A New Generation of Fuzzy Thinkers for Henrico

Henrico County has flipped from a majority-Republican to a majority-Democrat board of supervisors. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. If Democrats nudge the county toward more rational, Smart Growth-like land use patterns — more infill, more density, more mixed use, more walkability — it could be a good thing. If they push the county into ill-thought-out spending initiatives, it could be a bad thing.

Based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage of a two-day board retreat, it looks like spending will top the list. The three Democratic members of the board indicated their desire to expand the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company) Route 19 to the Short Pump retail center at an estimated cost of $800,000 annually.

The purported benefit is greater access for job seekers. Tyrone E. Nelson, representing the Varina district at the east end of the county, said he could not understand why a county with a budget of nearly $1 billion had not yet devoted funds to bring bus service to the employment center. “I still don’t understand why it’s like pulling teeth to get public transportation to Short Pump. This is a 2018 need.”

His fellow Democrats expressed the same sentiment. “We’re not doing enough for job access,” said newly elected Courtney Lynch. “When you look at things we should spend money on, this should be something where we can get creative and get things done.”

Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that helping people gain access to jobs is a worthy goal. We want people to work so they can support themselves and their families. In Henrico County, the poorest residents tend to live in the far east end of the county, far from the affluent Short Pump commercial district where many jobs are available. GRTC already runs buses out Broad Street to Costco, and the expansion would extend the service a few miles more at seemingly modest cost.

That makes sense as a starting point for an inquiry: Hey, extending the bus line just a couple miles more would provide passengers access to a whole bunch of jobs they can’t reach now. Let’s take a closer look and see if it makes economic sense. From what I glean from the Times-Dispatch article and county documents, however, the supervisors skipped that let’s-see-if-it-makes-economic-sense step.

Henrico County Public Works has posted a slide presentation online covering proposed investments in roads, highways, sidewalks, bike trails, and mass transit. The slides contain a lot of information, but not everything that we, as citizens need to reach an informed conclusion. Perhaps the speaker making the slide presentation had more to say about the economics of bus service, but there is no indication of it in the Times-Dispatch article.

Let’s start with the map at atop this post. The big blue circle on the right is Mr. Nelson’s supervisor district. The small blue circle on the left is the Short Pump employment center. To get there, Nelson’s job-seeking constituents must take the bus into downtown Richmond where they would transfer to another bus running out to Short Pump.

The first question is how many passengers avail themselves of the bus service to access retail and service jobs along Broad Street at present? One hundred a day? A thousand? Ten thousand? Presumably, existing passenger loads would give us an order-of-magnitude idea of what might be expected if we extended the line. Alas, existing passenger numbers are not provided.

The more pertinent question is how many additional passengers are projected to avail themselves of the bus service going all the way to Short Pump. Again, in orders of magnitude, are we walking about 100 passengers, 1,000, or 10,000? This would seem to be a critical matter because, if the new service costs $800,000 a year to operate to benefit 100 passengers daily, we’re talking about an annual subsidy of $8,000 per passenger — an extraordinary sum. Why not just buy each passenger a new car? If we’re talking about benefiting 10,000 passengers, then the subsidy is only $80 per passenger, a nominal sum in which the social and tax benefits clearly outweigh the expenditure. If we’re talking about something in between, then the decision is not so clear.

As always, we should ask if there are alternative expenditures of money that would yield greater social benefits. Eight hundred thousand dollars is a nice chunk of change. I were a supervisor representing Nelson’s district, I would convene a meeting of GRTC, Uber, Lyft, Bridj, and other transportation-service companies and ask them, what kind of service could you provide my constituents for $800,000 worth of subsidies? Could you provide more point-to-point service providing more convenient schedules and shorter travel times, making it even easier to make the trip and find a job? Can you come up with a more imaginative solution than simply extending the existing bus schedule?

When such basic questions go unasked, we can be assured that money will be ill spent. Truly, Henrico has entered a new era — from one in which it made lousy land use decisions to one in which it will make lousy spending decisions.

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11 responses to “A New Generation of Fuzzy Thinkers for Henrico

  1. Fuzzy Thinkers? Heckfire !… given the reality that most urban areas are not only Blue but prosperous enough to pay the bills for all those conservative rural unemployed sucking off of Medicaid and other entitlements…

    FEAR the GOP governance with their goofball social ideology that is 100% out of phase with the Millennials and even goofier economic beliefs like cutting taxes for supply-side “economics” and ensuing budget disasters.
    They BORROW MONEY now.. ADD to deficit and debt – for tax cuts… LORDY!

    Lots of warts on the Dems too …tax and spend not the least of, but the bottom line is most urban areas are ‘blue” and prosperous.. compared to the rural. No two ways to look at it. Conservative and rural is a recipe for disaster. Conservative and Urban ? where?

    Henrico and Bacon should THANK THEIR LUCKY STARS that the Dems have taken over now.. and will set Henrico on a Blue Future!

  2. Fairfax County has Democratic Party control over the BoS since the mid 1990s. Economic growth has been very slow for quite a few years. Commercial real estate taxes pay a much smaller share of the overall real estate tax burden than it did in the early 1990s. There has been little job growth at the high end for quite a few years.

