tax revenue generated by an Alexandria multifamily project, 38 cents are needed to support that project with government services while 62 cents are available for general budget use. With office, only 12 cents on the dollar are needed for services and 88 cents are available to the general fund.

Bacon’s bottom line: It looks like office-to-residential conversions are the next big thing in real estate development. I’ve blogged about the trend in downtown Richmond and Norfolk, and it should be no surprise that it’s happening in Alexandria, too.

As the WBJ article pointed out, the conversions address two problems. First, they find a new use for aging and obsolete commercial structures with prime locations. Second, they create new housing stock for growing populations. While apartment buildings are not as “profitable” for localities as office buildings — they generate a smaller surplus of revenue over costs — they are hugely beneficial from a Northern Virginia regional perspective. The alternative would be to build more green-field housing on the metropolitan fringe, requiring investment in new roads, water, sewer, sidewalks, etc, as well as the transportation infrastructure to move workers from exurban bedroom communities to urban job centers.

Judging by the article, the City of Alexandria has made the calculation that office-to-apartment conversions pencil out profitably. The infrastructure is already in place. And tax revenues even cover the cost of education.

Every urban locality in Virginia has large tracts of land zoned decades ago for commercial and retail uses. The rise of Internet commerce is demolishing the retail sector, especially big boxes and department stores, and the demand for office space is shrinking as corporations rationalize the excessive use of office space. (Although I must note a possible counter-current in IBM’s recent announcement that it was calling thousands of work-at-home employees back into the office.)

Localities that figure out how to retrofit aging and obsolete retail strips and office parks into vibrant, mixed-use communities will prosper in the years ahead. Those who dither will be left behind.

Dominion Sings New Tune, Embraces Solar

Dominion’s White House Solar farm in Louisa County

Dominion expects to install up to 5,200 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2042 — about thirteen times its current commitment and enough to power 1.3 million homes — according to forecasts contained in its 2017 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP). That represents a dramatic shift from forecasts in previous versions of the long-range planning document, which is filed annually with the State Corporation Commission.

Natural gas emits half the carbon dioxide per unit of electricity than oil and coal, and solar produces no carbon emissions at all. Increasing reliance upon those two energy sources will shrink a typical Dominion Virginia Power customer’s carbon footprint (carbon dioxide emitted per customer) by 25% over the next eight years, the company stated in a press release.

“The ‘installed cost’ of large-scale solar facilities … has dropped 50 percent over the past four years,” said Paul D. Koonce, CEO of the Dominion Generation Group. “Our customers want more renewable energy, and changing economics make the transition to renewable resources easier.”

Dominion has been slow, compared to many other utilities, to embrace solar power. In past years, the company stressed that solar produced electricity only when the sun was shining, which made necessary extensive backup capacity, and that solar peak production in the mid-day did not match up well with peak demand for electricity on late summer afternoons or early winter mornings. Until now, the company had committed to building only 400 megawatts by 2020.

Environmental groups have been highly critical of the utility’s approach to renewable energy for years, and Dominion’s latest announcement changes little. The Sierra Club Virginia Chapter today attacked the utility’s continued reliance upon “dirty” “fracked” natural gas and criticized the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

“Dominion’s actions don’t match its words when it comes to promoting renewable energy,” said Kate Addleson, director of the Virginia Sierra Club, said. “Despite the fanfare, this does not appear to be a sharp change from what we have seen in the past.”

“Rather than deliver a clear energy plan, this document only serves to raise more questions about what Dominion really wants to do over the long-term and who really stands to benefit,” said Will Cleveland, Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) attorney. “While Dominion is taking a good step toward expanding solar, they are simultaneously taking two steps back by doubling down on dirty fossil fuels.”

In related news, Appalachian Power Company also filed its IRP, forecasting the addition of 500 megawatts of universal solar by 2031, 1,350 megawatts of wind energy by 2031, and 10 megawatts of battery storage resources by 2025. “Universal” solar is the term for generating capacity that feeds into the broader system, not reserved for the use of a single customer or set of customers.

Dominion executives attributed the company’s rhetorical about-face to continued improvement in the economics of solar energy and a conviction that, despite the Trump administration’s antipathy toward the Clean Power Plan, some form of CO2 regulation will remain in place.

