Category Archives: Infrastructure

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.

The Saga of HB 1774 — Rural Growth, Stormwater Credits

Del. Keith Hodges introducing a substitute for HB 1774.

By Carol J. Bova

Virginia’s part-time legislators saw 3,168 bills introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session according to the Richmond Sunlight website. Inundated with such a volume of legislation, overworked part-time lawmakers are hard-pressed to grind through complex issues.

In such circumstances, speeding bills through the legislature can lead to bad law. And that appears to have been the case with a bill, enacted in the 2016 session, that put into place stormwater management legislation due to go into effect July 1, 2017.

Alerted to deficiencies in that law, lawmakers took up the issue again in the 2017 session. The issues got so ticklish and hard to resolve that legislators threw up their hands and passed a bill that delayed implementation of the original law and gave them a year to reconcile the many conflicting interests.

Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, took the lead on updating the stormwater law this year. He submitted three interrelated bills, which he wrote with the assistance of the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William and Mary Law School and the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission. One of the bills, which allows jurisdictions to outsource administration of the stormwater law to third-party engineering firms, was uncontroversial and sailed through the House and Senate.

But the other two, HB 1774 and HB 2008, got tangled up in the legislative process. The main sticking point was how to deal with a loophole in the law going into effect in July that set different triggers at which counties had to put into place stormwater management programs. For most of the state, the regulations apply when a project disturbs 10,000 square feet of land up to one acre (at which point the Department of Environmental Quality steps in). But for the 29 counties and 17 cities defined in state law as “Tidewater,” which have the greatest potential to affect water quality in the Chesapeake Bay, the requirement kicked in at 2,500 square feet.

The Virginia Association of Counties (VACo), the lobbying arm of local governments, took the position that the 2,500-square-foot trigger was too onerous and described the closing of the “donut hole” — between 2,500 and 10,000 square feet — as one of its primary objectives of the 2017 session. HB 2008 would have accomplished precisely that.

However, at some point during the session, Hodges concluded that even the 10,000-square-feet trigger was too tough. Counties wanted out because they are not in the business of managing the erosion and stormwater impacts of land disturbance. They would have to add staff and find funding from already strained budgets. Counties with little new construction would not generate enough permit fees to offset the costs when they occurred, while even counties experiencing modest growth had no guarantee new fees would be sufficient.

Accordingly, Hodges withdrew HB 2008.

That left HB 1774 as the main vehicle for fixing the soon-to-be-enacted law. Like the Indian parable of several blind men trying to discern the nature of an elephant, the bill seemingly offered something to all the special interests involved in stormwater management:

  • New business opportunities for engineering firms — if there is a source of funding to create the stormwater management facilities.
  • Improved Chesapeake Bay water quality — if the new Regional Stormwater Best Practices facilities (RSPs), or stormwater banks, work as advertised. (See previous story for details.)
  • New rural economic development — if new RSPs actually do reduce costs for developers.
  • New income for localities from the sale of stormwater mitigation credits to developers — if there is an excess to sell and if there is water to treat in the first place.
  • Relief for the Virginia Department of Transportation of obligations for roadside drainage by transferring exclusive use of the water in its ditches to new stormwater management facilities — if the water remains in the ditches and if VDOT can ignore the rights of downstream parties to use of the water.
  • Administrative savings for DEQ — if localities agree to take over the stormwater management and if the 2% of fees paid by developers for excess credits offset the $490,000/year extra in salaries for monitoring.

It all works if the system has enough money. Trouble is, rural counties just aren’t experiencing the kind of population and commercial growth to generate the fees to make all these things happen.  The five-year census update estimate from the Weldon Cooper Center calls the premise into question.

Hamilton Lombard with Demographics Research Group at UVA said in the [email protected] blog :
“While population growth continues or accelerates in most of Virginia’s urban areas, much of rural Virginia will likely continue to experience slow population growth or decline during this decade.”

With all these problems, including the $2.45 million expense to hire DEQ employees to monitor the project, what happened to HB 1774? The House committee didn’t kill it. The legislators requested a substitute bill.

