Category Archives: Infrastructure

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.

Why So Long to Decide about Surry-Skiffes?

View of a Dominion transmission line crossing the James in Newport News downstream from the proposed Surry-Skiffes project.

View of a Dominion transmission line crossing the James in Newport News downstream from the proposed Surry-Skiffes project. Photo credit: Daily News.

Tick, tock! The April 15 deadline is fast approaching for when Dominion Virginia Power will have to shut down its Yorktown One and Two coal-fired units, leaving the Virginia Peninsula vulnerable to blackouts. That risk will hang over the region, home to a half million people, for a year-and-a-half or more — for however long it takes to gain regulatory approval for a solution and then build a replacement source of electric power,

The question every Virginian should ask: What is going on inside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers? What is taking so long to make a decision, either yea or nay? Whatever the final outcome, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the regulatory process is badly broken.

Dominion has known for several years that it would have to replace the capacity of the Yorktown units. It conducted an alternatives analysis, and then considered running a transmission line down the spine of the Peninsula before scotching the idea because the line would cross too many wetlands, subdivisions and Indian lands. Then the utility settled on building a 500 kV transmission line across the James River near Jamestown. PJM Interconnection, the organization that runs the multi-state electric grid that includes Virginia, has repeatedly confirmed that that the Surry-Skiffes Creek route selected by Dominion is the most cost effective. Dominion obtained State Corporation Commission approval for the project in 2013 and survived a Virginia Supreme Court challenge.  The Environmental Protection Agency has given Dominion two one-year extensions on the operation of the Yorktown power stations.

The final regulatory hurdle was gaining a permit from the Norfolk office of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has to balance the economic justification of the project against environmental and conservation considerations. By August 2013, when Dominion submitted a revised permit request, the proposal had stirred up intense resistance from citizens and conservation groups on the grounds that the Surry-Skiffes line’s high steel towers would ruin views of a historically sacred stretch of river, which has remained largely unspoiled since English settlers landed at Jamestown.

For three-and-a-half years, the Corps has solicited public input, held public hearings, examined alternative solutions, and considered Dominion proposals — $85 million worth — to mitigate the loss of historical and cultural resources. (See the Corp’s regulatory time-line here.) All this time Dominion has been sounding the warning that after April 15 the Peninsula would be at risk of region-wide blackouts.

For roughly 60 days a year, during periods of peak electric load, the electric lines bringing in power from outside the region would be running at close to peak capacity. The system would be only one unplanned outage of a transmission line away from a crisis. National electric reliability standards require Dominion to maintain enough redundancy in the system to withstand two simultaneous contingencies. Rather than risk a cascading blackout like the one that knocked out electric power for 50 million Americans and Canadians in the infamous 2003 blackout, PJM would order Dominion to “shed load” to eliminate the risk. During hot summer months or cold winter months, controlled blackouts could become a frequent event on the Peninsula.

There is no question that the Army Corps has a hard decision to make with Surry-Skiffes — whether to risk economically disruptive blackouts until a new solution can be found or to mar an irreplaceable historical treasure. But the longer it waits, the longer it puts the region at risk. If it gives the OK tomorrow, it would still take Dominion a year and a half to build the transmission line. If the corps declines to issue the permit, the utility will take even longer to devise an alternative, gain the necessary permits and build whatever needs to be built. Either way, the interminable decision-making process has put the Peninsula economy at risk.

The scandal here is not the necessity of obtaining Army Corps approval. The country needs a mechanism to evaluate the merits of giant infrastructure projects against the harm they might pose to communities. The scandal is the length of time it takes to reach that decision. Three-and-a-half years is way too long. The system is broken. It needs to be fixed.

The Saga of HB 1774 — Recurrent Flooding and Flooded Roads

by Carol J. Bova

HB 1774 was written to address rural stormwater issues and amended to study stormwater management practices in rural Virginia highway ditches. Why, then, does the bill direct the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency, a group formed to help Virginia adapt to recurrent flooding and sea-level rise, to direct the study?

