Category Archives: Transportation

Disaster + Fiscal Insolvency = Puerto Rico

Lights out in San Juan. Photo credit: Los Angeles Times.

I can watch only so much CNN and MSNBC before I get nauseated, but I have seen enough the past day or two to be appalled at how the media are spinning the post-hurricane disaster of Puerto Rico: It’s another Katrina. The Trump administration hasn’t responded fast enough or aggressively enough to help the battered territory, where two hurricanes shut down electric service, cell phones, the transportation system and government services. Others can engage in the blame game if they want to, but I want to point out the obvious: Puerto Rico illustrates the incapacity of a bankrupt government to carry out basic functions under highly stressful circumstances.

And let that be a warning to everyone. Puerto Rico is the future of many U.S. states unless we get our acts together. Garnering less attention than the human tragedy in Puerto Rico, the states of Pennsylvania and Connecticut have made headlines, too, in the past week. After Pennsylvania passed a budget without enough revenue to pay for its spending, S&P Global Ratings downgraded the state’s debt to A+, down two notches from the coveted AAA rating. Meanwhile, despite having the highest median household income in the country and the second highest tax burden (taxes as percentage of income), Connecticut faces a $3.5 billion biennial deficit. The state, notes the Wall Street Journal, is groaning under heavy debt load, large unfunded pension liabilities, and a shrinking population. S&P has placed nine Connecticut localities on negative credit watch.

Those two states have a long way to go before they achieve Puerto Rico-levels of insolvency, but they indicate the direction the U.S. is heading. On a national level, Republicans have abandoned any pretense at crafting a tax reform plan that will shrink the deficit (something that can be pinned on the Trump administration). The national debt is $20 trillion and growing, even in the absence of a recession, at a rate of more than $600 billion a year. It’s not a question of if we will share Puerto Rico’s fiscal fate, but when.

So, what happens when governments approach fiscal insolvency? One thing they do is starve infrastructure maintenance. Puerto Rican roads were in worse physical condition than roads in any U.S. state. Of the island’s 2,280 bridges, 55.8% were considered structurally deficient or functionally obsolete before the hurricanes struck. The territory has chronically under-invested in its water systems, which also failed during the hurricanes, and the government-owned electric system, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), has been a disaster-in-waiting for years now.

Reports the Los Angeles Times:

As of 2014 the government-owned company was $9 billion in debt, and in July, it filed for bankruptcy under the provisions set by the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, a law signed by President Obama in 2016.

Problems accumulated. Cutbacks in tree pruning left the 16,000 miles of primary power lines spread across the island vulnerable. Inspections, maintenance and repairs were scaled back. Up to 30% of the utility’s employees retired or migrated to the U.S. mainland, analysts said, and the utility had trouble hiring experienced employees to replace them.

The neglect led to massive and chronic failures at the Aguirre and Palo Seco power plants. The three-day blackout in September 2016 underscored how fragile the system was, and that the company was “unable to cope with this first contingency,” the Synapse Energy report said.

No wonder the island’s electric grid collapsed. No wonder officials say it will take four to six months to restore electric power.

If you want your city, county or state to show resilience in the face of natural disasters, you need to have governments and utilities that are fiscally resilient. Entities hobbled by excessive debt scrimp on maintenance and upgrades, leaving roads and utilities more vulnerable to disruption and depriving authorities of resources with which to respond to emergencies.

Puerto Rico would be in terrible shape no matter what. Hurricane Maria wrought devastating destruction, and recovery is impeded by the fact that the island, unlike Houston and Florida, is inaccessible to help by land. But the incapacity of bankrupt government and utilities have made the challenges immeasurably worse.

Bacon Bits: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Source: 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report. (Click for more legible image.)

U.S. still globally competitive. The United States has climbed past Singapore  to become the world’s second most competitive economy — second only to Switzerland, according to the 2017-18 Global Competitiveness Report published by the World Economic Forum. U.S. strengths are its technological progress, capacity for innovation, and sophistication of its business enterprises — all private sector attributes, I might observe. The nation’s weaknesses are primary education, healthcare and “macroeconomic environment,” which reflects the sustainability of government finances. Tax rates are cited as the most problematic aspect of doing business in the U.S. The weaknesses, I might add, are all government failures.

