Category Archives: Transportation

Snuff Out the Smart-Scale Revolt before it Grows

True, I-95 traffic north of Fredericksburg is a nightmare. But circumventing Smart Scale to widen the interstate for 44 miles is a bad idea.

Smart Scale prioritizes road and highway projects in Virginia by collecting metrics for congestion, safety, the environment, economic development and other indicators. Ideally, the scores ensure that scarce road construction dollars will be allocated on the basis of merit, not political pull.

But Smart Scale isn’t working for the Fredericksburg area, argues a Free Lance-Star editorial. A stretch of Interstate 95 between Fredericksburg and the Springfield interchange in Fairfax County has been identified as the location of two of the worst traffic hotspots in the country. Writes the newspaper:

The Virginia Department of Transportation … needs to prioritize the 44-mile project.

VDOT’s Six Year Improvement Program does include $125 million for the southbound Rappahannock River Crossing project, but the last round of Smart Scale did not recommend funding the corresponding northbound river crossing, much less the two-lane expansion Cole envisions.

Instead, Smart Scale directs millions of limited transportation dollars to less-urgent projects, such as pedestrian trails, bike lanes and commuter parking lots.

For 2018, VDOT has greenlighted seven projects in the Fredericksburg District, which includes turn lanes, intersection reconstruction and improving commuter parking lots totaling more than $10 million. Another $14.4 million project will widen Exit 126 off I–95 and Route 1 at Southpoint Parkway.

There’s nothing wrong with these projects. But when they take priority over keeping traffic flowing on the busiest interstate highway in the nation, there’s something wrong with Smart Scale.

Del. Mark Cole, R-Stafford, has introduced a bill for the 2018 General Assembly session that would add an additional north and southbound lane to Interstate 95 from Massaponax to the Springfield interchange: ““Such project shall be funded from existing appropriations to the Commonwealth Transportation Board and shall not be subject to the [Smart Score] prioritization process.”

The changes of the bill passing are just about nil. Why would any other legislator wish to privilege Cole’s transportation priority over their own? Passing this bill would open the floodgates for other legislators asking for exemptions for their own pet projects, effectively scrapping Smart Score as an objective means for funding road projects.

I will readily concede that the aforementioned stretch of I-95 is a nightmare. While I don’t commute on I-95, I use it with some regularity to visit my mother in Fredericksburg and my son in Fairfax. The logjams are so frequent and so bad that I periodically vow to never travel that way again. However, while adding lanes would alleviate congestion temporarily, there is ample evidence to suggest that improving travel times would induce more people to live in Stafford/Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania and commute to work in Northern Virginia. Without changing land use patterns, spending billions of dollars on congestion relief would achieve only temporary benefits.

Adding two more lanes for such a distance would cost billions of dollars. The Smart Scale methodology forces us to compare high-profile mega-projects like widening I-95 to smaller projects that may create more value for the money invested. The small projects don’t generate nearly as much attention, but there are a lot of them, and they add up. Smart Scale represents a big advance over the way Virginia used to allocate transportation dollars. We need to keep it, and that means saying no to legislators who want to carve out special exemptions.

Do Metrorail and Virginia Railway Express Really Boost Virginia Tax Revenues by $600 Million?

by Robert Martin

The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) issued a press release on September 5 of this year claiming that Metrorail and Virginia Railway Express (VRE) boost state revenues by $600 million. This “revenue boost” shows that Virginia’s investment in rail transit provides a 250 percent return on investment, according to the press release. The NVTC is charged with the funding and stewardship of those two agencies in Virginia, so this claim may not be completely unbiased.

The press release is being used to argue that, based on the “boost” in tax revenues, Metro and VRE are good investments for Virginia taxpayers and warrant additional funding.  The information contained in the press release does not justify those claims.  Unfortunately, the “study” announced in the press release is not available from the NVTC website nor has it been provided to the NVTC Commissioner who requested I review this “study,” although the Executive Summary is available.  This article will address the claim that Metrorail and VRE boost state revenues by $600 million.