The Commonwealth Center was created in 2016 to study strategies for adaptation, migration, and the prevention of recurrent flooding — deemed to be caused by global warming-induced sea-level rise — in Tidewater and Eastern Shore localities. As the adage goes, to a carpenter with a hammer every problem looks like a nail. Assigning the study to the Commonwealth Center almost guarantees that HB 1774’s stormwater concerns will be viewed through the prism of sea-level rise and recurrent flooding. And that would be counterproductive because state road and ditch flooding have no connection to sea-level rise at all.

This misdirected idea comes from Lewis “Lewie” Lawrence, executive director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission (MPPDC) and the behind-the-scenes force behind HB 1774. Lawrence has doggedly insisted that Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) drainage failures in rural counties bordering the Chesapeake Bay, like my home county of Mathews, constitute recurrent flooding. Lawrence was instrumental in writing, and then revising, HB 1774 in close association with the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William & Mary Law School for Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, the bill’s sponsor.

Lawrence has inserted unsupported claims attributing flooding on VDOT roads to sea-level rise in at least nine MPPDC reports since 2009. In the first of these studies, which assessed the human and ecological impacts of sea-level rise upon vulnerable locations in the Middle Peninsula, he used maps indicating that one foot of sea-level rise by 2050 would inundate large portions of Middle Peninsula counties.

Those maps don’t stand up to scrutiny. In one of those reports, the 2050 map for Mathews County reports shows 6.7 miles of VDOT roads in inundated marsh and inland areas, yet fails to show the breach in the Winter Harbor barrier beach that left marshes open to the Bay since a 1978 April nor’easter.

Official projections of recurrent flooding from sea-level rise are based on maps with flawed elevation measurements.

Official projections of recurrent flooding from sea-level rise are based on maps with flawed elevation measurements.

Why is that significant? Because the Chesapeake Bay is connected to the ocean, it reflects the ocean’s high and low tides. The rise and fall of the tides varies from one location to another depending upon the depth of the water and the shape of the coastline, among other factors. Before the nor’easter, a narrow channel at the south end restricted the flow between the Bay and Winter Harbor. The breach in the barrier beach opened the marshes at the north end of Winter Harbor to the tides of the Chesapeake Bay.

The postulated 2050 inundation shown on the map is caused by one foot of sea level rise. But in real life, the daily high tides already run 1 ½ feet to 2 ½ feet, and storm-driven tides can add one or two feet more without having the depicted impact. Nearly three decades after the nor’easter, Hurricane Isabel did cause coastal and inland flooding, but its 7.9 feet of storm surge did not produce the degree of inundation shown for one foot of hypothetical sea level rise in the MPPDC’s map.

Another publication, a September 2016 MPPDC report for the Mathews County Planning Commission, references a 2013 MPPDC study done by Draper Aden Associates (DAA), the Mathews County Rural Ditch Enhancement Study, which said:

One of the primary results of the project was the reaffirmation that poor drainage due to lack of ditch maintenance and sea level rise compounds the flooding problems and flood management solutions utilized within Mathews County.

The supposed affirmation of sea level rise impact in the DAA study was based on flawed LiDAR-derived elevation numbers and an assumed 5-inch sea-level rise in 24 years extracted from the maximum estimate in a 2010 VIMS report to the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. That VIMS report described “a total possible sea level rise of 0.12 to 0.22 inches per year in the Mathews County area,” or 3 to 5.6 mm a year. (My book, “Drowning a County,” uses 3.5 mm a year based on the Kiptopeke tide gauge trend of 3.48 mm since Mathews has no tide gauge.)

Draper Aden used 2011 Virginia Geographic Information Network LiDAR maps that show elevations of 2 feet for cultivated fields, forested areas, Route 645, and Gullwing Cove Lane — supposedly the same elevation as the marsh to the west. Yet, contrary to what one would expect from these elevations, normal high tides of two feet do not cause any movement of water from marshes and creeks into adjacent fields. Rather, fresh water floods across the roads because it is unable to flow through damaged or blocked VDOT pipes, ditches or outfall streams to nearby water bodies. Continue reading

Peninsula Still Needs Surry-Skiffes Project, Says PJM

View from the Surry nuclear power station of where the proposed Surry-Skiffes transmission line would cross the James River.

View from the Surry nuclear power station of where the proposed Surry-Skiffes transmission line would cross the James River.

PJM Interconnection may have lowered its forecasts for peak electricity load on the Virginia Peninsula, but the regional transmission organization still contends that the proposed Surry-Skiffes Creek high-voltage transmission line is still needed to avoid the risk of blackouts.

