Baron von Munchausen, famous spinner of tall tales

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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The Market Speaks, and It Likes Reston Town Center

reston_town_center
Reston Town Center got a half-century head start in creating the kind of community where enterprises want to do business in the 21st-century knowledge economy. The original developers were planning for and building walkable, mixed-use development before walkable, mixed-use development was cool. And today property owners are reaping the benefits.

According to Cushman/Wakefield, offices in Reston Town Center are near full occupancy and command among the highest rents in Northern Virginia. The business district’s big competitive advantage? A strong amenity base. Summarizes Virginia Business:

The report notes that in addition to 2.8 million square feet of office space, Reston Town Center is home to 50 retail shops, 30 restaurants and three residential high-rise projects. Even with a suburban location 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C., and a lack of Metro accessibility until at least 2018, the center’s density, mixed-uses and walkability give the center an urban feel that attracts tenants and residents.

Reston achieves high occupancy despite the fact that tenants pay a 30% rent premium to be there. The situation in Reston stands in marked contrast to the other major business centers, Tysons and the Ballston-Rosslyn corridor. Spurred by the arrival of the Metro Silver Line, Tysons is desperately trying to reinvent itself from a case study in suburban sprawl into a paragon of Transit Oriented Development. But the transition to a coherent, walkable place will take place over years, if not decades. Property owners in Arlington’s Ballston-Rosslyn corridor have Reston-style amenities and have been demanding Reston-style rents but have been afflicted by the departure of large government tenants.

Bacon’s bottom line: Could the marketplace be speaking any more clearly? People are demanding walkable urbanism. It doesn’t have to be located in the core of the metropolitan area. It doesn’t even have to have Metro service. People like compact, walkable, mixed-use development. Developers who deliver that product will make money. Localities that foster its development will see their tax base grow.

– JAB

ALEC: Virginia K-12 Performance, Policy Mediocre

Image credit: ALEC

Image credit: ALEC

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an organization promoting conservative legislation at the state level, has issued its 19th annual Report Card on American Education, and it places Virginia in the muddled middle for school performance and policy.

On performance, ALEC gave Virginia a 26th ranking based on the gains made by low-income students on 4th and 8th grade reading and math exams between 2003 and 2013. On the policy front, ALEC graded Virginia an F for its pitiful charter school laws and a D for state academic standards but a B- for digital learning and a B for retaining effective teachers. All other categories rated in the C range. (See Virginia score card.)

ALEC deems Indiana to have the best K-12 public policy in the United States. Among other virtues, the Hoosier state is emphasizing career and vocational education for non college-bound students and provides targeted pre-school programs for disadvantaged children. The report also singles out North Carolina for its aggressive school reforms, especially the emphasis on expanding charter schools and school choice for lower-income Tarheels.

The report’s conclusion:

Economically disadvantaged inner-city children would face more than enough challenges in life it they had abundant access to the nation’s most effective schools. Instead, we find districts still largely wedded to unionized industrial factory models. Spending is up, but low achievement remains common. Dropout rates remain high, and waiting lists at the still far-too-scarce high-quality charter schools remain long. Policymakers have been making changes and showing progress with them, but the average urban student may have yet to notice that anything has changed.

Bacon’s bottom line: Conservatives have a great story to pitch for school reform. While liberals wed themselves to the tired, old 19th-century industrial model and call for mo’ money, mo’ money, conservatives argue that money isn’t the problem. The United States spends more money per student on education than almost any country on the planet, with precious little to show for it. With state, local and federal governments strapped for cash, states need to focus on getting more from the ample investment we already make.

Every other segment of the American economy has restructured over the past half century. Education is the main holdout. Parents — especially parents in lower-income families — need more options about where to send their kids. Virginia needs more charter schools, more school choice and more home schooling.

– JAB

Dominion Responds to My Renewable Energy Post

Dominion logoBy Peter Galuszka

In recent days, there’s been a plenty of discussion about renewable energy.  After I wrote two posts,  Chester “Chet” Wade, a senior spokesman for Dominion Resources, called me to take issue with some of my ideas. I  offered him space to explain Dominion’s views. Here is his response:

Your follow-up column has the same shortcoming as the first one. They both ignore the facts that don’t support your conclusion.