“We believe this balance … of solar, natural gas, and nuclear hits the sweet spot in terms of cost, environmental performance, and reliability for our customers,” Koonce said.

Dominion graphic shows the declining carbon footprint as the company’s four gas-fired power plants came online, replacing coal units and displacing out-of-state energy purchases.

Modernizing the grid. Aside from boosting the efficiency of solar panels, new technology enables utilities to better handle fluctuations of frequency and voltage on the electric grid caused by variable solar output.

“For the first time, our long-range plan discusses the need to modernize the energy grid in order to accommodate the changes in how power will be produced as well as to meet the needs and desires of our customers,” said Bob Blue, CEO of Dominion Virginia Power.

The existing transmission and distribution grids were built to facilitate a one-way flow of electricity from a handful of large power plants to millions of distributed customers. “The energy company produces a large amount of electricity at a relatively small number of locations,” Blue explained. “It then sends that power across big wires, then medium-sized wires, then small wires.”

Solar output will be more distributed. “When solar is connected, the distribution grid must become a two-way network so we can deliver energy seamlessly to everyone, including people with solar panels on their rooftops,” Blue said.

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What’s Next for the Pipeline Controversies?

DEQ will tighten erosion regulations on steep slopes like this for construction of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline in Virginia.

Virginia’s DEQ will pay close attention to construction on steep slopes like this for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline.

With the announcement last week that Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) would provide closer scrutiny of water-quality standards than legally required, battles over the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline shift from the federal level to the states.

Foes of the natural gas pipelines have failed so far to block the projects in the federal permitting process. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approves or denies interstate pipeline projects, found in separate draft environmental impact statements that, with appropriate mitigation, the ACP and MVP projects can be reduced to “less than significant levels.” DEQ’s announcement throws environmental and citizen groups a lifeline by giving them another shot at blocking the pipelines.

“We are confident that a full-fledged review of the projects will show that there is no way they can be built and operated without harming water quality, said Mike Tidwell with the Chesapeake Climate Action Network in a press release. “Allowing public input will further highlight the enormous public opposition to the MVP and ACP.”

“It’s a big announcement, and we’re very happy about it,” David Sligh, regulatory system investigator with the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition (DPMC), told Bacon’s Rebellion. “DEQ cannot issue a certification for the ACP as a whole without accounting for all the water bodies affected. .. It’s a huge chore. … I do not think it’s possible for either ACP or MVP to do what they propose to do and meet water quality standards.”

The ACP and MVP response to the DEQ announcement has been muted. “Throughout this process, we’ve worked with state and federal agencies to ensure the project receives a thorough environmental review with robust public participation,” said ACP spokesman Aaron Ruby. “We stand ready to work cooperatively with DEQ on an efficient review and timely process.”

In the Byzantine regulatory process governing interstate pipelines, FERC relies upon the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) to review water crossings for impact on water quality. DEQ had the options of deferring to the COE, of issuing a general permit that calls for basic protections to be met, or of undertaking its own in-depth review. In choosing the in-depth analysis, DEQ will hold additional public hearings and provide more time for citizens to provide input.

The main issue, according to the DPMC and other activist groups, is that general permits do not adequately address the challenges of massive pipeline projects that cross hundreds of water bodies. Construction, which entails the digging of trenches, is particularly problematic where steep mountain slopes elevate the risk of landslides and erosion that release sediment into rivers and streams, and in sinkhole-ridden karst terrain, where polluted water can travel undetected before surfacing miles away. Steep slopes and karst are characteristic of the mountains of western Virginia where both pipelines would cross.

Sligh told of a colleague who walked a section of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline route with a local resident and found three or four springs that state and federal agencies were unaware of. It is imperative, he says, that citizens with in-depth local knowledge of the terrain be given a chance to provide input on how the pipelines propose to deal with each specific stream crossing.

Pipeline foes have had little luck in either North Carolina or West Virginia, the other two states impacted by the pipelines. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has granted a water-quality permit for the 195-mile segment of the Mountain Valley Pipeline that runs through the Mountaineer state. Little opposition to the pipelines has surfaced in North Carolina. That leaves Virginia as the stopgap.

