Category Archives: Transportation

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


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.

Metro Sales Tax: Bad for Virginia, Worse for Loudoun

by Dave LaRock

The Washington, D.C., Metro system serves three jurisdictions: Maryland, Washington DC and Virginia. The Virginia jurisdiction includes Alexandria, Arlington, Fairfax City, Falls Church, and, starting in 2020, Loudoun County. For several years, D.C.-based interest groups have been pushing for a 1% sales tax increase across the region served by Metro to fill a funding gap currently estimated at $7.5 billion over ten years.

While this may sound like a reasonable proposition to some, when you drill down it becomes clear this is very unbalanced against Virginia and even less equitable for Loudoun County.

Right now there is a funding ratio in place whereby Metro funding needs are divided between the three jurisdictions. This funding ratio is based on track miles, number of stations, ridership, etc. Virginia is assessed 28%, WDC 37% and Maryland 35%. The proposed 1% sales tax would have Virginia paying over half of the money needed to fill the $7.5 billion funding gap. In 2019, Virginia’s share will increase as Loudoun will also start paying a share for the maintenance and operations of the overall system.

But for Loudoun it is far worse. Much of the $7.5 billion funding gap is needed to make repairs that are decades overdue and rightfully should have been completed years before Loudoun joined the partnership. Just to put this in perspective, if Loudoun was a paying member in 2016, the proposed 1% sales tax would have cost Loudoun $74,949,695, and that number is increasing rapidly. In the last 2 years, Loudoun’s sales tax revenue increased 23%; that’s more than the other affected Northern Virginia jurisdictions increased in the last 10 years! If the proposed tax is levied with permission from the General Assembly, Loudoun County would pay at least $80 million per year going forward.

That is a pretty hefty share considering the Metro will only come 1.7 miles to one station past MWAA/Dulles Airport land into Loudoun; MWAA will have 4.9 miles of track and two stations on Dulles Airport land. The total system at that point will be 129 miles with 97 stations. Also realize that Loudoun will not be using Metro’s bus service, and that Loudoun and Fairfax folks are already contributing billions of dollars in tolls and taxes to fund 100% of the Silver line, as well as over one quarter of the 7000 series “New Cars” that will be in service throughout the Metro system by the end of this year.

It is outrageous to ask all Loudoun County residents to pay money into a Metro system every time they purchase a taxable item; most residents use the Metro rarely, if ever.

To a large degree, the high cost of bringing the Metro system to a reasonable state of repair is due to decades of mismanagement. Safety and reliability have plummeted, and so have ridership and revenues. Most of the $7.5 billion total “funding gap” can be attributed to capital projects: WMATA needs new cars and major track refurbishment.

It is essential that as we work to fix Metro, we do not lose sight of the importance of being fiscally responsible and the need to limit taxation. These are basic principles of sound government: Excessive taxation has a negative effect on economic activity and family budgets.

Simply handing more revenues to WMATA without fixing its foundational issues is not a responsible solution. There are significant reforms to Operations and Management that must be made as well. Metro’s new General Manager, Paul Wiedefeld is doing a great job at getting the ball rolling in the right direction, but that’s not enough. Metro has problems that go much deeper than lacking cash. Operating expenses (mostly labor) are growing at nearly twice the rate of revenues and this requires significant changes in the business model. The WMATA Compact binds the three main jurisdictions and governs the management of the system. The Compact is outdated and needs to be revised. In fact, Virginia has already passed multiple revisions which, if accepted by Maryland and WDC, would substantially improve the Compact. Last, but not least, the WMATA Board is too large and is staffed with too many people who do not have the expertise needed to whip the Metro into good shape and keep it that way.

In 2012, Loudoun County supervisors voted 5 to 4 to extend Metro to Loudoun; while doing so, the payment proposition was to cover construction costs by taxing the property around the new rail stations. Fairfax County has a similar arrangement around the Silver Line stations. That is a funding alternative that holds promise. Those who benefit from Metro – riders and station-area developers – and the Federal government should pay to keep the system running.