We discussed a lot of issues on the phone. As I said, my point on contributions was that you were being selective in your reporting and unchallenging of the other side. We don’t mind being asked tough questions, but we think others should face the same level of scrutiny. That disparity seems to be present again.

Here are some of the other points you left out from our conversation, along with additional details:

Approximately half the electricity Dominion produced last year came from carbon-free nuclear and renewable sources. Our carbon intensity is among the best in the nation, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the same time our electric rates in Virginia are 14.7 percent below the national average, and our reliability is at an all-time high. All are important points to those who depend on us for their energy.

Dominion values renewable energy as part of a diverse, clean mix of power generation to provide reliable, affordable energy.   For example, in Virginia, Dominion operates more renewable biomass than any other utility in the nation.  We’ve invested in biomass, because it is cost effective and can run around the clock.

We’ve also invested in solar energy with our innovative Solar Partnership Program, and we are a leader in developing offshore wind. The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a Dominion-led team $47 million to develop a Virginia pilot project aimed at making offshore wind more affordable.

Dominion did not “squelch” the solar project at Washington & Lee, as you reported. We reached an agreement that allowed the project to go forward.

The Sierra Club’s “analysis” of renewable energy standards you cited is specious, at best.  For example, it fails to mention that states with mandatory renewable portfolio standards also typically have significantly higher electricity prices.

And it does not mention that West Virginia has an alternative and renewable energy standard that counts natural gas, coal bed methane, waste coal, and pumped storage hydro. By that same standard, Dominion has more than 9,000 megawatts of alternative and renewable energy. And that total does not include wind or solar energy we have outside of Virginia.

Your column also touted West Virginia as a regional leader in wind production. What it missed is that we own 50 percent of West Virginia’s largest wind farm, paid for not by our utility customers but by our shareholders.  On the other hand, an onshore wind project we proposed for Virginia withered with virtually no support from the Sierra Club.

Producing affordable, reliable and clean energy requires a balance. That balance was sadly missing from your column.

 

Which Calls for More Regulation, Sprawl or Smart Growth?

How do you get more development like this -- with more regulation or less?

How do you get more development like this — with more regulation or less?

by James A. Bacon

One of the more potent criticisms of the Smart Growth movement is that smart growthers implement policies that restrict development, create housing shortages and make housing unaffordable for the poor and working class. The critics present ample evidence that metro regions with the tightest restrictions on development and re-development have higher housing prices overall than regions with fewer restrictions.

But there is more than one way to achieve Smart Growth, at least in theory. One way is is libertarian in inspiration: rolling back the suburban-inspired zoning codes that segregate land uses, cap density restrictions and impose minimum parking requirements on property owners. Undoing the massive government intrusion in local land use would go a long way to reversing the so-called “suburban sprawl” that is the antithesis of Smart Growth without imposing restrictions on new development. A different approach to Smart Growth is more activist: encouraging mixed use development and re-development, seeking more density and curtailing parking in order to push people out of cars.

Suburban zoning codes and regulations are almost universal across America in places developed since World War II, and even in some traditional urban cities. To what extent have activist city governments offset suburban mandates with Smart Growth and environmental mandates? Michael Lewyn and Kristoffer Jackson set to find out. You can read their conclusions in “How Often Do Cities Mandate Smart Growth or Green Building?” in a paper published by the Mercatus Center.

Lewyn and Jackson examined the zoning regulations of 24 medium-sized cities across the United States with a focus on parking, density and “green building.”

Parking. They found that Smart Growth regulations are not nearly as ubiquitous as sprawl-inducing regulations. Fifteen of the 24 cities had restricted parking supply, but only three had restricted the supply citywide for all land uses. The others limited their restrictions to certain parts of the city or to particular land uses.

Density. While restrictions on maximum density are almost universal across the United States, mandates for minimum density are rare, and when they exist, they are largely irrelevant. For example, San Jose, Calif., imposes a minimum density of one house per acre. But the demand for housing is strong and prices are so high that no one is asking to build at lower densities. Indeed, most cities continue to limit density and mixed-use development — the antithesis of the Smart Growth vision.

Green building. Cities have been willing to experiment with “green building” regulations designed to increase energy efficiency. Only four of the 24 cities surveyed compel developers to meet green building standards. Six others give builders incentives to adopt green building standards, while another eight impose the requirements only upon city-owned buildings.