Worst traffic jams in the country. The Washington metropolitan area has the sixth worst traffic congestion in the country, according to INRIX Roadway Analytics, but the single-worst traffic hot spot anywhere is a southbound stretch of Interstate 95 between Washington, D.C., and Fredericksburg, reports the Free Lance-Star. I totally believe it — and the northbound lanes aren’t much better.

Richmond still leads in dropouts. John Butcher at Cranky’s Blog takes a look at the Virginia Department of Education’s latest statistics on high school dropout rates. While Richmond with its predominantly African-American student population has the highest dropout rate in the state, 18.0%, the rate for overwhelmingly white Lee County in the heart of Appalachia is 17.9%. As usual, Butcher is unhappy with the way the state calculates its numbers.

Update: Wow, Cranky is on a tear. A new post, “Lies, Damn Lies and Graduation Rates,” shows how school districts can game the statistics on graduation rates to look good.

Wakes Be Damned! The Potomac Needs a High-Speed Ferry!

The Waiheke Island ferry.

Many years ago my mother wearied of living in Washington, D.C., so she traveled to New Zealand to check out a nation that was blessed by natural beauty, governed by English common law, and poised to benefit from China’s economic boom. She happened upon Waiheke Island not far from Auckland, which had been inhabited mainly by hippies, artists and bohemians until that time. What stirred her interest as a real estate investment was the recent commencement of high-speed catamaran service between Waiheke and downtown Auckland, New Zealand’s primary business center. She purchased a little house on the island, and her thinking proved prescient. The catamaran service proved to be a popular mode for commuting, Auckland yuppies flooded the island, Waiheke enjoyed an economic boomlet, and her investment appreciated nicely in value.

When visiting my mother some 20 years ago, by necessity, I rode the Waiheke ferry. The vessel was commodious, and the trip was enjoyable. As a mode of travel, it was comparable to riding a train, and far preferable to driving a car. Ever since, the idea of commuting by ferry made sense to me, and I have always wondered why we don’t see more of it in Virginia.

People have been kicking around the idea of ferries and water taxis on the Potomac River for more than a decade now, but for one reason or another, it never got off the ground. Likewise, people have talked about starting a ferry service in Hampton Roads — perhaps there’s one up and running — but I haven’t heard much about it. Clearly, there are obstacles to establishing such an enterprise, but hope springs eternal, and the idea is getting a new look in Northern Virginia.

Reports the Washington Post:

On Thursday, a 149-seat ferry made a test run from Occoquan Harbour Marina in Prince William to Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, replicating the modern ferry experience with free WiFi, charging stations and onboard concessions. For riders, the best feature was the beautiful water scenery, traffic-free.

“Better than the bumper-to-bumper traffic of 95 and 395,” said Prince William County Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge).

Principi, an enthusiastic backer of ferry service, spearheaded a day-long ferry summit Thursday that brought together more than 300 officials from the public and private sectors to discuss the vision for a system that would carry passengers from as far as Prince William and as near as Old Town Alexandria and National Harbor on the Maryland shore.

Officials say ferry service could be part of the solution to the notorious traffic congestion along the growing Interstate 95 corridor, and a way to take advantage of the Potomac River — or what some call the last unused highway in the Washington region.

A market analysis conducted for the Northern Virginia Regional Commission two years ago concluded that a that a viable market exists for commuter ferry services on the Occoquan, Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Ferries are widely used in New York, Seattle, and San Francisco? So, what’s the hold up in the Washington area?

Apparently, nothing can be done without an environmental impact statement, so Washingtonians are waiting for the results of an impact study. One issue is that high-speed ferries create big wakes — although new ship designs minimize the disturbance. Another is the impact of shore-side infrastructure such as passenger terminals, parking and lighting. Good grief! Surely those problems can be dealt with. In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, “Let’s get ‘er done!”

Uh, Oh, Metro Needs Another $9.5 Billion

Washington Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has been pushing for $15.5 billion in additional contributions from participating states and localities over the next 10 years, including $500 million in dedicated funding, to make the ailing commuter rail system safe and reliable.

That request has set off serious jockeying between Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia over who should pay how much, and which reforms the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority (MWATA) must make before anyone trusts it with more money.

But at a recent MWATA board meeting, reports the Washington Post, Chairman Jack Evans enumerated $9.5 billion in anticipated needs not covered in Wiedefeld’s $15.5 billion figure.