“It is PJM’s determination that the current Skiffes Creek 500 kV project remains the most effective and efficient solution to address the identified reliability criteria violations,” wrote Steven R. Herling, PJM vice president-planning, to the Norfolk district commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this month.

Dominion Virginia Power, which must obtain a permit from the Corps before it can commence construction, has encountered stiff opposition to the project. Preservationists say the highly visible power line will disrupt views of the James River little changed since the first English settlers arrived more than 400 years ago.

The project was precipitated by federal clean-air regulations that compels Dominion to shut down two of its aging, coal-fired generators at the Yorktown Power Station. Those units are scheduled to go offline next month, eliminating a major source of electric power on the Peninsula. The region is served by multiple transmission lines that can meet electric power demand under routine conditions. But the Peninsula grid lacks the redundancy to meet federal reliability guidelines designed to prevent another cascading blackout like the one that plunged 55 million in the Northeast and Canada into darkness.

Dominion selected the Surry-Skiffes route after examining numerous alternatives. Foes charged that the utility considered only a narrow range of options. Instead of building a 500 kV line across the James, it could have met reliability standards through a combination of measures: upgrade of existing lines, solar power, energy efficiency, demand-response, greater reliance upon the oil-powered Yorktown 3 unit, and/or building a less obtrusive, lower-voltage line across the James. Arguing that the 500 kV line was overkill, they also argued that Dominion forecasts for electricity demand were unrealistically high.

In October 2016, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has named the James River as one of the nation’s 11 most endangered historic places, published an alternatives report prepared by Richard D. Tabors, a consultant and former MIT professor. Using Dominion data and the same simulation model as PJM, Tabors outlined four alternatives.

Summary of four alternative scenarios prepared by Tabors Caramanis Rudkevich.

Tabors recommended upgrading existing 115 kV and 230 kV power lines feeding the Peninsula, getting greater use out of the Yorktown No. 3 oil-based generator, dropping load at selected feeders, and building new transmission lines, preferably along existing rights of way. Each scenario, states the report, “is generally less costly and can be implemented in a shorter period of time.”

Since publication of the Tabors report, PJM has backed off its earlier load forecasts. Reports David Ress with the Daily Press:

The latest PJM forecasts … suggest peak load demand during the summer would grow at an annual rate of 4 percent though 2027, to reach a total of 20,501 megawatts.

That’s 1,755 megawatts less than PJM’s forecast a year ago, nearly an 8 percent decline. Last year, Dominion’s summer peak was 19,539 megawatts.

But in Herling’s letter to the Corps, PJM stuck to its guns on the larger point, that the Surry-Skiffes line presented the optimum solution to the Peninsula’s needs. “PJM staff has reviewed the proposed alternatives and found that none of them resolved the identified reliability criteria violations that are being addressed by the Surry-Skiffes 500 kV project,” wrote Herling.

There are multiple, inter-related reliability violations, said the PJM planner.

Solving for a single violation does not address the panoply of reliability violations that are designed to be addressed through the Skiffes Creek project. For example, the continued operation of the Yorktown 3 generator as proposed by Dr. Tabors would not address thermal overload and voltage violations on the 230 kV and 115 kV bulk electric system that were identified by PJM. In addition, Dr. Tabors’ reliance on the Yorktown 3 generator as a solution ignores the significant environmental operating restrictions and limitations on plant operations associated with that plant.

Subsequent studies have re-confirmed the need for the Surry-Skiffes project even considering PJM’s updated load forecasts, Herling wrote.

Virginia Beach, Emerging World-Class Data Hub

Speaking of Virginia Beach…. Here’s a more promising approach to economic development than building arenas in the hope of wrangling big-name concerts and basketball tourneys for 30 years into the future. Reports the Virginian-Pilot:

A Dutch company wants to create a new data center park to draw the likes of Snapchat, IBM and Uber. NxtVn will spend $1.5 billion to $2 billion to build a hub off General Booth Boulevard to attract companies that seek high-capacity connections from the U.S. to Europe.

The company also plans to invest in a third trans-Atlantic high-speed data cable – Midgardsormen – that would link Virginia Beach to a data center park in Eemshaven, Netherlands.