To be continued in Part Three — Starting Over

Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County: When urban myths destroy rural drainage,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its highway drainage in Mathews County.

The Saga of HB 1774 — Bills and Buzzwords

HB 1774 would give credits for projects using water from roadside drainage ditch like this one in Mathews County.

HB 1774 would give credits for projects using water from roadside drainage ditch like this one in Mathews County. Photo credit: The Ditches of Mattews County.

By Carol J. Bova

Virginia legislation usually follows a logical pattern in which bills lay out what they intend to do and the means by which their goals will be accomplished. This series looks at one bill introduced in the 2017 General Assembly session that missed the mark, morphing into a substitute bill that passed the House and Senate. The intentions behind it were honorable. The consequences, however, could be disastrous.

This is not an easy story to tell or to read. Like any mystery, only when all the pieces are laid out and examined will the background and details fit together to fill in the gaps. Even then, the final part of this story will take the next ten months to unfold.

This introduction in a series of four posts sets the stage and describes the contents of HB 1774. Part Two explores the problems in the original bill. Part Three looks at the surprising substitute bill. Part Four shows the mapping errors and assumptions that pointed lawmakers in the wrong direction.

~~~~~~~~

The requirements of last year’s stormwater management legislation, scheduled to go into effect on July 1, 2017, will be expensive and hard to incorporate into new developments in the Commonwealth. Many projects will need mitigation credits, which are scarce and in high demand.

Del. Keith Hodges, R-Urbanna, teamed up with the Virginia Coastal Policy Center of William and Mary Law School and the Executive Director of the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission (MPPDC), Lewis Lawrence, to create legislation to alleviate the situation. MPPDC hired a consultant to assist in the work.

Under the combined banners of encouraging rural economic development, easing stormwater management requirements for new development, and creating more mitigation credits for both urban and rural projects, the team crafted HB 1774.

This plan would generate stormwater mitigation credits using new Regional Stormwater Practices (RSP) Banks. The Virginia Department of Transportation would give exclusive use of the water in its roadside ditches to an RSP bank to use in a bioretention or other BMP (Best Management Practice) to improve water quality in order to create the mitigation credits.

These credits would be applied first to Rural Development Growth ((RDG) areas along the highways adjacent to the banks, and excess credits would be sold to other developers.

Under the regulations scheduled to go into effect July 1, 2017, many rural localities chose to opt out of administering stormwater programs for new developments involving 10,000 square feet or one acre of land disturbance, and have the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) continue to administer the program as it had before the new legislation. (Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act areas had a lower threshold for the regulations, 2,500 square feet or one acre of land disturbance.)

Localities would receive fees to entice them into managing the new stormwater program for the RDG areas and overseeing the operation of the RSP banks. States the bill: “The fees for certain stormwater best management practices (BMPs) shall be paid directly to the locality.” From these fees, a locality would place 50 percent of the amount developers saved through the program into an account to operate the RSP bank. (Note: the bill is silent on who determines the fees or how the cost savings would be verified.)

There’s an additional provision for those localities with Chesapeake Bay Preservation areas–the State Water Control Board would authorize “any political subdivision of the Commonwealth that is located in Planning District 18 and is subject to the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act … to designate a qualified entity to establish and administer an RSP bank.” This would include Middle Peninsula county governments, and MPPDC. If the Governor signs a related Hodges’ bill, HB 2055 which passed the House and Senate this session, the Rural Coastal Virginia Community Enhancement Authority would become a new political subdivision.

A private entity designated to operate an RSP bank would annually “return eight percent of the [mitigation] credit revenue it generates to the locality in which it is located and two percent” to DEQ.

To enable a private entity to do this, Del. Hodges introduced HB 2009 to allow administration of a stormwater management program by a certified third party. HB 2009 passed the House and Senate with ease.

To be continued in Part Two: Buzzwords and Bills–Donut Hole Defeat and a Second Chance for HB 1774

