Dude! WaPo Columnist Ventures Look at Downstate Road Project!

Robert McCartney, a Washington Post columnist, has done a remarkable thing: He has taken a look at a transportation project outside the Washington region and decided he didn’t like what he saw. Not only is the Charlottesville Bypass ill conceived, it is part of a pattern in which the McDonnell administration “relentlessly pushes a major highway project despite abundant evidence that the money could be spent more wisely elsewhere.” By way of specifics, he also cites the U.S. 460 upgrade between Suffolk and Petersburg and the Bi-County Parkway.

What makes the column remarkable is that McCartney escapes the usual myopia in which the newspapers serving Virginia markets focus monomaniacally on transportation projects in their readership zones without the slightest interest in anything occurring anywhere else. Thus, the Rail-to-Dulles rail project and the Bi-County Parkway receive heavy coverage from Washington-area media but other newspapers are no more interested than if they occurred in Boston or New York. It amazes me that Rail-to-Dulles, perhaps the biggest infrastructure project in Virginia history, has gotten zero visibility downstate.

Likewise, the Charlottesville Bypass has gotten no attention outside Charlottesville, the Midtown-Downtown Tunnel has garnered none outside Hampton Roads, and U.S. 460, which is outside any major newspaper’s circulation zone, has generated minimal coverage by any major metro daily.

Thus, no one gets the big picture. No one tunes into how mega-projects of questionable value around the state have consumed a disproportionate share of state transportation resources. No one questions the processes that determine how transportation funding priorities are set. And no one wonders if governance of the system needs reform. Instead, everyone goes along — baah, baah, baah — and agrees to raise taxes.

So, thank you Mr. McCartney, for proving to be a rare exception to the rule. Not that the media’s approach to covering transportation will change. But the column was a refreshing departure from the norm.

– JAB

22 Responses to Dude! WaPo Columnist Ventures Look at Downstate Road Project!

  1. McCartney is a typical WaPo columnist. He’s for spending and higher taxes. especially when proposed by Democrats. He has been a cheerleader for Dulles Rail, pretending it was going to make a huge difference in reducing traffic congestion, while ignoring that it is a trigger for massive increases in density that, in turn, will yield huge increases in auto traffic and massive bills to fund the infrastructure that will be needed to attempt to handle the added motor vehicles.

    A boondoggle is a boondoggle, and a giveaway of taxpayer money is a giveaway of taxpayer money.

    Why should RoVAins care about Dulles Rail? Most of the funding, including state funding, comes from higher tolls on the DTR. And NoVAians are soon to be paying higher taxes than RoVAians.

  2. “To me, it’s just immoral to take money from taxpayers and throw it down a rathole for special interests,” Rich is quoted in Washington Post opinion.

    This is the key problem as stated by a guy who is in the know by reason of his personal experience on the transportation board.

    There is a corrupt system going on here. It’s a scandal. And its pervasive throughout the system. Arlington County’s Million Dollar Bus stops illustrates just how pervasive is the infection.

    Of course the Washington Post as usual tries to cast this as the work of the GOP devil – this is standard operating procedure for the politically myopic Washington Post whether given as opinion or otherwise.

    In fact this corruption within this system appears to be far broader. Its build in whichever party holds the levers of power. So if one erases the usual knee jerk prejudice of the Washington Post, the article gains clarity.

  3. I would like to see the media actually get off its collective rear end; investigate important and expensive projects; and report the facts. If we had some of this “journalism,” we would probably have better transportation and land use decisions made; less political corruption or the appearances thereof; and probably, a financially healthier media.

    Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R) and Senator Dave Marsden (D) have each tried to force VDOT and the CTB to fund projects that can demonstrate the highest returns for taxpayer dollars in terms of reduced traffic congestion and increased safety. Any real media discussion of this effort? No.

    • Fantastic comment.

      And what is big media afraid of? Their bosses? Their peers? The hard work of an independent mind. Fearless freedom. Lost of flavors? Loss of access? Escape from their own prejudices. The pain of irony, ambiguity and paradox. Loss of a preacher’s soapbox? Loss of the true believer’s innocence? All of the above? Who knows?

      In any case, big media by and large is wandering the desert clueless of all save what’s going on in their heads. That’s the appearance.

    • “Delegate Jim LeMunyon (R) and Senator Dave Marsden (D) have each tried to force VDOT and the CTB to fund projects that can demonstrate the highest returns for taxpayer dollars in terms of reduced traffic congestion and increased safety. Any real media discussion of this effort? No.”

      Why is there not huge support for this idea everywhere throughout the Commonwealth? Why does not the idea fly politically?