Wiedefeld’s proposal “will only keep us where we are right now, which is not a good place to be,” Evans said. “What the region does, what the elected leadership, the business [community does] — they will seize on the easiest approach. So when he put out the number ‘500,’ everybody seized on ‘500,’ which gets you to $15 billion — which gets you to where you are today. Nobody wants to be where we are today.”

“We’re asking for the wrong number,” he said. “I think it was a mistake on behalf of the GM . . . to ask for the lower number.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Well, you have to appreciate Evans’ honesty. No one wants to hear that revitalizing the Metro will cost an astonishing $25 billion, not a mere $15 billion. As Virginians discuss how they will find their multibillion-dollar share of the Wiedefeld proposal, they should be acutely aware that they would be meeting only the Metro’s most urgent needs — “nonnegotiable” safety and system upgrades. They to ask themselves, will $15.5 billion be enough, or will it just paper over the problems?

Metro is “too big to fail.” Its collapse would throw the Washington region’s transportation system into turmoil, with endless repercussions for the economy and economic development. For instance, the Washington region would be an attractive location for the Amazon second headquarters in many ways, but the company is sure to ask itself, does it want to locate 50,000 employees in a region whose commuter rail system is falling apart and a proposed $15 billion fix merely preserves a deficient status quo?

Metro must be salvaged. But Virginia needs to hang tough and demand comprehensive management, labor, and governance reforms before coughing up hundreds of millions of dollars a year for a bail-out that may not accomplish much.

Bacon Bits: Bristol, Big Ships, and Blue on Blue

Petersburg, Meet Bristol. The City of Bristol has been identified as “City A” in the recent report by the state Auditor of Public Accounts that scored even lower than Petersburg in a rating of fiscal stress, reports the Bristol Herald-Courier. Bristol hasn’t experienced the dramatic budget deficits of its fiscally challenged counterpart on the Appomattox River, but the city of 17,000 on the Tennessee state line is burdened by general-obligation bond debt of more than $100 million stemming from its backing of the failed The Falls commercial center.

Here Come the Big Ships. The CMA CGM Theodore Roosevelt, the largest ship to ever call on an East Coast U.S. port, docked Monday in Norfolk, reports the Richmond Times-DispatchThe vessel, which carries the equivalent of 14,400 containers, made its way to Virginia via the widened Panama Canal, Served by the deepest channels on the East Coast, Norfolk is the logical first stop for a generation of massive new ships; after unloading cargo there, ships rise in the water enough to navigate shallower channels in other ports. As part of a $670 million expansion plan, the Virginia Port Authority is ordering four massive cranes capable of reaching across a vessel that is 26 containers wide.

Blue on Blue. In the aftermath of the fatal white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, city government has descended into vituperative in-fighting almost as anarchic as the protests and counter-protests themselves. The proximate cause is a controversy over who to blame for the police department’s failure (or unwillingness) to intervene to shut down the demonstrations before violence broke out. Did someone order the police to “stand down”? Mayor Mike Signer, City Manager Maurice Jones, and Police Chief Al Thomas are all in major ass-covering mode. Angry citizens shut down a Council meeting. Documents are leaking. Fingers are pointing. Read the latest installment in the Daily Progress here.

Washington Metro as Wealth-Redistribution Tool

Paging Karl Marx. Karl Marx, please. Three left-leaning think tanks think businesses should be taxed to subsidize lower Washington Metro fares.

The progressive outfits — the Virginia-based Commonwealth Institute, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and the Maryland Center on Economic Policy — have declared their opposition to a region-wide one-cent sales tax to fund the Washington metropolitan region’s decrepit Metro heavy rail and bus systems. Such a tax would fall disproportionately on poor families, they argue, taking five times the share of income from the bottom 20% of earners when compared to that of the top 1%.

“It does not make sense to add an extra cost to families who already struggle from stagnant wages, rising housing costs, and Metro fare hikes and service cuts,” says the joint position paper. “Black and Latino families are more likely to be living on low incomes than white families, which means that a sales-tax approach would ask communities of color to devote a greater share of their incomes toward fixing Metro.”

Who, then, should pay for Metro, which requires billions of dollars in maintenance and capital improvements to reverse a vicious cycle of poor service, eroding ridership, and declining fare revenue?

“Those who benefit the most should pay the most, including businesses,” say the think tanks. “A strong Metro is critical to a functioning economy. This suggests that businesses should be expected to shoulder a substantial share of the costs, since their success depends on a strong public transit system.”