In closing, the proposed 1% sales tax is bad for Virginia and worse for Loudoun County. Throwing more money at Metro without fixing the WMATA Board and the WMATA Compact ignores Einstein’s observation that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is insanity.

Dave LaRock is a Republican member of the House of Delegates, serving the 33rd District in Loudoun, Clarke and Frederick Counties.

Business Leaders Demand WMATA Governance Reform

An alliance of Washington-region business groups is calling for a fix for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) that would create dedicated funding streams for the Metro rail system and a restructuring of the authority’s board.

Twenty-one chambers of commerce and employers groups outlined the proposal in a letter to the region’s political leaders, reports the Washington Post. The proposal is expected to have influence, the Post says, noting that executives with the signatory businesses are frequent campaign contributors.

WMATA has said it needs at least $500 million a year to restore to functioning condition the commuter rail transit system, which has been plagued by maintenance issues, safety incidents, and declining ridership. The letter signatories did not specify a particular funding mechanism.

“We’re not trying to get into the weeds,” said Bob Buchanan, founder of the 2030 Group, told the Post.

One commonly floated proposal is a region-wide, penny-per-dollar sales tax, but Northern Virginians have objected on the grounds that Northern Virginia would wind up paying more than Maryland and the District of Columbia combined.

Describing the Metro as in a state of “crisis,” the letter linked the creation of a dedicated revenue source toward a revision of the tri-state governing compact and a restructuring of the board. States the letter:

We reiterate our strong conviction that any reform effort must include reforms to WMATA’s governing, financial and operational structures. Reform of any one structure alone will not be sufficient. For instance, additional funding for Metro will only be beneficial if it is accompanied by structural changes that give WMATA’s board the flexibility to effectively allocate resources and staff the flexibility to leverage additional resources to make operational improvements.

Governance reforms include “right-sizing” the WMATA board and requiring directors to have expertise in specialized areas, including transit operations, management, finance and safety.

Bacon’s bottom line: WMATA is critical to the functioning of the Washington metropolitan region. After decades of short-changing maintenance, WMATA needs billions of dollars to remain a viable transportation mode. There is no avoiding the necessity for regional taxpayers to cough up more money to restore the rickety system to health. Washington-area residents have been enjoying the benefit of a heavy-rail transit system for years without paying its full cost — now it’s time to pony up. But given WMATA’s dismal history, the NoVa business leaders are absolutely right to demand reforms that will ensure that any new funds are not mis-spent or frittered away in concessions to WMATA labor unions.

Working out a compromise with Maryland and D.C. won’t be easy, but Virginia’s political leaders need to hang tough.

From Roads to Rail a Great Idea… In Theory

Richard L. Beadles, founder of the Virginia Rail Policy Institute, is dissatisfied with the structure of the U.S. railroad industry. While the rail freight industry has done a good job of moving large volumes of freight long distances, he says, it has yielded the short-haul business to trucks, abandoned thousands of miles of track, and built a system that is to some degree incompatible with passenger rail.

Beadles would like to see more cargo traffic shifting from trucks to rail, thus taking thousands of tractor-trailers off congested highways and reducing energy consumption. And he would like to see more inter-city passenger rail service. The solution, he suggests, is to get government more involved at the federal and state level.

“If rail is going to play a larger role in U.S. transportation, only the public sector can make it happen,” he writes in the May 2017 edition of the Virginia News Letter. “The history of great public-works projects, including the interstate highway system, argues in a most compelling way for a strong public role in rail infrastructure and service planning, augmented with commensurate public funding.”

Beadles calls for setting up a statewide Rail Development Authority. If airports, ports, toll roads, bridges and tunnels all have authorities, he says, publicly sponsored inter-city railroad projects should have one, too. “In the long run, a rail authority will be required for the very same reasons that the highly successful Virginia Port Authority was created year ago. The sooner it is created, the better for the public.”

Setting up a rail authority is not an inherently unreasonable idea, although there could be turf issues with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit, the state agency that currently handles inter-city rail matters. Transferring DRPT’s inter-city rail functions and revenue sources to a quasi-independent authority would avoid bureaucratic redundancy. But it’s not clear from Beadles’ account what an authority could accomplish that DRPT does not.