“Government regulation designed to force smarter, more environmentally friendly growth may face a difficult tradeoff,” the authors write. “If regulations are only slightly more restrictive than what an unregulated market might produce, they may not do very much good. But if regulations are significantly more restrictive, they may encourage development to shift to less environmentally sensitive municipalities.”

Writing in the Market Urbanism blog, Emily Washington provides a useful gloss on the Lewyn-Jackson paper.

Lewyn and Jackson’s study shows that rather than embracing the deregulatory tenets of Smart Growth, regulators in some cities have layered Smart Growth rules on top of their traditional zoning rules, creating a complicated web of regulations. … This paper demonstrates that today Smart Growth policies are unusual relative to traditional zoning rules that restrict density. However, Smart Growth is in some cases complicating the policy landscape rather than providing more freedom for developers to respond to consumer demand.

Bacon’s bottom line: The only thing I would add to Lewyn, Jackson and Washington is that it would be useful to study transportation policy. The Smart Growth movement is also enamored with walkability, bicycles, mass transit and complete streets. The pursuit of these policies is not seen as much in city zoning codes as in their capital investment programs. This is the area, it seems to me, where the Smart Growth movement has made its greatest mark.

No More Hippies in Old Sneakers

dominion-building By Peter Galuszka

Last week, I posted a blog item titled “Why Virginia Has No Renewable Energy,” which drew considerable comments from readers. The day after it ran, I got a call from Chester G. “ Chet” Wade, the vice president of corporate communications for Dominion Resources who had a complaint about my item.

I had written that one reason why Virginia has a tiny amount of renewable energy sourcing compared to its neighbors was it that they have a mandatory “renewable portfolio standard” while Virginia’s is only voluntary.

One major reason, I wrote, was that :

“Dominion, of course, is a huge political contributor. According to the Virginia Public Access Project, Dominion and Dominion Resources combined are the No. 1 corporate donors in this state. They gave about $1,042,580 this year. The No. 3 corporate donor is Alpha Natural Resources, a major coal company based in Bristol that gave $218,874.”

Chet didn’t dispute my facts but said I failed to note the wealth of contributions from green outfits that Terry McAuliffe, our Democratic governor, got in the 2013 gubernatorial campaign. I hadn’t brought up McAuliffe’s race in my post, but I do try to be fair, so I asked Chet to write a response and said that I’d post it. He hasn’t yet.

In last year’s race, McAuliffe raised $38 million compared to $21 million for Kenneth N. Cuccinelli, the hardline Republican conservative who spent part of his time and tax payers’ money going after Michael Mann, a former University of Virginia climatologist, when he was attorney general.

Although I am not certain what Chet’s point was as far as McAuliffe, I went back and confirmed what he said. In the 2013 race, McAuliffe got part of the $1.9 million from the League of Conservation Voters; almost $1 million from the national and Virginia chapters of the Sierra Club; and $1.6 million from NextGen, an environmental PAC started by Bay Area hedge fund manager Tom Steyer who has strong views on the dangers of climate change.

Chet said it was unfair for me not to note the money from Big Green. (By the way, Dominion gave McAuliffe $75,000 in the governor’s race and somewhat less to Cuccinelli.)

So, to be fair to both Big Green and Dominion, I called Glen Besa, head of the Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club. Glen said that, yes, indeed, a coalition of environmentalists had gone out of their way to back McAullife because they badly wanted to keep Cuccinelli from becoming governor. “You had a clear climate change denier with Cuccinelli,” said Glen. “He would be an embarrassment to Virginia and would have caused damage in the national debate about global warming.”

So, the greenies pulled out the stops and let their money flow. Glen, however, said that the contributions “were exceptional” and not really sustainable. Usually, the Sierra Club donates in the tens of thousands of dollars in Virginia races.

Now that McAullife has won, I don’t think Dominion can say he’s against them. If anything McAuliffe has disappointed environmentalists by coming out for continued use of coal, the introduction of East Coast offshore oil drilling, nuclear and building a 550-mile pipeline for fracked natural gas that would run from Clarksburg, W.Va. through much of Virginia to the North Carolina border. A second gas pipeline is in the works through Southwestern Virginia. Local activists and Greens are on the streets protesting the projects. Dominion is a backed and major player in the first pipeline. McAuliffe is not exactly out to get them.