All businesses should be expected to contribute, whether they are close to public transit or not, since even businesses not near public transit benefit from the reduced traffic that results from having a strong public transit system. Public transit takes cars off the roads and reduces congestion for those who drive.

The think tanks did suggest, however, that localities might consider imposing the biggest taxes on businesses located closest to Metrorail lines. “While it’s likely that these businesses already face higher rents and property taxes because they are in a desirable location, it’s also the case that these businesses have the most to benefit from a strong Metro system.”

The authors also oppose cost-cutting measures such as reducing hours of operation or cutting low-usage bus lines on the grounds that they would fall hardest on low-wage workers and economically disadvantaged communities.

Bacon’s bottom line: Wow. I would be hard-pressed to devise a way of thinking more diametrically opposed to my own. My core principle is that all modes of transportation should be self-supporting to the greatest extent possible, and that those who benefit from a transportation asset should be the ones who pay for it.

The most immediate beneficiaries of the Metro system are the riders — the people who actually use it. In an ideal world, fare box revenue would cover all operating expenses. Politically, that is impossible, of course. A major cause of Metro’s slow-motion fiscal train wreck is that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has kept fares excessively low for years, largely on the grounds that higher fares would harm the poor and minorities. Decades of under-funding have led to the situation WMATA now finds itself in.

The absurdity of holding down fares is that it subsidizes fares for the non-poor as well as the poor. If the think tanks and WMATA board members really want to help the poor, then they should find a mechanism that targets low-income people rather than subsidize all Metro riders equally. To the extent that Metro rail serves suburbanites commuting to work in the region’s urban core, many are well-off and can readily afford a fare increase.

The second set of beneficiaries is not the generic business community. While businesses may benefit from proximity to Metro stations, they pay for that location through higher rent. The real beneficiaries are the property owners. A respectable body of thought says that heavy rail can be financed through “value capture” — capturing the increased value of the real estate created by building a Metro station. That value represents a windfall to the property owner who did nothing to create it. Insofar as property owners near Metro stations can charge higher rents, it is reasonable to ask them to pay a real estate tax surcharge out of their higher cash flow. But that’s not what the think tanks are arguing. They advocate charging everyone, including tenants who are already paying higher rents to landlords for the privilege of proximity to Metro.

While it may be true in a very general sense that businesses benefit indirectly from the construction and operation of mass transit, that is no justification for compelling them to subsidize Metro service. Businesses benefit from people having food to eat — why not make them subsidize grocery stores? Businesses benefit from people knowing how to read — why not make them subsidize schools? Businesses benefit from the digital revolution — why not make them subsidize the cost of PCs, laptops and smart phones?

Subsidizing everyone to benefit the poor becomes an opaque and open-ended handout. If left-leaning think tanks want the poor to have more money, perhaps they should help elected officials create a program that precisely targets lower-income Americans and appropriates funds annually in a transparent process visible to all.

Richmond’s New Growth Corridor

Pulse construction on West Broad Street. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch.

In 1950, the population high water mark for many American cities, about 230,000 people lived in the city of Richmond. A few years later, when the city annexed a large swath of Chesterfield County, population peaked around 250,000. Then, as suburbanization took hold and average household size shrank, the population declined steadily over the following decades to less than 200,000.

After a half-century of decline, the city’s demographic fortunes kicked into growth gear again. As young people and empty nesters flocked to the metropolitan region’s urban core, the population rebounded to 210,000 by 2015.

That upward trend is far from spent, says Mark Olinger, the city’s planning director. Indeed, if no big issue arises, such as a spike in the crime rate, he says, “I can see the city getting up to 300,000 by 2037.”

If he’s right, such a surge would represent one of the biggest booms in the city’s 235-year history. The idea is not implausible. Following a national pattern, Millennials crave the excitement of life and work at the urban center, real estate developers are building housing to accommodate them, and employers are following the workforce. The real estate action in the Richmond metropolitan area right now is in the city, not the once-dominant suburban counties of Henrico and Chesterfield.

The big question is how long the boom can continue. Much of the new housing stock has come from the conversion of old warehouses and industrial buildings, fueled by historic tax credits. As the stock of old buildings gets used up, it is harder to find locations to build. The omnipresent NIMBY impulse restricts any development that would change the character of established residential neighborhoods.