The “study” finds that Metrorail and VRE are responsible for 130,500 jobs and 85,000 households deciding to locate in Northern Virginia. They argue that, absent Metrorail and VRE, many jobs and households would be relocated outside Northern Virginia because of the added traffic congestion resulting from a shutdown of the two systems.

Undoubtedly, Metro and VRE do reduce congestion somewhat, but the premise that without them economic development in the area would halt or even decline is patently absurd.  The easiest proof is that ridership on Metro has declined from 750,000 a day in 2008 to 639,000 a day in 2016 without any apparent slowdown in the local economy or reduction in tax revenue.

People and businesses choose locations based on many factors including housing prices, school quality, taxes, the quality of the labor pool and, of course, transportation options. A slight increase in travel time (the study estimated about a 5% increase) would make the area somewhat less attractive. On the other hand, the current tax burden of supporting the systems and any further increases to fund their ever-increasing costs makes the area less attractive. Virginia (state and local) contributes about $282 million a year to Metro according to the FY 16 budget, which works out to nearly $1,500 for every rider.

The heart of the study is the “finding” that if Metrorail and VRE were removed, traffic congestion would increase. This is certainly true. About 200,000 Virginians ride Metro every day, some thousands from Washington, D.C., and Maryland commute to jobs in Virginia, and 20,000 riders use VRE. The study models the impact of those trips as if they were shifted from Metrorail to existing bus service & highways. They estimate that if trip times remain the same, travelers will make 5% shorter trips, a fancy way of saying travel times will increase about 5%.

It is impossible to evaluate the methodology and assumptions used in these models without the complete study. However, it is likely travel times increase by some non-trivial amounts, and the results seem reasonable. The problem is the study’s implicit assumption that, as a result of the increase in travel times, 130,500 jobs and 85,000 households will relocate from Virginia. Further, the study estimates that “the land use supported by Metrorail and VRE generates over $600 million in general fund revenues”.  The study does not provide information on how it got from lost jobs and households to the $600 million, but notes that “this is 3 to 4 percent of the $18.2 billion collected in the state in fiscal 2016.” Absent some explanation of the methodology, that number appears questionable. And remember, this assumes these jobs and households would be lost in the face of a 5% increase in the average commute time of 30 minutes, less than 2 minutes (though rail riders undoubtedly have longer average commutes than most others).

Now, let us consider the flaws in these assumptions. First, if Metrorail were to shut down, Virginia could invest another $300 million or so a year in better roads and bus service, which may well eliminate the loss of jobs and households by ameliorating the congestion. Secondly, the distribution of jobs and residences reflects the existing transportation system. In its absence, some people and jobs would move to optimize their location in the new environments, also mitigating the impact, especially as time passes – it would take some time for these changes. Zoning changes could also mitigate the impact.

The study also seems to take credit for development around Metro stations. While partially correct in some areas, Tyson’s was a major employer before Metro arrived and current rail ridership is only about 7,000 a day, probably less than 10% of employment in the area. Closing Metro might lead to another Tyson’s Corner being created in other areas with equally good highway access. Route 28 is a good example of significant development without rail access but good highway access.

If bus service were improved, much of the high rail ridership in Arlington and Alexandria could be captured. It should be noted that the large number of Federal employees riding Metrorail are heavily subsidized. If that subsidy were eliminated or cut, ridership and hence presumed transit benefit, would drop. Indeed, future federal support of Metro and VRE should not be taken for granted as Virginia may have to bear even more of the subsidy burden, further reducing any benefits to the state.

None of this addresses the biggest Metro problem – the drop in ridership. Ridership in 2008 was about 750,000 a day; in 2016 it was 639,000, even though the Silver line came on line, as did two stations in Maryland. Based on the study’s assumptions, the drop in ridership should have halted all growth in jobs and housing in the area, since traffic would have become much worse – but it didn’t.  That proves the error of their model assumptions, overlooking changes people make to respond to removal of a transit option.

Further, the authors ignore all the factors working against Metro regaining ridership, including growth in alternate work schedules, telework, availability of Uber and Lyft, and the advent of autonomous vehicles.