This news follows an announcement made last year that a consortium including Facebook, Microsoft and Telefonica would build a 4,000-mile trans-Atlantic cable capable of transmitting 160 terabytes of data per second, the first transoceanic fiber cable station linking to the Mid-Atlantic. The existence of these two transoceanic cables, plus a third connecting Brazil and Virginia Beach, could spur development of the city into one of the nation’s largest data-center hubs.

How has Virginia Beach scored this economic-development coup? By handing out subsidies and tax breaks? No, by tending to basics. Writes the Pilot:

Over the past two years, the Virginia Beach Broadband Task Force has laid out steps that appeal to technology-driven companies, including advancements to a high-speed fiber optic network connecting municipal buildings and laying a fiber ring across the city, said Councilman Ben Davenport, chair and founder of the task force.

“We have worked with Dominion Virginia Power to make sure all power requirements could be met at these sites, which is very important because these data centers are huge power users,” said Davenport, who said that when NxtVn was told about the task force’s work on the fiber network, “this sealed the deal.”

There is no mention in the Pilot article of how much it cost to lay that fiber ring across the city. Perhaps the expenditure represents an implicit subsidy for broadband companies like NxtVn. If so, the project certainly appears to be paying off. I’m willing to wager that the Return on Investment is vastly superior to payback from an events arena.

(Hat tip: Paul Yoon)

Virginia’s Infrastructure Deficit

Virginia's infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

Virginia’s infrastructure deficit, though not as big as that of many other states, still represents a multibillion-dollar liability.

I have often opined on Virginia’s hidden deficits — fiscal time bombs in the form of budgetary gimmicks, pension under-funding, and deferred infrastructure maintenance. These problems are national in scope, and Virginia has been somewhat less derelict in its duty than other states, but sooner or later the Old Dominion will have an ugly confrontation.

The 2017 Infrastructure Report Card conducted by the American Society for Civil Engineers (ASCE) rams home the message. The U.S. overall infrastructure rates a D+ rating. Virginia-specific infrastructure rates a C-. (For whatever reason the 2017 national report card links to the 2015 Virginia report card.)

Here’s a summary of the ASCE’s run-down of major infrastructure categories.

Bridges. Virginia has 20,977 bridges and culverts, and their overall health is in decline due to age and lack of funding. Fifty-six percent are approaching the end of their 40-year anticipated design life. Some 30% are more than 50 years old. In 2013, 23% were found to be either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete.  “Available funds are often used to address immediate repair or replacement needs, leaving few remaining funds for preventative maintenance. … The statistics indicate an impending peak of replacements which may be required within the next 10 years.”

Dams. Virginia’s dam inventory continues to grow older and more susceptible to damage. The majority were built in the 1950-75 era, and their average age is 50 years old. Of the state’s high-hazard dams, 45% have conditional certificates, indicating that they do not meet current safety standards. The rehabilitation cost for high- and significant-hazard dams is estimated to be $392 million.

Drinking water. Virginia has 2,830 public water systems supplying drinking water to more than 7 million Virginians. A large number of these systems have passed 70 years in age. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest assessment showed that Virginia waterworks need nearly $6.1 billion over the next 20 years. “Deferral of the necessary improvements has worked so far, but can result in degraded water service, water quality violations, health issues, and higher costs in the future.”

Parks & recreation. Park attendance in Virginia is on the rise, and state parks are consistently ranked as some of the best in the nation. The ASCE commentary vaguely states that “a lack of commitment to adequately fund and maintain our facilities will change things for future generations.”

Rail and transit. The report focuses mainly on the inadequacies of funding for passenger rail, which must share rail lines owned by railroad companies that give their own commercial traffic priority. Virginia did recently set up a Rail Enhancement Fund, and it created an Intercity Passenger Rail Operating and Capital Fund, although it did not actually put any money into the latter. “The current funding is not sufficient to meet the increasing demand for rail and passenger service or to complete the much-needed rail infrastructure improvements and upgrades.”

Roads. The condition of Virginia roads is tolerable from a maintenance and safety standpoint, but traffic congestion in the Washington and Hampton Roads metropolitan areas has a huge negative economic impact. The average Washington-area commuter experiences 74 hours a year of delay. Despite an increase in transportation funding in 2013, “a network that has grown by 14% over the last 35 years and with every dollar buying less construction work, more funding is needed to maintain safe roadways while adding needed capacity, making this a  high priority for Virginia.”