One way to avoid the NIMBYs is to focus growth in aging commercial corridors that have long been separated from established residential neighborhoods — in particular, the Broad Street corridor west of downtown. West Broad was developed according to standard suburban zoning codes with large lots, loads of parking, and one- and two-story buildings. For the most part, the architecture is hideous and not worth saving. Historic preservationists will not get exercised to see it bulldozed.

Last month Richmond City Council effectively designated West Broad as a major growth corridor by adopting a zoning framework that allows for development at significantly higher density in a true urban pattern. City officials hope that the opening of the $53 million Pulse bus rapid transit line this fall will jump-start re-development along the corridor, especially around the transit stops. In turn, higher-density development will feed ridership to the system and support it financially.

The economic justification for the Pulse suggested that the BRT system would generate $1 billion in additional assessed property value. The way Olinger talks, that estimate is conservative. He sees tremendous potential for the stretch along West Broad around the Cleveland Street,  Science Museum, and Allison Street stops. This “Greater Scott’s Addition area,” as he calls it, encompasses about 700 acres — roughly twice the size of Richmond’s famed Fan district. At present, the assessed value of property in Scott’s Addition is roughly $850 million, while that of the Fan is between $2.3 billion and $2.5 billion.

According to AreaVibes,com, the Fan district has a population of about 13,000. Extrapolating from Olinger’s property assessment numbers, re-developing Greater Scott’s Addition at Fan densities would accommodate 75,000 additional people and add some $3 billion to $4 billion in assessed value to the city’s tax rolls. Is that remotely realistic?

The Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia forecasts that the four core localities of the Richmond Metropolitan Area — Richmond, Chesterfield, Henrico, and Hanover — will gain 193,000 people by 2040. The UVa group expects the city of Richmond to account for only 20,000 of that increase. But demographic forecasts tend to project trend-lines from the past, missing inflection points caused by emergent influences such as the construction of the Pulse and rezoning of the Broad Street corridor.

To realize Olinger’s aspirations, the city must get the details right. Transit-oriented development requires more than mass transit and mid-rise buildings. The glue that ties the two together is the streetscape. People won’t walk quarter- to half-mile distances to BRT stations unless the streets are inviting to pedestrians. And right now, the Broad Street corridor is a relic of ’50-s, 60’s- and 70s-era suburban, autocentric design, violating almost every principle of walkabilty.

Acutely aware of the discrepancy between vision and reality, Olinger says the city will make significant commitments to West Broad walkability in coming years. Under the new zoning code, buildings will help define the pedestrian zone. Building entrances will face the street. Commercial uses will be closer to the street; residential uses will be set back slightly (though less than under a suburban zoning code) to foster privacy and create semi-private spaces. The code will discourage monolithic building facades and encourage lively, varied sotre and office fronts. Landscaping will help define a “streetwall” to mitigate disruption caused by surface parking lots. Indeed, the code aspires to move surface parking off West Broad Street-facing lots into underground parking or behind-the-building lots.

The state will provide $6 million for streetscape improvements over “the next few years,” and private interests will contribute millions more. Whole Foods, which would build a new store on West Broad Street as part of a C.F. Sauer redevelopment project, has created a one-block streetscape plan it is willing to pay for, says the planning director. “They want to make that whole stretch look good.”

Broad Street has fairly wide sidewalks — sidewalks are 18 feet wide in the area near the proposed Sauer redevelopment — which provides a lot of room to work with. The sidewalks can accommodate trees, outdoor dining, and street furniture. Olinger talks about re-orienting the street lights, now used to illuminate traffic lanes, to provide pedestrian-oriented sidewalk lighting instead. At this early stage of re-development, he does not foresee spending public money on fancy crosswalks and brick sidewalks, which are nice but not essential to the pedestrian experience. “We want to make streets inviting to walk — comfortable, safe, and engaging,” he says.

Under the new zoning code, West Broad Street will have its own unique, corridor-like look-and-feel distinct from surrounding neighborhoods. Maximum building heights will be lower on the south side of WestBroad, with its established residential neighborhoods, but could rise as tall as 12 floors on the north side. Four- to five-story buildings would be the norm. “We’re creating this corridor as its own place,” says Olinger.