    Wealthier older people and middle income people have been moving out and poorer people moving in. And this is not just Caucasian folks either. Parents with children with substantial disabilities are moving in to take advantage of FCPS’ extremely broad Special Ed services. The Schools are over 25% free and reduced price lunches. In many magisterial districts, the local occupancy laws and home business regulations are not enforced. Overall, local taxes have increased faster than growth in income.

    The County and the Schools have extremely generous pension plans. The County allows workers to retire early and pays SS equivalent until normal retirement age. The Schools allow workers to retire early and collect SS equivalent until the they die. People from overseas send their children to live in group homes to get a free FCPS education, even though the law requires tuition to be paid by anyone not living with a resident parent or legal guardian (i.e., with court papers).

    And by and large, Fairfax County government is reasonably decent except for the impact on taxpayers and its strong support of activities and decisions to increase the poverty population. Virginia is well on its way to become New Jersey and Fairfax County seems to be leading the march.

    • You statements just aren’t true. Between 2014 and 2015 household income in Fairfax county rose 2.29%. US inflation for 2014 was 0.8%. The poverty rate in Fairfax County during that period was 6.15%. In 2014 14.8% of Americans lived below the poverty line.

      Is Fairfax County the economic juggernaut it once was? No. Are there areas of Fairfax County where pockets of poverty are expanding? Yes. But the theories that incomes are shrinking or poverty is a widespread problem (relative to the US) are just not borne out by the facts.

      https://datausa.io/profile/geo/fairfax-county-va/

      Fairfax County has been at a tipping point for the last 10 years. Caught between being an overpopulated suburb and an underpopulated city the area struggled. This struggle was exacerbated by the ongoing RICO violation known as the Virginia General Assembly’s insistence on freezing the gas tax in cents per gallon for 24 years. By hook and by crook, with the usual dollop of cronyism, Fairfax County is trying to evolve into a true urban area with Transit Oriented Development along the Metro lines. Realistically speaking, what other choice was available?

      I’ve lived in NoVa since 1959 (with a few absences when the Navy stationed my Father elsewhere). For the last 30 years the political summary for NoVa has been an ongoing battle between the residents of NoVa and the asshats in Richmond. Certainly the people of NoVa have done themselves no favors electing the snowflake do gooders we send to Richmond each year to stand idly by while The Thundering Herd of Corruption robs the state blind … starting (but not ending) with NoVa.

      Urban areas become progressive. Progressive areas attract both wealth and poverty. Is it any wonder that San Francisco is the US city with the greatest wealth disparity? Bright blue progressive and unimaginably unequal. That’s the fate for NoVa too.

  3. all those bad things about Fairfax don’t change the fundamental reality that without NoVa/Fairfax – Virginia would be in deep doo doo, budget wise.

    right?

    Virginia sucks on two mammoth Fed teats – one in NoVa and one in Hampton.

    It’s a Fed money .. deficit spending money…

    As amply demonstrated.. we have no real R&D and few tech startups and entrepreneurial culture.. just a whole bunch of exurban 50-100 mile commuters getting a govt or govt contractor paycheck…

    Most of the hard-working people in RoVa … some of who – who actually do pay Federal Income taxes – could .. legitimately make the case that they are the ones funding NoVa.. eh?

    • “Virginia sucks on two mammoth Fed teats – one in NoVa and one in Hampton.”

      Actually three.

      The oceans of Federal money flowing through NoVa and Hampton Roads are effectively mined by the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond as state taxes, transfer payments, low taxes on cigarettes with the resulting health issues paid by the Fed, etc. These siphoned monies blow through Richmond where the cronies and the pols all take their turn on the teat. The rest is sloshed around Virginia’s rural and small town areas making The Commonwealth of Virginia fully a ward of the Federal government.

  4. re: ” Urban areas become progressive. Progressive areas attract both wealth and poverty. Is it any wonder that San Francisco is the US city with the greatest wealth disparity? Bright blue progressive and unimaginably unequal. That’s the fate for NoVa too.’

    Interesting statement that is probably close to the truth.

    Could a similar equivalencing be asserted for RoVa which is a mixture of the wealthy landed gentry and the poor and unemployed?

    Is the income disparity in urban areas a unique feature of urbanization or does it just reflect the larger geography and economy but more apparent?

    you made a statement a few comments past to the effect that people work to earn money and then the govt turns around and takes some of it to give to people who do not work to earn money…

    a rough paraphrasing.. that may well not be your exact point.

    How about clarifying.. in the context of Urban areas.. their own disadvantaged and add to that the rural underclass?

  5. re: ” … freezing the gas tax in cents per gallon for 24 years. By hook and by crook, with the usual dollop of cronyism, Fairfax County is trying to evolve into a true urban area with Transit Oriented Development along the Metro lines. ”

    these two seem to be not connected.. unless the idea is that the gas tax should pay for METRO.. ??

    Not sure the asshats in Richmond are responsible for the funding woes of METRO when DC/MD/NoVa cannot agree on a sustainable funding source.