If DEQ sides with the pipelines, the battle still is not necessarily over. In West Virginia, Mountain Valley Advocates, an anti-pipeline group, seeks a hearing with West Virginia regulators to dispute the department’s issuance in March of MVP’s water-quality certification. If that bid fails, environmental groups have the right to sue. But the odds of stopping the pipelines seem to get longer with each passing day.

Virginia Tech OK’s Intelligent Infrastructure Initiative

Bringing intelligent infrastructure to Virginia

Bringing intelligent infrastructure to Virginia

The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors voted Monday to approve a $78 million plan to make the university a leader in “intelligent infrastructure.” The term encompasses everything from self-driving cars and drones to smart construction and energy systems — areas, in the words of President Tim Sands, that are “related to energy systems for the cities of the future and the way that people move in and around those cities.”

“We set … aggressive philanthropy and industry targets and were able to meet them quickly,” Sands said. “It was ready. … We already had industry and philanthropy champing at the bit.”

Intelligent Infrastructure is a fascinating field of endeavor, and one that is well suited to Virginia Tech’s engineering strengths. Further, the concept, while hardly original to Tech, has yet to become a trendy buzzword that every university in America is chasing, so Tech may have an opportunity to establish a leadership position in the field.

As an economic development initiative that stimulates the growth of R&D and, potentially, the spin-off of new technologies and business enterprises, intelligent infrastructure is an exciting idea. There is a double benefit for Virginia if the initiative helps state and local governments in the Old Dominion devise solutions to chronic problems such as traffic congestion and aging, ill-maintained infrastructure. Strategically, the initiative makes sense.

In other action, the board also approved a 3.5% hike for in-state tuition & fees in the next academic year, bringing the full-year cost to $13,329. That increase exceeds the 2% increase in Virginia’s median household income (2015-2016 numbers) by a hefty margin, but Tech remains a relative bargain compared to other Virginia’s other public, four-year institutions.

Here’s my question: Where does the $75 million come from to finance this significant new initiative? Tech officials say the money comes from corporate sponsorships, philanthropy and other sources but not from tuition & fees. In political terms, Tech is claiming that the project is not being financed on the backs of students and their families.

Here’s what the Roanoke Times has to say:

The … funding will come from non-general funds, which comes from revenue streams other than tuition and mandatory fees.

University officials previously vowed to put about $75 million into the intelligent infrastructure destination area. Millions in private dollars were in the plans since last year, and now Tech has $25 million. The donors include John Lawson, president and CEO of W.M. Jordan Co., and a former board of visitors rector; the charitable foundation controlled by the Hitt family of HITT Contracting Inc., in Washington, D.C.; and two other donors who Virginia Tech declined to name.

A briefing report included in the board briefing materials provides a few more details (my bold face):

At this time, the university is requesting to move forward with a $6 million planning authorization for the $69.5 million of outstanding capital projects and capital lease components. The planning authorization will cover establishing a scope, schedule, delivery method, and complete design documents for each capital component. As with all self-supporting projects, the university has developed a financing plan to provide assurance regarding the financial feasibility of this planning project. The funding plan calls for the use of private gifts, overhead funds, revenues derived from the Dining Services auxiliary, and future external support.

If Tech can make the Smart Infrastructure initiative essentially self-funding, then it would seem to be a win-win all around and a model for Virginia’s other research universities.

Two sets of questions, though. First, how much of the project will be paid through “overhead funds?” What overhead are we talking about? Who’s paying for that overhead now? Does that amount to an indirect subsidy?

Second, how certain are we that “future external support” will materialize, and how contingent is the Intelligent Infrastructure initiative upon obtaining that support? Is there any chance that Tech will spent $70 million+ on the project and the external support might not appear? If so, who gets left holding the bag? In other words, who bears the risk?

Bacon’s Rebellion…. asking the questions no one else will ask.

Update: “Overhead funds” come from sponsored research. “When an outside organization sponsors faculty research (e.g. NIH, General Motors, DOD, etc.) the university collects an overhead fee, in addition to the actual costs associated with the research (such as salaries or equipment costs),” says Larry Hincker, retired associate vice president for university relations. “This is a good example of how sponsored research leverages new activities without using any state funds.”

The East-West Divide in Loudoun Broadband

Western Loudoun trade-off: views like this for quality broadband.