The challenge is getting from West Broad Street as it is constituted now — largely a walkability wasteland — to the urban corridor Olinger envisions. It would be hard for a private developer to justify plopping down a 12-story building next door to a fast-food joint or auto parts store. The best bet for early re-development is in the Great Scott’s Addition area, where considerable mixed-use investment is taking place already, and near the Science Museum, a major civic landmark. If early projects succeed in attracting tenants and residents, they will attract imitators up and down the corridor.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Richmond has going for it right now is the lack of effective competition from Henrico or Chesterfield. The political establishments of both counties understand that they need to update their zoning codes to allow the kind of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that people increasingly desire, but they are literally two years or more behind the city in allowing such development on a wide scale. Don’t be surprised if Richmond plays fast catch-up with its prosperous neighbors in growing its population and tax base.

Yippee! Traffic Accident Stats Now Viewable Online

DMV crash map of western Henrico for 2017.

The Department of Motor Vehicles has posted on its website an awesome tool that allows website visitors to explore the geographic location of traffic accidents by individual city and county. You can drop back for a macro overview, as seen in the map of western Henrico shown above, or zoom in to examine precise specific intersections, as seen in the image at left.

Another cool feature is the ability to filter accidents by cause. Was alcohol involved? Were the drivers young (between 15 and 20?) How many accidents could be blamed on cell phones? How many involved deer? Incorporation data going back to 2013, the map can isolate data by single year.

This is a useful tool for citizens who might want to know how accident-prone are the streets and roads near where they live or work, and whether factors such as drinking, teen drivers, or cell-phone distraction were involved. The Crash Locations Map also is potentially useful — though it could be made better, as I’ll explain — for wonks like me who like to examine the relationship between law enforcement, land use and transportation.

On that point, I have long held to a commonly asserted Smart Growth claim that cities are safer than suburbs when it comes to surface transportation. Sure, cities are more densely packed, but city streets are typically less congested than county arterials and feeder streets thanks to the more even distribution of cars across a network of grid streets. That’s the theory.

However, the urban City of Richmond has experienced a higher accident rate (as expressed by automobile accidents per 1,000) than its neighbor, suburban Henrico County, so far this year. The accident rate is 13.2 accidents per 1,000 residents in Richmond compared to 9.9 accidents in Henrico.

It’s possible that the rate of the worst accidents — injuries and fatalities, as opposed to fender benders — are higher in Henrico. That’s what one might predict from the deadly-suburbs hypothesis. It stands to reason that higher posted speeds on county roads make accidents more prone to injuries and fatalities.

Alas, while the maps do display accidents resulting in injuries and deaths, the search tool does not allow users to filter specifically for those attributes. So, as a practical matter, it would be exceedingly tedious to see if the data supports the deadly-suburbs hypothesis.

Nevertheless, the DMV deserves kudos for making its accident data more accessible than it was before and for setting a positive example for other state agencies to follow. Maybe one day, the department will add a search feature that allows readers to view the raw data, filter by accident type, and select for multiple localities for side-by-side viewing. One can always hope.

Another Useless, Irrelevant Debate

Sterile

Ed Gillespie, Republican candidate for governor, has gotten himself in a political pickle. According to press reports, he has been blasting his Democratic rival Ralph Northam for backing the 2013 transportation tax package as “the largest tax increase in Virginia history.” But as Democrats have been pointing out, Gillespie was gubernatorial campaign chairman for Bob McDonnell, who pushed the bill through the General Assembly with significant Republican support.

The criticisms don’t address the substance of what Gillespie is saying — Northam did back the biggest tax increase in Virginia history. But the pushback raises an obvious question: What would Gillespie have done differently? How would he have proposed to fund Virginia’s pressing transportation needs?

Frankly, both Republicans and Democrats are incoherent on the subject of transportation funding. Both sides base their arguments on three untenable propositions: (1) that building more roads or commuter rail will solve our transportation problems, if only we build enough of the right thing; (2) that someone else should pay; and (3) that current transportation solutions will be relevant in the rapidly approaching era of driverless cars, transportation as a service and Uberization of transportation.

Let’s address these issues point by point.

Building more roads and commuter rail will not address transportation congestion unless local governments allow developers to transform what we commonly call “suburban sprawl” into traffic-eating walkable urbanism. Pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used development built at moderate densities substitutes foot travel for car trips, substitutes short car trips for longer trips, and makes mass transit a attractive to more riders.

While this market-driven transformation is taking place in fits and starts — mainly in Virginia’s urban-core jurisdictions and around Washington Metro stops — it is not taking place nearly fast enough. There will never be enough money to provide congestion-free transportation for sprawling, low-density land use patterns.