Without seeing the full report, it must be concluded that this is clearly something put together to support increased funding for a failing Metro system — funding that will have to be increased regularly in the future unless major changes are made in how Metro operates.

Robert Martin, a retired transportation economist, held various positions in the U.S Department of Transportation related to rail and transit economics and policy. The article was first published in the Jefferson Policy Journal.

Virginia’s Top 10 Stories (Told and Untold) of the Year

Phew! I finally made it through the all-consuming Christmas season, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. Christmas is a wonderful but grueling time of year for the Bacon family, marked by numerous feasts, expanding waistlines, excessive gift giving, shrinking bank accounts, and considerable out-of-town travel to distant relatives. But I’m back in the saddle at the Bacon’s Rebellion global command headquarters and eager to get the blog cranked back up.

Many publications publish a retrospective look at the “Top 10 Stories of the Year.” I have never done this at Bacon’s Rebellion, but perhaps it is time. A few obvious candidates for the Top 10 stories in Virginia’s political-public policy realm come to mind. Please feel free to add, subtract, modify or opine upon this list in the comments.

  1. Republican wipe-out in the November 2017 election. In a wave election driven largely by anti-Trumpism, voters obliterated the seemingly insurmountable Republican majority in the House of Delegates and elected Democrats to all three statewide offices. The Northam administration will look and act a lot like the McAuliffe administration, but it will have more friends in the legislature.
  2. Civil War statues and the Charlottesville riot. Virginia became the cockpit of U.S. culture wars and the debate on race as national and local media alike fixated on statues that memorialize Civil War generals. The controversy exploded as outsiders flocked to participate in, and oppose, the United the Right rally in Charlottesville.
  3. Virginia’s lagging economy. The U.S. economy gained momentum during the first year of the Trump administration, but Virginia’s economy, once a national growth leader, continues to under-perform. Caps on military spending have hobbled growth in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Virginia’s rural, mill-town economy continues to struggle. Governor Terry McAuliffe has shined as the superlative state salesman, but his policies have not budged economic fundamentals.
  4. Dominion on the defensive. Dominion Energy, a dominating political presence in Virginia, was a big loser from the election, as an unprecedented wave of anti-Dominion politicians was elected to the General Assembly. Despite making great progress toward solar energy, the electric utility found itself under attack for its rate freeze, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and coal ash disposal. In a dramatic, end-of-year gambit, Dominion proposed upgrading its transmission and distribution systems to a more resilient, renewable-friendly smart grid.
  5. Higher-ed mobilizes to defend status quo. The year began with sharp criticism of Virginia’s public colleges and universities for runaway costs, tuition and fees. The year closed with an industry P.R. blitz highlighting the link between higher ed and economic development. Virginia is nowhere near a consensus on how to balance the competing imperatives of affordability, access, workforce development, and R&D-driven innovation.
  6. Death spiral for Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges in Virginia entered the year in a slow-motion death spiral due to internal flaws and contradictions. Policies enacted by Congress and the Trump administration accelerated their swirl into oblivion, while offering nothing obvious to replace them. The election of Democrat Ralph Northam will renew the debate over expansion of Medicaid, all but guaranteeing that the focus in Virginia will be on the zero-sum question of who pays for health care rather than how can we improve productivity and outcomes in order to lower costs for the benefit of all.
  7. Interstate 66 and HOT lanes. The McAuliffe administration advanced its signature contribution to Virginia’s transportation infrastructure by developing major upgrades to Northern Virginia’s I-66 transportation corridor. The opening of HOT lanes inside the Beltway erupted in controversy over the fairness and effectiveness of using dynamically priced tolls to ration scarce highway capacity.
  8. Accountability in K-12 education. By some measures, Virginia’s system of public schools made progress in 2017 but by other measures it continued to struggle. One of the most important trends, neglected by the media, is the continued effort by state bureaucrats to use Standards of Learning tests to hold local schools accountable and the continued gaming of the rules by local officials to avoid accountability. Meanwhile, revisions to disciplinary policies to advance social justice concerns has undermined school discipline and made a difficult job — teaching disadvantaged kids — even more difficult. The breakdown in discipline makes it ever harder to recruit teachers to the most challenging schools.
  9. Salvaging the Metro. The Washington Metro heavy rail system needs billions of dollars to compensate for past failures to invest in maintenance, even as it struggles with union featherbedding, declining ridership, and an unwieldy governance structure. Representatives from Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government can’t seem to agree on much. Metro is critical for the functioning of the Northern Virginia economy, but Virginia wants to see labor and governance reforms before coughing up billions of dollars to prop up a failing system that, lacking those reforms, inevitably will come back and ask for more in the future.
  10. Turn-around at Virginia’s ports. This end-of-the-year list is gloomy, with an emphasis on crumbling and failing institutions. But there is at least one good news story (which I have neglected to cover on this blog): the revival of the Ports of Virginia. Traffic is booming and profitability has revived.