  4. Mr. McCartney has done a wonderful job waking — I hope — up taxpayers to the wasting of their dollars.

    However, what’s primarily scarey to me, a transportation writer and former journalism professor, is that our local Charlotteville media has NOT yet even written about the cost factors. It used to be journalistic ethic to “follow the dollar” and, yet, in thousands of words by our local newspaper — which recently spent almost two full broadsheet pages talking about an historic (and important) African-American cemetery in the so-called bypass right-of-way — fails again and again to talk about the money and whether or not the highway is fiscally responsible.

    Hence, the narrative in and Charlottesville, and perhaps just as importantly, in and around Lynchburg, is “left against right.” Amongst many — but not nearly enough — facts that Mr. McCartney alludes to is that true fiscal conservatives, like Jim Rich, are incensed that a Republican government is, in Rich’s words, producing a “scam on the taxpayers.”

    Any fiscal conservative who studies this project — even marginally — realizes quickly why the Taxpayers for Common Sense call it one of the nation’s eight worst projects.

    As Bacon’s Rebellion analyzed in Feb. 2012, no business on the planet, not even a former Soviet business, would spend $300 million to produce only $8 million in benefits.

    • salz says “is that our local Charlotteville media has NOT yet even written about the cost factors. It used to be journalistic ethic to “follow the dollar” and, yet, in thousands of words by our local newspaper — which recently spent almost two full broadsheet pages talking about an historic (and important) African-American cemetery in the so-called bypass right-of-way”

      Perhaps this has to do with the emphasis of today’s education. While the cemetary aspect is surely an important story, it perhaps blinded the reporters to another important story – the cost and follow the money story.

      Or equally likely the education of many of today’s reporters has a hole in it. They do not understand business. And perhaps some of that is also driven by their attitude that business is evil and not worth understanding.

      If this be correct, than it suggests that many of today’s reporters are not equipped by their education to understand how much of the world works. You cannot intelligently delve in a world that you do not understand or appreciate at least on some base level.

      I believe that a strong and robust private business community is critical of our society’s success. (Likely many reporters today do not believe that, or have no interest in the idea.) But, like every institution, a strong private business sector must be intelligently watched, criticized and held to account.

      Unfortunately, it appears that much of today’s press cannot play its oversight roll in fairly reporting on business. They either ignore the real problems and are blind to them or they attack business blindly without the understanding or appreciation of what business is or what it needs. And often this criticism comes through the lens of politics or group think, something the reporter thinks he or she understands or is passionate about.

      So far too often you get knee jerk inappropriate criticism that clouds and distorts issues rather than enlightening the reader as to what is going on.

      • Excellent points, Mr. Fawell. Please read Bernard Goldberg’s “Bias” which talks about the group think issue which ALL humans — and reporters are just screwed up as the rest of the planet — are susceptible to. (Did I spell that correctly?)

        As a journalist my entire adult life, the attitude that makes a good journalist is the hunger to learn “why?” That question has literally NOT been asked in Cville media. Why does anyone want this highway? Below is what one proponent, a county supervisor, has emailed as his reasons in response to Mr. McCartney’s column:

        Everyone has an opinion of their own. I personally have my own idea of the US 29 Western Bypass which is, I am a proponent of the transportation improvement US 29 Western Bypass. If we do not build this road now? Albemarle County will wait 30 more years for the possibility of any improvements in transportation in and or around the area. And, where would you put this road?
        This road will improve the congestion problems on US 29.
        Like I said, everyone has an opinion!!!!!

        Rodney S. Thomas
        Albemarle County Supervisor
        Rio District
        434-242-3322

  5. “Most of the funding, including state funding, comes from higher tolls on the DTR (Dulles Toll Road). ”

    This is TMT’ statement in his first comment. It is highly insightful.

    It explains a lot. Tolls roads thrive on congestion. The more traffic the richer the owners of the Toll Road. Toll roads live off of traffic, the heavier the traffic the better for the toll road. The pain that traffic inflicts onto the driving public ends up in the toll road owners’ pockets. Some N. Va folks pay more money monthly to the toll operators than to own their car.

    This explains much of the political influence behind the north south connector. This truck road to no where is good for the business for those who operate nearby toll roads. It will make them rich.

    They’ll benefit from even more congestion and the pain it inflicts on fellow citizens. The money of those forced to endure the pain goes into the pocket of tolls operators. Either that, or it goes into the coffers of government that wastes money on this never ending cycle of road building that lines the pocket of private interests as endless sprawl slithers across the landscape.

    • In this regard, it would be interesting to know how the state’s interest in buying the Dulles and Greenway Toll Roads fits into the North South Connector proposal.