Carol Bova is author of “Drowning a County: When urban myths destroy rural drainage,” a book documenting VDOT’s neglect of its highway drainage in Mathews County.

Logging on from the Boonies

Rural broadband in Virginia could stand some improvement.

Rural broadband in Virginia could stand some improvement.

by S.E. Warwick

Last December, the RUOnlineVA statewide, broadband-demand survey reported that “23 percent of respondents have no option for fixed internet access and 48 percent rely on technologies that are too slow or expensive to support critical applications.”

These statistics reflect conditions not only in rural southwest Virginia, but just a few miles from the affluent Short Pump area of Henrico County. Many Goochland County residents crawl along the information superhighway at horse and buggy speed, if they can get on at all.

The dearth of rural broadband hinders economic development and hobbles educational initiatives in much of Virginia. Goochland was recognized as an Apple Distinguished Program in 2015-2017 for its iPad initiative in elementary and middle schools. Yet students who live in areas without strong Internet connectivity cannot take full advantage of the program.

Former Goochland Superintendent of Schools, James Lane, who took the top job in Chesterfield last year, declared that the digital divide between students with ready access to broadband and those without may be the prime civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Home buyers and Richmond-based Realtors unfamiliar with Goochland assume, often to their regret, that the  county has broadband access. In some places, it is not available at any price.

Comcast is the only wired broadband provider with a significant presence in Goochland. It covers a small portion of the county’s approximately 289 square miles, mostly in the relatively densely populated eastern and central parts.

Those who have access to Comcast are grateful for its presence. Even though there is high demand for service, the company resists expansion, citing the high cost of running lines to widely separated homes. Over the past few years, several subdivisions located near existing cable infrastructure have ponied up considerable sums to bring Comcast into their neighborhoods. In other areas, Comcast runs the lines at its own expense. Why the company puts its own money into one and not the other remains a mystery.

Other Internet options in Goochland include satellite and Verizon wireless. These are expensive and less satisfactory than a wired connection. It is not unusual for a family to spend $200 per month or more for speeds and data limits do not let them fully utilize Internet offerings.

Manuel Alvarez, Jr., a member of the Goochland Board of Supervisors, ran for office in 2011 on a pledge to expand rural broadband. He recruited Goochlanders with information technology expertise to study the issue and make recommendations.

The results were disheartening. A preliminary estimate of laying fiber optic cable throughout the county came in at a whopping $14.2 million in 2012 dollars. Goochland supervisors have expressed little interest in spending tax dollars on Internet expansion or getting into the Internet business. They would prefer private-sector providers to fill the void.

Goochland County now encourages developers to exploit existing utility connections in the planning stages of new communities. It has offered space on existing towers and water tanks to wireless providers, but, so far has no takers.

Each year, Goochland asks its General Assembly delegation for help in rural broadband expansion.

A bill introduced this year, HB 2108, initially had the opposite intent. The Virginia Broadband Deployment Act protected major players by requiring upstart broadband providers to reveal the ingredients of any “secret sauce” proprietary technology they planned to use to fill the coverage gaps, a sure way to discourage competition. The final, diluted version of this legislation, which has passed both the House and Senate, addresses transparency in setting rates.

Alvarez was one of many local officials representing rural areas who objected to this bill. “If the cable companies want to expand business in Goochland nobody is stopping them,” he said. “In fact, I could not encourage them more. They should not keep others or the locality from leveraging infrastructure to connect more citizens.”

Goochland continues to investigate strategies for countywide broadband expansion. Given the challenges of settlement patterns, topography, and existing infrastructure, this will likely not be a “one size fits all” solution. Options under consideration include easing or eliminating regulation where possible; pursuing grant funding; and entering advantageous public/private partnerships.

Rapid changes in technology should let market forces, not arbitrary legislation, choose the “who and how” of broadband expansion going forward.

S.E. Warwick, a Goochland resident, publishes the “Goochland on My Mind” blog. For years, she has been the only journalist regularly covering Goochland board of supervisor meetings.

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.