What’s the upshot? Dominion is one of the few enormous, Virginia-based companies like Alpha Natural Resources and Altria that have long been dominant players in the political arena. Like well-oiled machines, they hand out millions in cash to political candidates. They have also bankrolled useful groups to voters such as the Virginia Public Access Project, a non-profit that collects and makes available donation data. Dominion has one of the most experienced and professional team of lobbyists anywhere.

Dominion almost always gets things its way. Back about 15 years ago, for example, a deregulation wave for setting electricity rates was sweeping the country and Dominion asked to be part of it. But a few years later, Dominion realized that dereg wasn’t working quite to their advantage, so they got the General Assembly to change it all back again to regulation. “It is testimony to how much power they have,” says Glen. “(State Sen.) Tommy Norment just reached into his drawer and pulled out a re-reg bill,” he adds.

What seems to miff Dominion and the corporate elite is that the environmentalist lobby has grown up and become sophisticated and professional, just as they are. They can raise big money and throw it around when they want to. Somehow, this is viewed as an unsavory intrusion on Dominion’s sacred turf. No more hippies in old sneakers.

Virginia College Enrollments Decline, SCHEV Wants Higher Tuitions

by James A. Bacon

Yesterday, when asking how long Virginia universities could defy the national decline in student enrollments, I spoke just a hair too soon. I quoted 2012-2013 data to the effect that Virginia public higher education institutions were holding their own. Unbeknownst to me, the State Council on Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) was releasing updated enrollment numbers at a board meeting the very same day.

Turns out that enrollment at state colleges and universities fell below 400,000 this fall for the first time since 2008. In her Times-Dispatch article, reporter Karin Kapsidelis does not tell us how big of a tumble that was percentage-wise, but it was sufficient to cause considerable consternation among SCHEV board members.

The council then proceeded simultaneously to (a) bemoan the 78% increase in the number of students requiring financial aid since 2011, and (b) endorse tuition increases that would make college even more unaffordable. SCHEV estimates an average tuition increase in 3.7% will be needed to just to support its priorities of paying for faculty raises and covering maintenance costs of new buildings coming online in fiscal year 2016.

pc_incomeLet us ask ourselves if there might be any connection between rising tuition and the increasing need for financial aid. Let’s see now… Real per capita incomes in Virginia have barely budged since 2011, yet tuition, fees and other college-related expenses have ratcheted ever higher at a rate considerably faster than inflation. If public colleges follow SCHEV’s recommendations and continue jacking up tuition by 3.7% annually, and if wages continue to stagnate, then college attendance, already unaffordable for many, will become even more unaffordable. As college becomes even more unaffordable, enrollments will continue to drop. This is not rocket science, people!

It is true that the decline in state support is partly to blame for the increasing cost of going to college. But so has the growth in administrative overhead, student fees (much of which goes toward athletic programs), and the cost of fancy food courts and new dormitories. Moreover, public colleges have continued to build new physical facilities, raising the question of whether they have over-built. Indeed, one of SCHEV’s highest priorities for increased revenue is to cover the growing cost of building operations.

If you build more buildings in anticipation of ever-rising enrollments and those enrollments don’t occur, what happens? You still have to pay the bonds used to finance the building construction, and you still have to pay to maintain the buildings. Either you raise tuition to cover the higher costs, which makes your institution more unaffordable… which drives down enrollment… or you scrimp on maintenance, which means your facilities go to hell… which drives down enrollment.

Virginia’s system of higher education is nearing a crisis but the educational and political establishment is unwilling to face to underlying economic realities.

Virginia’s Business Tax Climate: Down to 27th Best

tax_climate
Governor Terry McAuliffe is traveling overseas at the moment in search of foreign investment in Virginia. His job of selling the Old Dominion is made none the easier by a new report issued by the Tax Foundation. In a ranking of which states have the most competitive business tax regime, Virginia tumbled to the lowest level in living memory, 27th place.

As Tim Wise observes in his Growls blog, Virginia’s business tax climate has eroded each year from 2012 when the state ranked 23rd.

I’m old enough to remember when Virginians could debate whether or not it was fair to describe the commonwealth as a “low tax” state. I think that argument is over. A better question now, given the trajectory of our political economy, is how many years will it take to join the ranks of Maryland, New Jersey and New York as a high tax state.