Yikes, the I-66 Toll Hits $44

Image of the $44 toll captured by commuter Chris Kane and published by the Washington Post.

Uh, oh, the Interstate 66 inside-the-Beltway toll hit a new high — $44 — Thursday morning. That price lasted only six minutes, and Virginia Department of Transportation officials attributed the increased demand along I-66 to congestion at the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge and an incident on Interstate 395 that created a “potential ripple effect.”

Whatever the cause, we can be sure that this will not be the last time that there are ripple effects from congestion at the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge or an accident on I-395.

I know all the arguments in favor of dynamically priced tolls as a tool for rationing scarce highway capacity, and I even agree with them. But I’m also a realist. Politically, $44 tolls for a 10-mile ride will be hard to sustain. While only a tiny fraction of drivers paid that top fare, plenty of other drivers paid $20, $30 or more. Trying doing that day after day — such sums add up fast. Drivers don’t care one whit for economic theory and maximizing utility. All they know is that they’re they’re being robbed while “someone else” is making out like a bandit.

When voters get mad, legislators get mad. When legislators get mad, they do stupid things. This cannot end well.

Actually, Travel Times Are Faster on I-66, VDOT Says

Image credit: Virginia Department of Transportation

Many Northern Virginia motorists and politicians seem to be having mental breakdowns over the opening of HOT lanes on Interstate 66 inside the Beltway. Most notably, they point to the first-day, one-way $34.50 peak toll as an outrage against the driving public. Ironically, though, morning and afternoon commutes were faster during the first four days of HOT lane operation than the same period last year, asserts the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The average toll price during morning rush hour was $10.70 and during evening rush hour $3.80, stated VDOT in a press release issued yesterday evening. Only 39 vehicles paid the posted highest toll of $34.50. A third paid less than $10. And average travel times for the 10-mile route were 10 to 12 minutes compared to 15 to 30 minutes last December.

VDOT analysis also showed that of the 13,307 vehicles that used I-66 Inside the Beltway between 5:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. Monday, 5,082 were carpoolers who traveled free. Traffic was heavier but travel times were comparable during the evening commute the other direction.

“Contrary to the continued political rhetoric of critics, I-66 Inside the Beltway Express Lanes tolls have been based on sound planning and with the ultimate goal of improving travel for everyone,” said Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne. “We want to move more people, improve connectivity and provide additional travel choices. This is about unlocking gridlock on I-66 as Governor McAuliffe pledged.”

VDOT also noted that, except for an incident that closed two or three lanes of traffic on Route 50 Monday evening, travel on parallel roads such as Route 50, Route 29, and Route 7 were “either similar or improved compared with last December.”

The VDOT statement did not address observations that serious delays occurred at points accessing I-66 inside the Beltway.

Bacon’s bottom line: Assuming VDOT is not cherry picking its data, it appears that the HOT lanes are working as advertised, and that the people who are most upset by the HOT lanes are those who were prepared to be upset by HOT lanes to begin with. However, any conclusion is preliminary until the public has had a chance to review and critique the travel data.

Hey, I-66 Whiners: Join a Friggin’ Carpool!