A more interesting philosophical issue is where the money would come from to fund an expanded role for rail. Beadles makes essentially the same argument that backers of mass transit do — that roads and highways are subsidized, so why shouldn’t rail and transit be, too? Writes Beadles:

Virginia appears at first glance to have a public-policy commitment to raise the necessary revenues from users of highways via fuel taxes, supplemented by other fees and charges. In 1986, a landmark transportation funding package brought the “half-cent for transportation” supplement to the state sales taxes. With the effect of inflation over two decades, the “half-cent” has become a major component of highway funding revenue. Thus even a senior citizen in a retirement community, without an automobile, is now paying into the state transportation revenue pot. And now, with the 2007 General Assembly “solution” to future transportation requirements, part of the funding package includes General Fund money.

Beadles is absolutely right about this. Virginia has abandoned the pretense that roads and highways should be self-funding through a gasoline tax and other auto-related taxes. Not only is asphalt-based transportation subsidized in innumerable ways, freight trucking is subsidized by other drivers; tractor-trailers do not pay taxes sufficient to cover the cost of the wear and tear they inflict upon highways. Thus, they enjoy a doubly unfair advantage over rail.

Of course, passenger rail and mass transit are subsidized, too. Virginia budgeted $52 million for inter-city rail in fiscal 2016. So the debate becomes one of arguing that inter-city rail deserves even bigger subsidies because its goals are so worthy. The trouble with such a debate is that there is no practical way to determine what level of support is economically appropriate.

When it comes to paying for roads, bridges and highways, one could devise a Vehicle Miles Driven tax to generate revenues sufficient to maintain the road network. The tax would be adjusted up and down as needed to cover fluctuating maintenance costs. New construction could be paid for through tolls, proffers, impact fees and Community Development Authority bonds. Virginia could construct a pay-as-you-go financing system for roads if the political will existed.

No one has proposed even a theoretical model of how inter-city rail, outside the densely populated Northeastern Corridor and a few connecting lines, could be fiscally self-supporting. At the very least, Beadles needs to demonstrate a positive net social benefit for public rail investments. He comes close with one example — a $40 million contract with Norfolk Southern — but never completes the logic loop.

In 2007 DRPT provided the funds to upgrade Norfolk Southern’s rail line between Manassas and Front Royal with the goal of shifting freight traffic from Interstate 81 to Norfolk’s Southern’s rail network. Under the contract, the rail company is required to divert 76,000 trucks per year above current levels by 2023. That sounds like a lot of trucks. But the reduction averages 208 trucks per day, slightly less than 9 per hour. How much do nine trucks per hour create in congestion costs, and how much economic value (less drivers’ time lost to congestion) would be saved by getting them off the road? Alternatively, one might ask what other improvements the state could make with $40 million, and what public benefits would be attained. Was the Norfolk Southern subsidy a good public investment or not? We don’t know — not with the information that Beadles provides.

Investing more public money in rail might make economic sense. But I want to see a stronger case for it. An even better idea would be to let roads and rail, trucks and railroads, compete on a level playing field by making all transportation modes operate on a pay-as-you-go basis. I have more faith in truckers and railroaders than politicians to make decisions that make economic sense.

$150 Million a Year More for WMATA? Good Luck with That!

Source: Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit. (Click for larger image.)

Downstate Virginia legislators are inclined to block increased capital funding for Washington’s dysfunctional heavy-rail commuter system unless the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) undertakes serious structural reforms.

WMATA officials say they need about $15.5 billion for capital spending over the next 10 years to work through a massive backlog of deferred maintenance. Virginia’s state-government share would be about $150 million a year over and above the $200 million it allocates annually to operations and capital spending.

“I want value. I’m willing to deliver,” said state Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham, in a meeting of the Senate Finance Committee yesterday, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “But I want to see problems solved. And all too often when we talk about solving problems, the easy way to solve it is just throw more money at it. It’s a workplace problem; it’s an efficiency problem.”