    You DID get a .7 cents supplementary sales tax – earmarked for “transportation” but I’m not sure any of it goes to METRO. Should it?

    • Since 1978, Fairfax County has the statutory authority to, and has adopted, conditional zoning regulations whereby the County and a developer can negotiate proffers, in kind or in cash, to mitigate the negative impacts of the rezoning or re-planning on public facilities, including those for transportation. Va. Code § 15.2-2296.

      Va. Code § 15.2-2297. This section sets forth some conditions for proffers. The rezoning must give rise to need for the conditions. There must be a reasonable relation between conditions and rezoning and the conditions must comply with comprehensive plan. Va. Code § 15.2-2303. Fairfax County, its neighbors and Eastern Shore localities may negotiate reasonable conditions allowed but there is no statutory requirement for reasonable relationship or “nexus.” That is, Fairfax County has broader power than other jurisdictions.

      Finally, Section 15.2-2303.4 (signed by the Governor in 2016) places certain limits on cash proffers related to new residential developments and new residential uses. This does not apply in certain high-density areas. Basically the new law restricts the use of cash proffers from improvements that don’t benefit the applicable development.

      Board of Supervisors of Powhatan County v. Reed’s Landing Corp., 250 Va. 397 (1995) held that cash proffers must be voluntary. Gregory v. Board of Supervisors, 257 Va. 530 (1999) upheld a rezoning denial based, in part, on applicant’s failure to submit cash proffers but ALSO on valid community health, safety, and welfare concerns. In other words, the developer failed to address the additional burden imposed by the proposed development.

      Fairfax County has the statutory authority recognized by the state supreme court to refuse to approve Comp Plan amendment or applications for rezoning approvals, including special exception requests when the land use change would create a burden on public facilities, including roads, highways and transit unless the applicant makes a proffer that addresses and relieves the burdens the development would impose.

      If transportation needs are so severe that we needed to raise taxes (and we did), why haven’t they been so severe that the County would have negotiated and collected proffers, in cash or in-kind, which were sufficient to address the burdens placed on the affected transportation facilities at issue? Fairfax County could have easily obtained the appropriate proffers or denied the zoning requests.

      Local government did not do its job for just about 40 years. The media didn’t do its job for just about 40 years. Had the job been done, we may well have needed the 2013 tax increases for transportation, but not nearly as much. Many developments in the County would have either paid a fair amount – in cash or in kind, to address traffic problems that they caused or the developments, most of which needed some sort of zoning approval, would have been built to the scale. They’d be limited to building to what is allowed by right – the current Comp Plan and approved zoning.

  6. I live in the East End and have previously attended Mr. Thornton’s constituent meetings. One in particular dealt with luring new business to the 9 Mile Corridor. Some of the audience’s take on business “neglecting” the area had nothing to do with economics but strictly was a matter of class and race. They were very upset that Short Pump had fancy stores and restaurants and they didnt. My point here is that some of the population see their economic isolation as blatant classism and racism even if they chose to live in the East End. I first hand saw that expressed to Mr. Thornton at his meeting.
    For me it does suck having to travel a relative far distance to a descent grocery store but I accept that fact figuring my housing costs are much lower than living in a tony location. Other people in the East End demand the same Short Pump benefit while living in the East End and expect Henrico to provide that Short Pump experience.

  7. Having just watched a television segment about gerrymandering the other day, I am reminded how much Henrico County looks like a gerrymandered Congressional District: two distinct regions connected by a narrow jurisdictional technicality. Even Henricos’s “Main Street” actually connects the two via a loop through Hanover County.

    This is a continuing reminder how absurd our current approach to local government is. Virginia carves its cities out of their surrounding Counties but then refuses to allow them to grow, by annexation, to address the natural evolution of urban services across obsolete jurisdictional lines. Virginia preserves these jurisdictional fences even as the racial motivations for creating them have yielded to changing demographics and changing politics. Virginia does this to the economic and political health of its entire capital city simply to avoid disturbing the suburban comfort zone that is inner western Henrico, where most of central Virginia’s power brokers reside, close enough to Richmond to take advantage of it but not close enough to accept responsibility for it. What a shame. What a missed opportunity for Virginia.

  8. Acbar – why should residents of a county be forced inside the boundaries of a city unless the majority of such residents approve? Case in point, the City of Falls Church is bounded by Arlington and Fairfax Counties and cannot grow outside its boundaries. It has high real estate taxes due to its desire to operate good schools and the general lack of ability to open areas within the city for development. Much of the developable area around the West Falls Church station is in Fairfax County. And quite a bit of land, including several City school sites, owned by the City is actually outside the city limits.

    The City is extremely frustrated because it cannot annex the land – might I say, steal it from Fairfax County. I know quite a few people who live near the City, but outside the city limits who do not want to be annexed into the City because of the higher taxes. It sounds to me that you’d be willing to sacrifice the interests of those people just to let the City grow. Moreover, there is no evidence that these people, if annexed, would have access to better services than they already receive from Fairfax County. To me, this is just one more attack on ordinary people.

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