For what it’s worth, Virginia scored best for its corporate tax rate (6th best) and sales tax (6th best); worst for its personal income tax rate (39th best) and unemployment insurance rate (37th best); and in the middle of the pack for property taxes (26th).

To respond to the obvious retort to this news, yes, there’s a lot more to a state’s business climate than its tax rate. If high taxes are invested productively and provide a high level of amenities and services, the net result can be beneficial to economic growth — a very big “if.” Another caveat is that the primary determinant of a state’s economic performance in the short run isn’t its business climate but its business mix. Every state with a major oil-and-gas industry right now, for instance, is doing well regardless of other considerations. But the evidence shows that over the long run lower tax states out-perform higher tax states on average.

At present, it’s easy to blame Virginia’s economic woes on sequestration and the squeeze on federal employment and contracting in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. But the loss of economic dynamism preceded sequestration by a decade or more. Virginia has lost its mojo. And the decline in performance, coincidentally or not, has overlapped with a decline in tax competitiveness.

– JAB

The Wacky World of Private Space Firms

 Antares-Explosion-VideoBy Peter Galuszka

The spectacular explosion on the evening of Oct. 28 of an Orbital Sciences Corporation rocket at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore of Virginia raises safety questions about the rush to commercialize space launches.

The Antares rocket with a Cygnus cargo shipment had been bound for the International Space Station but the rocket burst into flames and exploded six seconds after liftoff. The blast from the sandy barrier island was powerful enough to shatter glass windows at nearby business, according to news reports.

Dulles-based Orbital Sciences is one of several private firms competing for business from the federal government as part of a plan to reduce costs for the Air Force and budget-strapped NASA. Orbital, Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance made up of space veterans Boeing and Lockheed Martin are all vying for contracts by aggressively touting lower prices.

It can get nasty. SpaceX’s iconoclastic leader Elon Musk famously sued the Air Force to break ULA’s monopoly on military satellite launches. He’s also sued to squelch concerns about his rockets’ safety. His firm, as are some others, is pushing manned flights to the space station, space tourism or perhaps missions to Mars or other outer space locations.

Orbital picked up a $1.9 billion contract from NASA in 2008 to deliver cargo to the space station from 2011 to 2015 using its Antares rockets made at a facility in Dulles. Using Wallops Island for its launch site, Orbital successfully launched two demonstration shots in 2013 and two cargo rockets early this year.

According to The Washington Post, the engines used on the Antares rocket were modified, decades-old, Soviet models that the Kremlin stopped using in the early 1970s because they were prone to explode. Orbital picked up some, apparently cheaply, because it was having trouble locating rocket engines from other sources powerful enough to lift its cargoes.

It isn’t known yet what exactly went wrong with the launch this week, but the Russian-made engines are certainly going to be studied. This raises questions about how much cost-cutting and cheap buying the private firms actually do to keep their costs down and maintain their competitiveness.

Musk of SpaceX has criticized using decades-old technology, but he has been accused of pushing cost cuts too hard. He’s been sued by employees who claimed he made them work 60-hour weeks. Obviously, tired workers are prone to make mistakes.

Up until now, politicians and economic development officials in Virginia and Maryland have proudly touted the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport as a sexy, futuristic display of how up with the times they are.

When SpaceX launched a Falcon 9 rocket in May 2012 from Cape Canaveral, then Virginia Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton told Virginia Business magazine, “Obviously a lot of people focus on SpaceX. But Virginia now is pushing its own plan to grab a share of the commercial space market.” He unwittingly added: “Do you realize that in the fall (of 2012), it’s not going to be SpaceX you’ll be talking about. It’s going to be Orbital.” Missed it by two years. Ouch.

Other officials have tried to make Wallops Island a tourism destination. The Web site of the Norfolk-based Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority pitches the draw for visitors. “The people on the Eastern Shore are wonderful,” writes Zig Leszczynski, the authority’s deputy executive director. “Chincoteague is a great area, so when folks come out to see the launches, you can also enjoy a kayak trip and some good seafood.”

NASA has had its share of disasters, including the 1986 loss of the Challenger Space Shuttle and then the loss of the Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003, killing a total of 14 astronauts. But as private firms accelerate their space activities, there are concerns that they might not have the rigorous safety testing that government launches have had.

