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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Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

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Values, Income and Academic Performance

Douglas Freeman High School

Douglas Freeman High School

by James A. Bacon

Last night my wife and I engaged in an annual ritual of the school calendar. We went to Douglas Freeman High School to meet our son’s teachers and learn about the classes he’s taking. This was not a social event. We know very few Freeman families. Our motives were pragmatic. We wanted to arm ourselves with the information we need to be good parents. What is expected of our child academically? How much homework will he have? How can we keep track of his grades? How can we communicate our concerns, if we have any? We want our son to succeed academically because we want him to get into a good college. We also want him to develop the habits of self discipline and iniative that will stand him in good stead as an adult.

Many other parents there last night undoubtedly were thinking the same things. Here’s what surprised me, though. I’d guess that parents of only half the students showed up. Assuming the average class has about 25 kids, one would expect twenty-five parents (or even more, if both father and mother attended, as my wife and I did) to come meet each teacher. But few of the classes we visited were more than half full. While a few parents might have been working late, or were traveling out of town on business, or didn’t have access to a car, or had some other practical reason for missing parent’s night, it’s also likely that some of them didn’t care enough to bother.

And that brings me back to one of the big themes I’ve been hammering on the past couple of weeks in my analysis of Virginia Standard of Learning scores: the role of culture and the role of socio-economic status in influencing the pass rates for SOL tests. I made a huge mistake in the beginning of the analysis. Correlating the performance of Virginia school divisions with the percentage of students classified as “disadvantaged,” I found that 57% of the variability in SOL scores from division to division could be attributed to socioeconomic status. I then proceeded to slice and dice the other 43% in an effort to determine how much of the variability could be attributed to “cultural” factors, as opposed to inequitable distribution of resources or even to the quality of local school leadership.

What parent’s night reminded me is that social-economic status and culture are entwined. Typically, embedded in the truism that academic success in K-12 school is highly correlated with socio-economic status is the assumption that greater household income is what makes the difference. I don’t deny that income is a factor. Affluent parents can buy their kids more books. They can send their kids to summer enrichment programs. They can hire tutors. They can seek help if their child has mental health issues. Without question, all those things make a difference. But they’re trivial compared to the day-in, day-out discipline of going to class, paying attention and doing the homework.

The correlation between academic success and socioeconomic status is complex. The fact is, some people value education more than others do. Some people are willing to make bigger financial sacrifices, spend more of their own personal time and undergo more stress and angst to ensure that their children maximize their educational opportunities.

Anyone who has been a parent to an adolescent male knows exactly what I’m talking about. Parenting takes a lot of effort. It’s easy to let your kid skate by with Cs. By contrast, it can be exhausting to bird-dog your kid every day to enforce rules about watching TV and playing on the computer — basically, banning them from doing the things that adolescent males like to do — and cracking the books instead. Kids argue. They throw tantrums. They sneak behind their parents’ backs. If moral suasion and positive reinforcement don’t work — and frankly, they’re pretty weak compared to the allure of Call of Duty or Halo, or the party culture of sex, alcohol and drugs -- the only recourse is running a household police state of constant surveillance.

In the liberal/progressive worldview, it’s the money, or lack of it, that explains a child’s socioeconomic success later in life. If a kid grows up in an affluent household, odds are he or she will be an affluent adult. If a kid grows up in a poor household, odds are that he or she will be poor. As I acknowledged before, access to money can ease stress and lack of it can increase stress. But it’s not the money they have growing up that makes upper middle-class kids successful in life. It’s the values they are raised with. It’s the time and effort their parents put into raising them. Indeed, spoiling a kid with too much material wealth — big allowances, a new car on their 16th birthday, trips to Europe — can breed a sense of entitlement and destroy their initiative. Conversely, a kid who grows up poor and hungry but with the right values, is far more likely to succeed financially.