Interstate 66 east at the Capital Beltway in Virginia. Jan. 2016. (WTOP/Dave Dildine)

The Interstate 66 toll lanes opened yesterday in Northern Virginia, and dynamically priced tolls during the morning commute hit $34.50 for the 10-mile stretch from the Beltway to Washington, D.C., reports the Washington Post.

The high price for the tolls — among the highest that drivers have paid for the privilege of traveling on a state-owned highway in the United States, the Post observes — induced the usual hand wringing. Reports the Post:

“I drove onto I-66 around 8:10 this morning to Washington and my one-way toll was $17.25 — which I at first thought I’d misread,” Justin Cole said. “With tolls reportedly climbing to around a daily one-way peak of $34.50, that is going to introduce a real hardship for people on low wages or working in the nonprofit or public sector.”

Others took to social media to express their outrage, with the hashtags #I66tolls and #highwayrobbery trending.

“This is like a bad telethon, watching the number go higher and higher all morning,” tweeted commuter Cameron Gray.

“The tolls on I-66 are being increased so only the 1% can afford to use it. Time to get that private jet,” said another.

“It’s price gouging,” said Virginia Del.-elect Danica Roem (D), who won office last month on a platform that focused on traffic in her suburban Prince William County district. She said she will push to cap tolls in the coming General Assembly session.

“We are talking about $34.50 for a few miles inside the Beltway. That’s clearly price gouging,” Roem said. “Where else in the country do you pay a $34.50 toll to go somewhere?”

I have to say, a $34 toll for a 10-mile trip is extravagantly high. I would never pay it. Here’s a tip to the whiners: Don’t have to pay it either! Just drive on I-66 like you always have! There are no fewer lanes than there were before. Was traffic on I-66 this morning any worse than it was last week? No? Then get over it!

As long as you’re not the person paying them, high toll fares are good news. When the state covers its cost of setting up the HOT lane infrastructure, it will devote surplus revenue to multimodal improvements — buses, Metrorail, bicycle, pedestrian facilities — that take commuters off I-66 and make the highway a little less congested for everyone else.

As for the proposal by Del.-elect Danica Boem, D-Manassas, to cap the tolls, it’s time for an economics lesson. The tolls are driven by demand. If the toll reaches $34, that’s because people are willing to pay that much for a quicker trip. If you cap the toll at, say, $10, too many people will crowd the HOT lanes, and average driving speed could well drop below the guaranteed 45 miles per hour. That would kill the reward for ride sharing, and fewer ride shares would mean more cars on the road.

Carpools, vans and buses get to use the HOT lanes for free. If you really, really, really want to use the HOT lanes, then stop your bellyaching, relinquish your privilege as driver of a single-occupancy vehicle, and join a friggin’ carpool!

The Looming Mass Transit Apocalypse

Outside of a handful of the nation’s largest, densest cities, public transit in the United States is doomed, contends Randal O’Toole, a Cato Institute scholar, in a new analysis, “The Coming Transit Apocalypse.”

Nationally, commuter rail and buses already commandeer $50 billion a year in public subsidies to cover operating expenses, O’Toole says. The cost to the public will only grow as the industry grapples with billions of dollars in maintenance backlogs and unfunded pension and retirement healthcare liabilities. The coup de grace will come within five to ten years as driverless ride-hailing services provide greater convenience — door-to-door service — at roughly the same cost per mile as mass transit.

The industry response to these pressures, says O’Toole says, has been to seek ever bigger subsidies. Rather than throw good money after bad, he advises, municipal governments should plan for an “orderly phase-out” of publicly funded transit services.

O’Toole’s critique of the industry is especially timely for Virginians to ponder as the Commonwealth, along with Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government patch together a rescue package for the fiscally ailing Washington Metro service. Do Virginia taxpayers want to saddle themselves with huge new obligations for a commuter rail and bus system that might not survive the driverless car revolution?

Transit is the most expensive and heavily subsidized form of travel in the United States, O’Toole says. In 2015 transit agencies nationally spent an average of $1.14 per passenger mile (only a quarter of which was passed on to passengers in the form of fares). That compares to 60 cents per passenger mile for Amtrak, 26 cents for driving, and 16 cents for flying. While massive subsidies have helped expand total transit ridership as the population has grown, urbanites are taking fewer transit trips per person than in the past.