Convincing constituents that giving Metro more money is a hard sell when in his district the Robert O. Norris Bridge “is literally falling into the river,” said Sen. Ryan T. McDougle, R-Hanover. “How is it that I can go to my people and say, ‘We’re going to spend money on an organization where we have no control from the state, we have no say so in the administration based on the board is put together? … There’s no way I can justify a vote to spend that kind of money for an entity that we have this little control over and is refusing to change how that structure is done.”

(For the record, the Robert O. Norris Bridge is not “literally” falling into the Rappahannock River. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne told the committee that the state does not even consider it to be structurally deficient.)

Ray LaHood, the former U.S. Transportation Secretary chosen by Governor Terry McAuliffe to review WMATA’s performance and governance, told the Finance Committee that he is trying to develop consensus around four areas: WMATA’s governance structure, its funding structure, its legacy labor costs, and maintenance.

The current management team has cut 1,000 of 1,300 WMATA workers, mostly nonunion employees and tightened ethics and nepotism policies. Also, said LaHood, “We’re going to try to fix the governance part so you feel you do have a voice. We can figure out how to fix your bridge and have a good transportation — Metro system — in Washington, D.C., that you can be proud of.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Obenshain and McDougle are absolutely right. Virginia should not fork over one red cent until WMATA can prove it won’t become a fiscal black hole. It appears that the new management team has taken some important steps with the nonunion workforce, but the real challenge will be extracting major concessions from the union. If it chooses to strike, the union can virtually shut down Washington, D.C. The only way — the only way — for Virginia legislators to stiffen management’s spine in a confrontation is to withhold that $150 million a year.

Even if WMATA delivers needed reforms, pumping another $150 million a year into the authority would aggravate an already lopsided distribution of rail and transit revenues.

As can be seen in the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transit’s fiscal 2017 budget atop this post, DRPT hands out a total of $437 million a year in grants to cover operational expenses and capital spending for rail, buses and handicapped transportation around the state. Of that amount, $303 million already goes to Northern Virginia. Adding another $150 million a year to that sum would favor Northern Virginia even more lopsidedly — boosting its share from 69% of the DRPT budget to 77%.

Where would the money come from? Shifting money from inside the DRPT budget would eviscerate non-WMATA programs, most of them downstate. Most likely the money would have to come from road & highway spending. Virginia Department of Transportation funds allocated to construction spending in fiscal 2017 amount to about $802 million. Taking the WMATA money from roads & highways would reduce construction spending by 19%. Not just one year, but for 10 years.

Even Northern Virginia lawmakers might balk at that.

A Business-Like Approach to Paying for I-87

Proposed route of I-87 linking Raleigh and Norfolk.

Proposed route of I-87 linking Raleigh and Norfolk.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, is the Republican candidate you’d almost forget was running for governor were it not for the occasional newspaper article like the one in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch. He doesn’t have Ed Gillespie’s financial resources, and he lacks Corey Stewart’s penchant for controversy. But he’s out there, plugging away. As a long-time legislator, his ideas deserve a hearing.

Some of his ideas make sense. He is a fiscal conservative disinclined to gamble with big spending schemes or tax cuts that could disrupt the state budget. “This is not the federal government,” he said at a recent reception in Mathews County. “We cannot print money. We have to balance budgets day in and day out every day.”

But some of his ideas need work. His proposal for jump-starting the economy is to increase transportation spending. Because he’s a fiscal conservative, he would finance that spending through a tax hike, shifting to a sliding scale in which gasoline taxes are higher when the retail price of gasoline is lower, and taxes are lower when the price of gasoline rises.

In the article, Wagner elaborated on his thinking about transportation as a driver of economic development:

Virginia’s transportation network does not foster economic growth, he said, and the state will fall further behind North Carolina without major improvements. For one, North Carolina is planning a highway to connect Raleigh and the research Triangle to Norfolk and the port.

“That’s what business-people do,” Wagner said. “They make strategic investments and expect a return on that investment.”