Schools. More than 1,800 public school buildings serve Virginia’s K-12 students. A comprehensive 2013 analysis found that 60% of schools are at least 40 years old. Estimated renovation costs exceed $18 billion for schools more than 30 years old.

Solid waste. Virginia’s solid waste infrastructure is in “good” condition. Increased recycling, a reduction in out-of-state waste, and the addition of 11 additional waste facilities have increased the state’s capacity from 20 years to 22 years.

Stormwater. About one-third of Virginia’s stormwater infrastructure is more than 30 years old, and much of the remainder was built 25 to 30 years ago. Most stormwater infrastructure has a 50- to 100-year lifespan. But the ASCE report is not impressed. “There are shortcomings to address for state-level, standardized reporting, public education, and ensuring a dedicated source of funding commensurate with the economic benefits of a healthy Chesapeake Bay and Virginia ecosystems.”

Wastewater. Virginia has $6.8 billion in wastewater needs over the next 20 years, a 45% increase from ASCE’s previous report card in 2009. That includes $1 billion for combined-sewer overflow, and much  more to achieve Chesapeake Bay clean water standards. “Virginia has made progress with considerable investments and has a comprehensive plan, but has tremendous challenges ahead.”

I don’t share the ASCE’s sense of urgency for every category. If we want to reduce traffic congestion, there are alternatives to building more road and transit projects: (1) reforming land use to provide a better balance of jobs, housing and amenities, and (2) accelerating the Uber-ization of ride sharing in order to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road. I also question whether 40 years is an appropriate standard for rehabilitating or replacing school buildings. Clearly, many schools need rehabbing, but the study may overstate the number.

Even with these caveats, Virginia’s infrastructure deficit runs into the billions of dollars. And this analysis does not address recurrent flooding, an increasing problem in Hampton Roads. On top of all the other issues mentioned above, hardening the region’s infrastructure will cost billions of dollars of dollars more.

Update: Charles Marohn over at the Strong Towns blog eviscerates the ASCE report, which he describes as a “propaganda document.”

The reason why we can’t maintain our infrastructure is not because we lack the money or are afraid to spend it. It is because the systems we have built and the decisions we’ve made on what is a good investment are based on the kind of ridiculous math you see reflected in this ASCE report. We spend a billion here and a billion there and we get nothing but a couple minutes shaved off of our commutes, which just means we can build more roads and live further away from where we work. (Or, as we call that here in America: growth.)

Sixty years of unproductive infrastructure spending later, we are awash in maintenance liabilities with no money to pay for them. This is what happens when you have a government-subsidized, Ponzi-scheme growth system that, at all times, lives for the next transaction. America is all about new growth, which is why we don’t even bother to question the findings in a study like this.

The Saga of HB 1774 — Starting Over

Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, discusses VDOT ditch and outfall issues with G.C. Morrow in 2013.

By Carol J. Bova

In the second part of this series, I described how the General Assembly recognized intrinsic problems in HB 1774, a bill designed to remedy deficiencies in stormwater legislation enacted in 2016 and scheduled to go into effect July 1 this year. But instead of killing the bill, legislators passed a substitute.

That substitute, HB 1774 H1, turned from implementation to study, directing the Commonwealth Center for Recurrent Flooding Resiliency to consider alternative methods of stormwater management in rural Tidewater localities.

By passing the substitute, the House and Senate delayed the effective date of the 2016 law and provided more time to work out problems that have come to light.

The Virginia Coastal Policy Center at William and Mary Law School will facilitate a work group for the HB 1774 study. This group will “include representatives from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, Old Dominion University, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, the Chesapeake Bay Commission, local governments, environmental interests, private mitigation providers, the agriculture industry, the engineering and development communities, and other stakeholders as determined necessary.”

It seems rural residents didn’t make the A-list for this group. That’s a shame because citizen groups have studied water drainage issues in low-lying areas near the Chesapeake Bay, and they learned a few things that the experts overlook. Even the HB 1774 substitute, which aims to fix problems in the original HB 1774… which in turn was supposed to fix the 2016 law…  could turn out to be gravely flawed.