Socio-economic status is associated with higher academic achievement in significant part because the values and character traits that contribute to successful careers and the accumulation of wealth also contribute to higher academic performance. The values come first, the money follows. That’s why some kids raised in poverty succeed in rising above their circumstances. That’s why some affluent kids become spoiled, find no sense of purpose and fall below their potential. Parenting is hard — that’s why kids from stable, two-parent households have an advantage over kids from broken homes, or kids whose fathers play no role in their life.

Economic determinism doesn’t get us very far in understanding why some kids excel in school and others fail. We have to dig deeper if we want to figure out what it takes to give every child a chance in life to succeed.

Storm Water Regs? What Storm Water Regs?

silver_line_construction

Silver Line construction

Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) have revealed that they will have to redesign portions of Phase II of the Rail-to-Dulles project to accommodate new storm-water regulations. MWAA offered no estimate as to how much the changes would add to the estimated $5.6 billion total price tag for both phases of the project.

According to the Washington Post, MWAA has already dipped into a $551 million contingency fund for $700,000 to cover a change in storm-water treatment required by the state. That’s a trivial amount of money for a project this size. The question is, how pervasive are the problems and how much more could the remedies cost?

The distressing part of this is that it’s not as if the state popped these storm water regs on MWAA by surprise. There has been a literally decade-long build-up to the new requirements, which went into effect in July. Hopefully, the problem announced by MWAA reflects an anecdotal oversight, not a systemwide goof-up. But that anything of this nature happened at all does not exactly inspire confidence.

– JAB

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

Now VSU Is in Trouble

VSUby James A. Bacon

Enrollment at Virginia State University in Petersburg is down by 550 students this year, and the historically black university is facing a $5.3 million shortfall, including a $2.4 million reduction in state support. “I think Virginia State is in trouble,” Terone B. Green, who serves on the board of visitors told the Times-Dispatch yesterday.

Norfolk State University, Virginia’s other public, historically black university , is facing difficulties as well, while St. Paul’s College, a private college, closed last year.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HCBUs), created to educate blacks in an era when they were denied admittance to white institutions, are struggling to redefine themselves in an era of multi-culturalism. Few have significant endowments to fall back on. And they face the same challenges as higher education generally: soaring tuitions that are pricing more and more students out of the market. As an institution that serves blacks, whose incomes have been especially hard hit in recent years, VSU is in an perilous predicament.

The enrollment loss this year will cost VSU $1.6 million in revenue. The loss of enrollment is all the more alarming, given the significant debt burden the university took on to build new residence halls. The university has pinched pennies by closing two old dorms, cutting back on furniture replacement and non-essential maintenance, pruning the full-service dining options on campus, and requiring students to live on-campus. But those changes could boomerang by diminishing the residential experience and depriving students of lower-cost options off campus.

Virginia’s HBCUs are the canary in the coal mine for higher ed. The combination of declining enrollments and heavy debt loads will create problems for other non-elite universities, whatever the ethnic mix of their student body. Washington and Lee University, whose students rank fourth highest in the country for mid-career earnings (see previous post) and which has a large endowment, shouldn’t have much trouble weathering the storm. But VSU doesn’t have a rich alumni base — average midcareer earnings, $71,800 — to tap. And its less affluent student body is especially sensitive to tuition price increases.

The situation likely will get uglier before it gets better.

Virginia’s Secret Money Maker

washington_leeIf you want to make a lot of money, don’t bother applying to Harvard, Yale or MIT. Go to Washington & Lee University. According to College Salary Report, the liberal arts university in Lexington ranked fourth in the country by average “mid career” income of $133,500. Remarkably, only 17% of its graduates have STEM degrees, far lower than most other top-earning institutions.

Five other Virginia universities made the list of the Top 100:

21. Virginia Military Institute
Mid-career salary: $116,000

71. University of Virginia
Mid-career salary: $101,400

88. Virginia Tech
Mid-career salary: $98,600

95. University of Richmond
Mid-career salary: $97,600

97. William & Mary
Mid-career salary: $97,300

– JAB

In the “If Your Like Your Health Care Plan, You Can Keep It” Department…

then-i-saidFrom the Times-Dispatch: “After a year’s reprieve, up to 250,000 Virginians will receive notice by the end of November that their health insurance plans will be canceled because the plans do not comply with the Affordable Care Act and accompanying state law.”