Metro is an essential piece of transportation infrastructure in the Washington region, but nowhere near dominant. While Metro accounts for only 3.8% of overall metropolitan travel, according to O’Toole, 17.6% of commuters use it. The percentage rise to 28.1% in the central city.

Mass transit is a marginal contributor in Virginia’s smaller metros. In Richmond, buses accounts of 0.3% of all trips, 1.9% of commuting, and 5.5% of commuting in the central city. The numbers are comparable in Hampton Roads. Light rail and buses account for 0.4% of all travel, 2.0% for commuters, and 5.5% for central city commuters.

The declining price of gasoline in recent years has contributed to a fall-off of mass transit after it peaked briefly in the mid-2000s, says O’Toole. Lower-income people are especially sensitive to the price of gasoline, and when gas prices fall, many switch to automobiles. The fracking revolution has kept U.S. gasoline prices relatively stable in recent years, and O’Toole does not expect that to change any time soon.

Meanwhile, despite massive subsidies, mass transit agencies have racked up a maintenance backlog that federal officials estimated to be $87 billion nationally (in current dollars) in 2010 and $95 billion (in current dollars) in 2015. To eliminate the backlog within 20 years, 100% of funds now spent on improvements would have to be shifted to maintenance, O’Toole says. That shift is unlikely to ever take place, he adds, because politicians show a pronounced bias in favor of “ribbons over brooms” — headline-generating new projects over nitty gritty maintenance work.

Rail infrastructure has an estimated life of 30 years, after which time it needs to be thoroughly rebuilt or rehabilitated to avoid the risks of delays and accidents. Those are precisely the problems that have dogged the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) as it allowed its maintenance backlog to grow, leaving it with $17.4 billion in unfunded capital needs over the next 10 years. As service and safety have deteriorated, the commuter rail system has been experiencing a steady erosion of riders and fares that has intensified the fiscal crunch.

WMATA is facing another disastrous predicament that has garnered relatively little attention: The agency has accumulated $1.027 billion in unfunded pension obligations and $1.767 billion in unfunded health care obligations. Those massive liabilities are over and above the authority’s unfunded maintenance needs.

When driverless cars become a reality, the cost of operating a ride-hailing service will be decline to the cost of operating the car, says O’Toole — about 40 cents per vehicle mile. “Door-to-door driverless service will also be far more convenient than transit, thus making transit inferior to shared driverless cars in every way.”

As riders shift to driverless ride-hailing services, the economics of mass transit will deteriorate even more rapidly: fare revenues will decline, maintenance backlogs will grow, and there will be more schedule delays, more safety incidents, more poorly maintained facilities, and more disillusioned riders.

How can municipal authorities respond to this ticking fiscal time bomb? First, says O’Toole, they can stop building fiscally unsustainable new projects. Second, as rail lines wear out, transit agencies should replace them with cheaper-to-operate buses. Third, plan express buses and bus rapid transit services that share lanes with other traffic rather than rely upon dedicated lanes. Fourth, make a priority of paying down debts and unfunded liabilities. And fifth, instead of subsidizing all passengers, convert subsidies into vouchers for lower-income riders.

Bacon’s bottom line: Predictably, transit agencies will do none of these things. Instead, they will lobby for bigger subsidies. The big question is how much tolerance taxpayers will have for pumping new money into a failed business model. My guess is that taxpayers will continue to be cajoled into paying continued subsidies until such time as driverless cars and jitneys take so much market share from commuter rail and buses that the impending collapse of public transit is obvious to all. Of course, by then, it will be too late to salvage much from the situation.