The revised HB 1774 changes the project area from six rural counties of the Middle Peninsula to the 29 counties and 17 cities of Virginia’s Tidewater. If the concept moves beyond the study stage, developers in ten urban counties — Arlington, Chesterfield, Fairfax, Hanover, Henrico, James City, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Stafford, and York — will be able to buy stormwater credits generated by the rural Tidewater counties similar to the way developers can offset the impact of their projects by purchasing credits from a wetlands bank.

The “Tidewater” localities are outlined in red.

Nineteen counties have enough rural locations to establish Rural Development Growth areas along their state roads and highways if they agree to manage the new Regional Stormwater Best Practicies facilities (RSPs). In theory, these facilities will generate enough offset credits to let the RDGs use the current stormwater standards instead of the new, stricter standards, and still provide enough credits to sell to urban developers who need them. If the governor signs HB 2009, which passed the House and Senate, the localities could hire a third party to handle both the RSP management and credit sales on their behalf.


The original bill estimated the it would cost the Department of Environmental Quality $490,000 annually to hire staff to monitor the program for its first five years. But the bill provided no estimate of what expense localities would incur to administer the program, how much developers in urban counties might save, or how much income might be generated through the sale of credits. Presumably, the work group will address these issues. Continue reading

At Last, a Wind Farm Virginia Can Call Its Own

Simulated view of Rocky Forge wind farm.

Simulated view of Rocky Forge wind farm.

It looks like Virginia soon will have its first commercial wind farm. The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has approved plans to build 25 giant turbines on a ridgeline in Botetourt County.

Critical to the approval was an agreement by Charlottesville-based Apex Clean Energy to turn off turbines at its Rocky Forge site during warm, calm nights during the season when bats are most active. Foes of the project had focused on the risk that the 550-foot-tall turbines would pose to bats and birds.

Virginia will join 41 other states that have wind projects. The Rocky Forge project has run a regulatory gamut, winning approvals from Botetourt County and the Federal Aviation Administration as well as DEQ. Apex had to demonstrate that its turbines would not pose a threat to commercial aviation.

Apex CEO Mark Goodwin was up-beat. “Linked with competitive pricing and clear evidence that new clean energy generation attracts major corporate investment, Rocky Forge Wind is set to begin a new chapter in Virginia’s energy future.”

Reports the Roanoke Times:

To evaluate the wind farm’s impact on the environment, DEQ relied in large part on studies conducted for Apex by private firms, in consultation with state and federal agencies.

The data showed minimal harm to birds, noting that eagles and other types of birds most threatened by turbines were not seen in large numbers at the proposed wind farm site, a 7,000-acre parcel of unpopulated woodland on North Mountain that sits about 5 miles northeast of Eagle Rock.

The company will stop its turbines from sunset to sunrise from mid-May to mid-November every year, except when the wind is blowing faster than 15 mph or it is 38 degrees or colder on the mountain ridge. … Apex says it also will avoid cutting trees within 5 miles of the bats’ caves and within 150 feet of summer roosting trees for northern long-eared bats from early spring to fall.

In echoes of criticisms leveled against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline, critics of the project asserted that DEQ’s streamlined administrative process, enacted in 2010, is too friendly to industry.

During construction, the wind farm is expected to produce about 150 jobs. Once the project is operational, it will be run by about a half-dozen employees on-site.
Apex officials have said earlier that the facility could pump as much as $4.5 million a year into the local economy, adding to the tax base and contributing to local sales and tourism spending.

Bacon’s bottom line: Concerns that wind turbines kill birds and bats has emerged as a big issue with many proposed wind farms in the Appalachian mountains. It will be interesting to see if Apex’s concession to shut down the turbines during periods of peak wildlife activity creates a precedent that eases the approval of other wind projects in Virginia.

Virginia’s on-land wind resources are limited, restricted mainly to mountain ridge lines near existing electric transmission lines. People have convinced themselves that wind turbines, like houses, cabins and condominiums, are an eyesore and hurt their property values. Apex shrewdly located Rocky Forge on an isolated ridge seen by few people, so opposition in Botetourt was limited. Whether the Rocky Forge success can be replicated anywhere else remains to be seen.