On Aug. 25, a three-engine Falcon 9 rocket launched by SpaceX blew itself up seconds after leaving its Texas launch pad. Other problems have included “several anomalies” that occurred in the company’s civilian space flights” including having not enough fuel during a launch and a fire on an engine structure. The Air Force is investigating.

Private companies are still racking up deals. Blue Origin, a firm started by Jeff Bezos, the Amazon chief and owner of The Washington Post, got a deal last month to help supply rocket engines for ULA, which had been depending solely on Russian-built engines to launch its heavy rockets. Their continued use is in jeopardy because of current political tensions with Russia and Ukraine.

So what used to be an A-OK world of slim, professional astronauts and nerdy guys with pocket holders for their pens has turned into something of a free-for-all. It can be seen from the comfort of your kayak in an Eastern Shore salt marsh.

This Brat is the Worst

In one week the voters of the 7th district will send a self-styled “economist” named David Brat to the House of Representatives.  I am amused that Mr. Brat advertised himself as an economist but advocates policies that have already been tried and have proven to be at best ineffective and at worst disastrous.

When running in the primary, Mr. Brat advocated auditing the Federal Reserve.  Perhaps this self-styled economics wizard has missed the years of debate concerning the Federal Reserve’s policy of buying Treasury and mortgage-backed securities.  The numbers are available for all to see who have any interest, on the Fed’s website.  Perhaps Dave’s real problem is that he believes that the black helicopters that the United Nations will use to institute “world government” are secretly hidden in the basement of the New York Federal Reserve on Liberty Street in downtown NYC.

Of course Brat wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but offers no reasonable alternative.   Dave wants to allow sales of health insurance across state lines, but this would only encourage a race by insurance companies to the bottom of the insurance barrel.  I wonder how all of those folks from Hartford Connecticut and Manhattan will adjust to life in Mississippi?

Dave wants to have a self-styled balance-budget amendment.  This guy really live in a Disneyland bubble.  For instance, a recent article in the Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics strongly makes the case that more deficit spending in the wake of the 2008-2009 financial crisis would have led to a much stronger recovery. Brat’s policy of supporting a balanced-budget amendment strongly echoes the restraints placed on European governments by the Treaties of Maastricht and Amsterdam that are currently supported by the Germans.  This extreme-type of infallible austerity has led to levels of unemployment in the Euro zone that are often at 10% for the general population and youth unemployment that approaches 50% inGreece, Portugal and Spain.  It is unbelievable to me that a serious student of economics would loo0k at this unsustainable crisis and advocate the policies that brought it on.

– Les Schreiber

Bringing Transparency to Transportation Project Selection

The intersection from hell... on a good day

Grrrrr.The intersection from hell.

I have concrete reasons to bitch and moan about the new prioritization process for Virginia transportation projects under House Bill 2. A major project near my home — $14 million in improvements to the hellish intersection of Patterson Ave. and Parham Road — was scheduled for 2019 but has been put on hold to be subjected to the kind of strict cost-benefit analysis that, er, uh,  I have been calling for over the years.

That miserable intersection is the bane of my existence. I have to drive through it on half or more of the trips I take. During rush hour, Patterson/Parham can stack up for four or five cycles of the traffic signal. I curse it. I shake my fist at it. I loathe that intersection with every fiber of my being. That single intersection makes me want to move from Henrico County back to the City of Richmond, which has nothing to compare.

However, I do see the virtue in ranking transportation projects according to rational criteria such as congestion mitigation, economic development, accessibility, safety and environmental quality. Every transportation project will receive a score, that score will be made transparent to the public, and the Commonwealth Transportation Board will use it when selecting projects, as Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne explains in a Times-Dispatch op-ed today.

HB2 is potentially the most significant change to transportation funding priorities to come along in years. The hope is to bring more accountability to transportation-funding decisions when the initiative is fully implemented by 2016. If the CTB chooses to fund a project with low scores, it will have to answer for its decisions. We’ll see how things work out in practice. The new process assuredly will be an improvement over current practice but I’m skeptical that it will do much to bridge the transportation-land use mismatch that underlays transportation dysfunction. Furthermore, never underestimate the power of ideologues and special interests to work the system to their advantage.

I, for one, will be watching. And if that stinkin’ Patterson/Parham project doesn’t get its funding on schedule, there will be hell to pay!

– JAB