The only thing that can possibly save mass transit is a rapid evolution toward denser, mixed-use land use s along transportation corridors that would enable rail and bus to serve more riders and generate more fare revenue. That evolution is happening along Washington’s Metro system, but it is a slow, herky-jerky process that speeds up and slows down with business cycles and metropolitan booms and busts. Even then, I am highly skeptical that mass transit could ever pay for itself. If rail loses money in New York, it will lose money everywhere in the U.S. (Yes, yes, I know that roads and highways are subsidized, too, but the subsidies are much smaller per passenger mile. In any case, the road network should move to a pay-as-you-go system just as mass transit should.)

What seems absolutely foolhardy, given what we know now, is to double down on our commitment to new money-losing mass transit projects. State and local governments can sustain the fiscal drain for only so long. When they inevitably have to cut back — read my posts about Boomergeddon — the retrenchment will be all the more painful for riders, transit agencies and taxpayers alike.

NoVa HOT Lane System Nearing Completion. Now What?

Pierce Homer, former Secretary of Transportation

Several years ago I found myself sitting in the office of Pierce Homer, who served as Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation between 2005 and 2010 during the Warner and Kaine administrations. He pointed to a large map in his office showing the multiple spines of the Northern Virginia transportation system — the Interstate 95/395 corridor, the Interstate 66 corridor, the Dulles Toll Road corridor, and the Interstate 495 Capital Beltway. He envisioned a day when there would be tolled HOT lanes on three of the four corridors (with the Metro Silver Line running down the Dulles Toll Road corridor).

Homer’s vision struck me as audacious at the time. No one, to my knowledge, had ever articulated such a goal. The vision was not part of the public discourse about transportation policy at the time. Neither Governor Tim Kaine nor any of his successors ever put forth the scheme to the citizens of Northern Virginia as part of coherent, unified vision of the region’s transportation future.

But within a few years, Homer’s vision will come to fruition. Construction is about to commence on an eight-mile stretch of Interstate 395 to convert high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes into high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. As the Washington Post reports, the $480 million project will “deliver the next major milestone in the state’s vision to create a network of more than 90 miles of HOT lanes in Northern Virginia by 2022.”

About 45 miles of HOT lanes are operating on I-495 and I-95 already. Another 10 miles are scheduled to open on I-66 next month. I-395 will complete the HOT lane-ification of Northern Virginia.

Homer’s vision has been implemented piece by piece throughout three successive gubernatorial administration, two Democratic and one Republican. While individual projects have seen controversy over the details, no one has raised serious objections to the larger architecture. No politician has made it a signature issue to halt the HOT lanes. Given how agitated people get over traffic in Northern Virginia, that’s a remarkable thing.

The HOT lane formula prevailed because Northern Virginia’s transportation options are so constrained. Over the years the region’s highways became so boxed in through sprawling suburban development that the acquisition of right of way to expand the width of the highway corridors became prohibitively expensive. Except in the Dulles corridor, commuter rail wasn’t a serious alternative. Despite carpoolers’ ability to access lightly traveled HOV lanes, shared ridership has been declining. (The jury is out whether Uber can revitalized ride sharing.) But HOT lanes raised toll revenue that could be used to add new lanes in between existing lanes, make interchange improvements, and even subsidize the cost of commuter bus routes. Also, HOT lanes gave time-sensitive motorists the option of buying their way out of traffic gridlock, which took a few cars off the other lanes and rendered them marginally less congested.

Adding HOT lanes was a necessary evolution to the road system that has made driving in Northern Virginia temporarily more tolerable than it would have been without them. As one who makes periodic forays into Northern Virginia, I have used the HOT lanes on occasion. But congestion is a still deterrent to Richmonders venturing to Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. Indeed, I would say based upon my personal experience that driving on I-95 is more gridlock-prone and unpredictable than ever. 

I regard HOT lanes as a palliative that purchased the region a few years’ reprieve from traffic hell but does not address the region’s imbalance in the location of jobs and housing that forces people to commute long distances. As former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor E M Risse used to remind us repeatedly, there is no transportation solution for poor land use policy. Northern Virginia cannot build enough highways, commuter rail, HOV lanes or HOT lanes to fix what ails it. The only long-term solution is to build communities with a better balance of jobs, housing, shopping, public services, and other amenities at the neighborhood and sub-regional scale, and to design communities with sufficient density that people can reach many of their destinations by foot.