Now those Virginians will have to buy new, Obamacare-compliant plans, which means they will have more benefits they may or may not want… and will cost more.

The Virginia Association of Health Plans, which has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Obama administration, defended the forced switch. Said Executive Director Doug Gray: “I don’t call that cancellation – I call that an adjustment to the new law.”

I call it a cancellation. I’ll be that the people affected by the law call it a cancellation, too.

– JAB

A Timely Reminder: Virginia Hospitals, Even the Non-Profits, Are Very Profitable

Norfolk General Hospital, the crown jewel of the Sentara Health System, which reported annual profit of $229 million in 2013.

Norfolk General Hospital, the crown jewel of the Sentara Health System, which reported annual profit of $229 million in 2013.

One of the justifications given for expanding Virginia’s Medicaid program as part of the implementation of Obamacare is to shore up the financial condition of Virginia’s hospitals. On the assumption that Medicaid expansion would reduce the number of indigent (non-paying patients), Obamacare will cut back funds to hospitals under the established Disproportionate Share Hospital (DSH) program to help offset the cost of uncompensated care. If Virginia fails to expand Medicaid, as now seems likely, and the federal government cuts DSH funding as planned, Virginia hospitals will take a hit to the bottom line.

The debate may be academic now that Governor Terry McAuliffe has essentially punted on Medicaid expansion in the face of strong Republican opposition in the General Assembly and has proposed a scaled-down Healthy Virginia plan. But the issue still is worth revisiting. Virginia hospitals stand to lose about $386 million in payments from the DSH program between 2017 and 2022 — an average of $77 million per year. How badly will hospitals be hurt? Will cuts impair the quality of care? Do we need to worry?

Mike Thompson, president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute, a conservative think tank, has compiled the profit figures for Virginia hospitals from the Virginia Health Information Foundation. In the aggregate, in November 2013 Virginia’s hospitals had combined profits of $1.6 billion and net worth of $15 billion. The annualized DSH payments are equivalent to about 5% of 2013 profits.

One would think that hospitals should be able to absorb that hit to revenues — equivalent to a year or so of profit growth. Does the picture change when we drill into the numbers? The burden of indigent care is not apportioned equally between hospitals. Some facilities serve largely poor populations and provide extensive uncompensated care and rely more than others on the DSH funds. Also, hospital profitability varied widely from institution to institution. Several hospitals are losing money. In theory, a loss of funds could be devastating.

Thompson’s data reveals that several money-losing hospitals are part of larger health care systems; while they lose money, they feed profitable business to the tertiary care hospitals at the center of those systems, hence, they are not in danger of being shut down. Other facilities represent expansions into new markets — start-up enterprises, in effect. Their parent companies are fully prepared to bear the losses while the facilities ramp up to profitability. Then, too, there are some hospitals that appear to have serious problems. However, it’s not clear from one year’s data whether those losses are ongoing or simply the result of a one-year write-down.

It would be helpful to get a hospital-by-hospital breakdown of DSH funding and see how it compares to hospital profitability. The not-for-profit VCU Health System is reputedly the largest provider of uncompensated care in the state. But, then, it reported a profit of $130 million — a 12.8% return on equity (net worth). Would the loss of, say, $30 million a year in DSH funding be crippling? Maybe VCU could spin a tale of woe that would persuade me otherwise, but it sure doesn’t look like it.

Don’t get me wrong. Hospital profits are a good thing. Try getting your healthcare from money-losing hospitals — you won’t like it. Even not-for-profits need earnings to help fund expansions and new initiatives. But when hospitals are funded with public funds and receive special tax exemptions, the public has a right to ask tough questions.

Update: The Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association response to Thompson’s study can be seen here. The main thrust: The data is two years old, and the financial pressure on Virginia hospitals has intensified since then.

– JAB

Race, Culture and SOLs

by James A. Bacon

Here we go one more time… Does cultural background influence the likelihood of Virginia students passing the Standards of Learning tests, or do disparities in results between racial/ethnic groups reflect only the disparity in resources allocated to different schools?