Another thing business people do is conduct cost-benefit analyses before they make big investments. If anyone has conducted a reputable cost-benefit analysis of Interstate 87 between Raleigh and Norfolk, you can’t find it on the website of the Triangle’s Regional Transportation Alliance (TRA). (If someone knows of such a study, please let me know.) By way of justification, the RTA offers gassy language about investment that would accrue to North Carolina communities along the route (without acknowledging that communities not on the route might see investment shrink) and make it easier for tourists up north to reach the Raleigh area.

The singular virtue that I can see in I-87 is that half the proposed route is already constructed to Interstate standards. Supposedly, the 213-mile Interstate would cost only $1 billion to build. By eye-balling the map, I’d guesstimate that North Carolina would be responsible for building and maintaining 90% of the length. If North Carolina wants to waste its money, well, what the heck, maybe Virginia should be willing to throw in a few bucks to open up a new route for truck shipments from Virginia ports.

But that’s all back-of-the-envelope thinking. The acid test of whether such a project would be an economic boon or drain is whether it could support itself through tolls. Is there sufficient demand for a Norfolk-to-Raleigh connection — perhaps from trucks emanating from the Port of Virginia — that it could pay its own way? If so, and if private sector concessionaires were willing to put their own money into a public-private partnership, I’d be inclined to support the project. Conversely, if business people look at the project and decline to invest their own funds, then I’d be inclined to think that I-87 is just another boondoggle backed by civic boosters angling for Some One Else’s Money.

If Wagner really wants to do like business people do, perhaps he should get business people to pay for the project — and not raise Virginians’ taxes.

John Fishwick Takes on Railroad Mogul in “CSX Train Robbery”

Roanoker John Fishwick launches effort to block "repulsive" compensation package for CSX CEO.

Roanoke attorney John Fishwick launches effort to block “repulsive” compensation package for CSX CEO.

John P. Fishwick, Jr., grew up in a railroading family. His father, after whom he was named, was president of the Norfolk & Western Railway before it merged with the Southern Railway to become Norfolk Southern. The younger Fishwick established a law career in Roanoke, working as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia in the Obama administration and then starting his own law firm.

But he never lost his fascination with railroads. He has taken up a new cause, blocking the out-sized compensation package of Hunter Harrison, a 72-year-old executive hired by CSX Corp. As a CSX shareholder, Fishwick objects to the company reimbursing Harrison $84 million in compensation he forfeited by leaving Canadian Pacific.

Harrison’s claim to fame is implementing the concept of “precision railroading” to boost profitability of Canadian Pacific. In precision railroading, a railway company monitors, tracks and optimizes rail car and locomotive utilization, allowing more efficient deployment of assets and enabling customers to better plan for shipment arrivals and departures. In merger talks with Norfolk Southern last year, Canadian Pacific dangled the prospect of improved investment returns by implementing precision railroading throughout Norfolk Southern’s rail system. Harrison dropped the Norfolk Southern bid in the face of stiff resistance. Then a few months later, with the backing of outside financiers, he took over as CEO at CSX, Norfolk Southern’s main rival for railroad traffic in the eastern U.S.

Fishwick has created a Facebook page and launched an effort to block Harrison’s compensation package. “By forcing the resignation and termination of long-term employees, while at the same time paying a new CEO exorbitant pay which he voluntarily forfeited by leaving his previous job, CSX is crushing the morale of CSX employees,” he wrote in a letter addressed to other shareholders.

Furthermore, he argues, CSX could be liable for Harrison’s back taxes, which could amount to “a few tens of millions of dollars,” and could expose itself to a Canadian Pacific lawsuit. “We the shareholders deserve to know that someone at CSX has fully reviewed Mr. Harrison’s contract with Canadian Pacific and can explain the non-compete clause in this contract.”

Finally, Fishwick charges, CSX over-estimates the value of Harrison’s expertise in precision railroading.

Precision railroading is Mr. Harrison’s calling card and it seems to focus on running the trains on time and getting better routes. This does not appear to be that unusual a strategy and is not patented. Surely someone else could execute this strategy just as well and far more cheaply.”

The CSX annual shareholders meeting is scheduled to be held June 5 in Richmond. It should be interesting.