If only we had a Pierce Homer of land use policy with a vision of Northern Virginia’s land use future….

How to Inconvenience Drivers and Punish Businesses for No Discernible Reason

Pulse construction on Broad Street — at a location where construction is actually occurring. (Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch)

One of these days, when Richmond’s Pulse service is running buses up and down the Broad Street corridor, and investors are redeveloping properties around the transit stops, Richmonders will be really glad they have a bus rapid transit system. But until then, residents of the entire metropolitan area can be forgiven for roundly cursing the project.

Construction, which began in August 2016, is still ongoing. The contractor hopes to complete work by the end of the year. In the meantime, the city has closed off two lanes (one lane each way) from automobile traffic, significantly adding to the hassle factor of driving on the transportation artery.

This has been a pet peeve of mine from the very beginning. Miles of Broad Street are afflicted with traffic cones. That would be fine if construction work were actually occurring the full length of the corridor. But it’s not. Work appears to be occur, in a most desultory manner, only at a few locations at a time.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to lose any sleep over Henrico resident Jim Bacon incurring an additional five or ten minutes driving time. But the businesses lining the corridor do warrant consideration, and many of them have suffered a marked decline in business. Richmond City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray has proposed compensating those businesses from a $3.2 million pot of money set aside to reward the contractor, Lane Construction, as an incentive for early completion of the project. The prospects of early completion are fading rapidly, so the idea, it seems to me, does have merit.

Putting up with street construction is an inevitable hazard of living in the city — someone always seems to be patching asphalt, accessing water lines, laying cable — and businesses have to grin and bear it. But cordoning off two lanes along miles of Broad Street for nearly a year and a half seems mind-numbingly unnecessary. I can think of no reason why Lane Construction couldn’t close only those street segments it’s working on when it’s doing the work.

Virginia Department of Transportation contractors put down traffic cones when they’re doing work and pick them up when they’re not. Presumably in adherence to VDOT guidelines, they keep lanes open as much as they can. Why can’t Richmond do the same thing?

Gray could do the public a service by tracking down who in the city public works department approved a construction plan that so unnecessarily inconvenienced drivers and hurt local businesses.

Business As Usual in the Old Dominion: Gridlock, Greed and Confusion

After LaHood report, more squabbling over Metro’s future. In the wake of recommendations by former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are edging toward compromises that would reform the ailing mass transit system’s governance system and shore up its financing. LaHood’s proposal to shrink the Metro board from six seats to five is drawing some bipartisan support, and legislation in Congress is being drafted, reports the Washington Post. But suburban jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland, worried about losing their voice on the board, are unhappy with the plan. Also, while LaHood affirmed the need for an additional $500 million a year to work down a massive maintenance backlog, he did not propose how that massive sum might be funded — mainly because there is no consensus for a regional sales tax, the main proposal on the table. Also unaddressed is the not-insignificant matter that Metro really needs an additional $1.5 billion a year, not $500 million, to fix its problems.

Good business if you can get it. (Alternative headline: First, kill all the lawyers.) Richmond has emerged as the preferred venue for bankruptcy trials, reports the New York Times. Toys “R” Us, Gymboree, a West Virginia coal company, and a Pennsylvania fracking company all have filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court there. The federal district court’s so-called rocket docket resolves cases swiftly. Also, precedents in the court’s legal record make it easier for companies to walk away from union contracts. But perhaps the biggest draw is the ability of bankruptcy lawyers to charge outrageous fees — as much as $1,745 per hour. Lawyers advising troubled companies, writes the newspaper, tend to gravitate toward courts that approve higher fees.

Dazed and confused — but mostly confused. A state review of the police response to the chaotic white nationalist protest in Charlottesville in August describes a confused command structure, a breakdown in communication, and uncertainty among officers about the “rules of engagement” with protesters, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The review, led by James W. Baker, a consultant with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, did not address whether or not police were ordered to “stand down” in the face of escalating violence between white supremacists and leftists. Nor did it assign responsibility for the confusion to anyone in the Charlottesville city administration.