Over the past week, I have been arguing that cultural background is one critical differentiator, not the dominant differentiator — poverty (or economic disadvantage) accounts for roughly 57% of the variation — but it is nonetheless an important one. I allow for the possibility that some schools are better run than others, some teachers better than others, and that differences in resources may account for some variation. But culture is a significant factor, as can plainly be seen in the superior academic performance of Asians, both economically advantaged and disadvantaged, across the board.

But some readers doggedly refuse to acknowledge that culture plays any meaningful role. Among the most tenacious is our old friend Larry Gross, who asks a valid question that needs to be addressed. Pick the same school division, say Fairfax County. Then pick different schools within that division. The SOL pass rate for black children varies substantially. As he commented in my last post, “The SOL Debate: Bringing Asians into the Equation,” pass rates for blacks for 3rd grade reading in some of the Fairfax Elementary schools are all over the map:

Annadale Terrace 36%
Bren Mar Park 62%
Bull Run 71%
Brush Hill 47%
Rolling Valley 50%
Saratoga 46%

“How,” he asks, “is this explained by culture?”

Let’s take a closer look. Here are the average SOL pass rates for all subjects at all six schools — hand picked by Larry to illustrate his point — broken down by race/ethnicity and by economic disadvantage, with the same information presented in chart form below. (Note: the DOE data did not include some scores for certain subjects for certain racial/ethnic groups. I have made the necessary adjustments.)

fairfax_elementary_SOLs

fairfax_pass_chartAs expected, economic disadvantage plays a major role. For every ethnic/racial group, economically disadvantaged students showed a lower SOL pass rate than those not disadvantaged.

However, differences remain. Same school division, same schools, same economic classification…. We see the same pattern repeated over and over. Asians score highest, whites not quite as high, Hispanics lower, and blacks lower. As discussed in other blog posts, the difference between whites and Hispanics largely disappears when adjusted for English proficiency. But Asians consistently score higher than other races, and blacks usually, although not always, score lower.

Does that settle the issue? Probably not. Here’s what we don’t know. Are some of the selected six schools better run, do they have more experienced teachers, or do they have more resources, any of which my skew results between schools? Those factors undoubtedly come into play — we just can’t isolate those variables from this data.

Am I saying that culture accounts for all the variation between racial/ethnic performance in those six schools? Of course not. Clearly, even after adjusting for economic disadvantage and ethnic background, some variability remains. Equally clearly, there is a lot of variability within ethnic/racial groups. Some Asian kids just can’t get their act together. Some African-American kids are academic superstars.

But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that culture explains some of the overall superior academic performance of Asian kids. Such a conclusion is not terribly controversial. We see the high performance of Asians back in the home countries of China, Korea and Japan. We’ve all heard of “Tiger moms.” We observe that Asians are not nearly as prominent on athletic teams but way over-represented when academic awards are handed out. We can admit the obvious because it does not upset deeply held political views on race and race relations. But as soon as we begin talking about the differences between whites and blacks, talk of culture becomes incredibly touchy. Indeed, a lot of people, suspecting racist motives, find it offensive when conservative white people bring the subject up.

But the idea that cultural attitudes affect educational outcomes is not terribly controversial in the black community. Bill Cosby famously highlighted the issue. Just yesterday Michelle Obama stressed the importance of education to an inner-city Atlanta school: Continue reading

Smart Cities Tech Meets Sea Level Rise

In the most imaginative and useful application of crowd-sourcing technology I’ve seen in Virginia, Hampton Roads Cares has helped fund creation of the Wetlands Watch Sea-Level Rise app. Right now, you don’t know where it’s going to flood until you’re in the middle of it, says Skip Stiles, executive director of Wetlands Watch, in this video. “As long as you’re out there, wheel-well deep in water, you might as well be telling the person behind you that it’s wet here.” The ultimate goal: to provide enough data to help scientists and modelers predict where flooding will occur. – JAB