The second problem is that everyone wants a better transportation system, but no one wants to pay for it themselves. Having long ago abandoned the idea of a user-pays system, Virginia politicians excel at singling out others to pay. The result is an absurd system in which there is no connection between those who use transportation infrastructure (roads and rail alike), and those who pay for it. Thus, 85-year-old, blue-haired ladies who drive 2,000 miles a year pay sales taxes to subsidize road warriors who drive 20,000 miles, Dulles Toll Road users pay inflated tolls so Silver Line riders can enjoy below-cost fares, and everyone subsidizes tractor-trailers whose taxes don’t come close to covering the wear and tear they cause on roads. The perverse result: When people don’t pay the full cost of their travel decisions, they travel more.

The third problem, approaching insanity, is that Virginia continues to build roads and rail on the assumption that driving and commuting patterns will be the same in 20 years as they are today. But that is a manifestly idiotic assumption. The advent of driverless cars will drive down the cost of taxi-like, bus-like and jitney-like transportation services, making shared ridership services a more attractive option. The rise of subscription-based transportation-as-a-service enterprises will provide an alternative to individual automobile ownership. There is no way to forecast with any certainty how these innovations will affect driving habits and the need to build more highways and commuter rail.

The debates that politicians should be having, but aren’t, are these:

  1. How can we relax zoning codes to encourage land use patterns that put less strain on the transportation system?
  2. How can we reform transportation funding to support a user-pays transportation system?
  3. How should Virginia position itself to take maximum advantage of the fast-approaching driverless/electric/transportation-as-a-service revolution?

None of these conversations are occurring. Ed Gillespie isn’t talking about them — but neither are his critics. The debate is more sterile than a mule with a vasectomy. Virginians should demand better.

Officials Celebrate Completion of U.S. 29 Projects

Fun with scissors and ribbons. Governor Terry McAuliffe and other officials celebrate the opening of Berkmar Drive.

More than three years after the Federal Highway Administration halted construction of the Charlottesville Bypass on U.S. 29, state and local officials celebrated yesterday the opening of a package of alternative projects known as the Route 29 Solutions projects, the Daily Progress reports today.

The Bypass was one of the most contentious highway projects of the McDonnell administration. U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville is one of the most congested stretches of highway in Virginia, but many residents opposed the bypass on the grounds that it provided only a stopgap solution. Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) devised a set of alternative projects: spot improvements designed to increase capacity and divert traffic from the highway, which had been clogged by commercial development, stop lights, cut-throughs and curb cuts, for roughly the same amount of money as the Bypass would have cost.

The Route 29 Solutions projects included widening a stretch of U.S. 29; the extension of Berkmar Drive, a parallel road; and installation of a grade-separated intersection at Rio Road, the busiest intersection. The project set an important transportation precedent for Virginia, breaking from the traditional practice of simply building new bypasses around congested stretches of highway.

“To be here now four years later and actually see what is behind us is a tribute to all the folks, the business community, the community groups that came together, all of the folks involved — it truly is extraordinary,” said Governor Terry McAuliffe at the celebrated opening of Berkmar Drive yesterday.

Bacon’s bottom line: While the Bypass would have benefited primarily inter-city motorists seeking to pass around Charlottesville, the Route 29 Solutions benefits all motorists, including those in the Charlottesville area who use the heavily traveled corridor. In providing intense journalist coverage of the Bypass at the time, Bacon’s Rebellion made the case that it offered a low cost-to-benefit ratio in terms of money spent and travel time saved.

It remains to be seen if the Route 29 Solutions package will deliver the promised costs as benefits. As I recall, the master plan also called for improved transit and pedestrian access throughout the corridor. For the corridor to function well over the long run, Albemarle County needs a new vision for land use along the corridor, allowing for an evolution from the sprawl development model to a traffic-reducing Smart Growth model. Whether the Albemarle Board made those changes in the past three years, I do not know.

Even if Albemarle did put the land use piece into place, the work isn’t over. The corridor undoubtedly will require continual adjustments and fine tuning.

It would be nice to know how well the traffic assumptions behind the Route 29 Solutions stand up to reality. Will motorists respond as forecast? Will congestion diminish? Will the payback in reduced travel time justify the money spent? Now that the money is spent, the project can’t be undone. Still, it would be wise for VDOT to collect and analyze that data and examine core assumptions. There are many other congested highway corridors in the Commonwealth, and Virginians can learn from the example of Rt. 29.