From an article in today’s Loudoun Times-Mirror: 70% of the world’s Internet traffic reputedly passes through eastern Loudoun County, which has emerged as a world-class hub of fiber-optic trunk lines and data centers. Yet less than 20 miles away, 30,000 inhabitants of western Loudoun have lousy Internet access.

“We just can’t get high-speed Internet,” said Loudoun resident Erin Weaver. “We have Wildblue for our Internet. Due to the fact that our Internet comes from a satellite, when it rains heavily or snows heavily we can easily lose our service.”

Loudoun may be the wealthiest county in Virginia, and one of the wealthiest in the country, but the laws of economics still prevail. The county has enacted severe density restrictions in western Loudoun to protect it against the suburban blob emanating from neighboring Fairfax County. But low-density settlement patterns are unprofitable for telecommunications companies to wire. The revenue stream is too thin to cover the cost of running cable.

I can understand the frustration of western Loudoun residents. But, you makes  your choices, and you lives with ’em. Enjoy your bucolic countryside. But don’t ask anyone to subsidize your Internet connections.

Key Fiscal Concept: the Private-to-Public Investment Ratio

It’s not “density” that makes the Ballston area of Arlington County such a fiscal success but the ratio of private-to-public investment.

Charles Marohn, founder of the Strong Towns movement, is frequently queried if there is an ideal density for communities of a particular population and size. In “The Density Question,” he uses the question as a springboard to address a topic that really matters, the long-term fiscal sustainability of counties, towns and cities.

Marohn’s answer: Density is a useless metric. Forget about it. “Density is not our problem or our solution. Insolvency is our problem. Productive places are the solution.”

Say you own a $200,000 house. How much would you be willing to pay for all the communal infrastructure — the streets, sidewalks, arterials, interchanges, pipes, treatment plants, traffic signals, water towers, and so on — that adds to its value?

What if I said your total bill was $200,000? Would you pay it? I’ve been asking people this exact question for the past two weeks and have yet to have anyone who didn’t immediately say “no, there is no way.” And, of course, nobody would pay this. If the house is worth $200,000 and my additional cost of maintaining the infrastructure to allow me to live in that house is an additional $200,000, then that’s a really bad investment.

What if the total bill was $100,000? $20,000? Only when the number gets down to $10,000 and below, writes Marohn, are people unanimous in their willingness to pay for supporting infrastructure.

I think this is a reasonable thought process and it points to a powerful conclusion. At a property value to infrastructure investment ratio of 1:1, everybody walks. Nobody sensible is going to invest $200,000 in infrastructure in a property and have it end up being valued at only $200,000. What’s the point? …

If your city has $40 billion of total value when you add up all private investments, sustaining public investments of $1 billion (40:1) is a doable proposition. Public investments totaling $2 billion (20:1) starts to be risky with outside forces of inflation, interest rates and other factors beyond your control starting to impact your potential solvency. …

At the end of the day, we’re talking about building cities that make financial sense. … Let me deliver the tragic news that demonstrates why discussions of zoning, new highways, high speed rail across America, recreational trails, decorative lights and every other fetish of the modern planner/zoner is a sad distraction from our urgent problems. I’ve now done this analysis in two cities – one big and one small – and for a $200,000 house in either of these cities, the once-a-generation bill for your share of the infrastructure would be between $350,000 and $400,000. …

When private investment is exceeded in value by the public investment that supports it, wealth is not being created, it’s being destroyed. The wealth destruction is rarely evident because there are so many subsidies and cross subsidies between federal, state and local government, and so much maintenance is deferred into the indefinite future, that nothing is transparent. But the system is not sustainable.

“Our cities are going to contract in ways that are foreseeable, but not specifically predictable,” says Marohn. “Yet most are still obsessed with growth and the ‘progressive’ among us, with issues of density.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Density is relevant insofar as it shapes the private vs. private investment ratio. As a rule, higher density development requires less infrastructure per unit of housing or business than lower density development. But Marohn is quite right to say that we shouldn’t fixate on density — it’s a means to an end, which is evolving toward a more favorable ratio of private to public investment.

Until we get this basic accounting right, I don’t see how there’s much chance of achieving long-term fiscal sustainability.