      See: http://washingtonexaminer.com/virginia-lawmakers-consider-buying-greenway-backing-dulles-toll-road-debt/article/2518421

      • Likely the answer is obvious.

      • For decades I have considered the traffic in N. Va. outrageous and immoral. How can anyone justify wasting hours hours of other citizens lives every day in gridlock traffic and not fix the problem? How can anyone spend billions of taxpayer dollars on the problem and not fix it. How can this go on for 30 years and not be fixed, but only get worse.

        I’ve been unable to find the answer to those questions. But the north south connector with all its complexity is perhaps beginning to shed light on some possible answers, or at least make a start toward doing so.

        1/ Perhaps some in Northern Virginia thinks they cannot afford to solve the problem. Perhaps they’re earning too much money off the Dulles Toll Road to reduce traffic. Perhaps they need all that miserable traffic to pay debts and bills, and/or to keep earning or making more money. Perhaps now they think ever more tolls and traffic are necessary to keep up their old ways of doing business, feeding at the public trough, while they go about claiming to solve the public problems of the hour.

        2/ Perhaps Virginia leaders really do not want to solve the problem. Too much much money is being made by powerful interests, including local governments and private interests of all sorts, when building roads. Too much money is being made by powerful interests when exploiting land being opened up by roads. After all there are endless ways to make money off roads that open up cheap lands, and endless ways to make money off public transportation into more expensive land. And the quickest easiest way to do it is to do it is without regard for long term result, but for short term gain. This seems to happen over and over in N. Va. Decisions made for quick profit without regard for the long term health and welfare of the people who live and work there, raise families there, or travel through there on their way to some place else.

        3/ Perhaps the ones that keep making these decisions don’t feel the inconvenience or the pain or the frustration of most citizens there because they (unlike most folks) are sufficiently well off financially to avoid all that suffering yet clever enough to make a good living off of it.

        I say this knowing full well that N. Va. has in many ways been and is now an incredible success story. Great wealth, income, education, public service and many fine servants too. But all people have is time. And when a society forces individuals to waste three hours day getting to work, or getting home to see their kids, or to the read, or relax, and pay the government a toll for the robbing of those three hours – when this happens, then something is terrible wrong. And worse if leaders will not fix it. In such case, no one should be allowed to make money off of it. They ought to fix it instead.

      • The same forces appear to be at work in the C’ville by-pass controversy. And they fit into a neat pattern.

        Here in C’ville to date substantial sums have been spent with no apparent result other than to feed contractors working on the job. Huge sums will be spent if the project goes ahead for very little gain in return, all of it apparently driven by business interests far south of C’ville.

        So all these taxpayer dollars will be spend on the C’ville By-pass to gain 4 to 7 minutes minutes for trucks headed north from Danville Virginia on their way to Gainesville, Virginia.

        Why Gainesville?

        Where will these trucks go from Gainesville? Into DC? Onto the capital beltway round DC? Or down the north South Connector to I-95. Or Up I-66 to Dulles airport using the North south connector?

        It seems like the State of Virginia’s Transportation Board wants to spend huge taxpayer dollars to take 4 to 7 minutes off the travel time of a four hour truck ride though central Virginia in order to get those Danville Virginia trucks up into northern Virginia and into that truck distribution center it plans for Dulles Airport and Loudoun County.

        This has the hallmarks of Robert Moses, the Power Broker. Grisham can write a novel too – The Virginia Power Road Broker.

  6. Actually, the columnist has criticized the new 460 so the headline on this blog post is a little misleading.

  7. yet more outstanding points, Mr. Fawell.

    FYI: VDOT has only once analyzed the time savings of the so-called Western Bypass IF the bypass includes — which at this moment it doesn’t — flyovers at both the Southern and Northern Termini. It’s old, about 15 years, but VDOT found (rather the 4-7 minutes taht some spokesman told Mr. McCartney) trucks would save 66 seconds if they took the 6.2 mile bypass over taking the existing 4.3 miles of U.S. 29.

    Steve Newman, senate transportation chair, has been claiming that IF there was a bypass of Cville, manufacturers could get their trucks from Lynchburg (and Danville) to the consumer markets in NYC, Boston, Philly, D.C.

    Does any businessman/woman build a new plant anywhere on the planet to save 4-7 minutes, much less one minute, in the 10-hour drive from Lynchburg to NYC???

    Jim Rich, a 20-year member of the state’s GOP executive committee, was fired by the Republican governor and sec trans last fall for continuing to raise such questions.

    Please, wherever you live, Mr. Fawell, contact your delegate, your senator, your politicians and say, “Look into that bypass project in Charlottesville. We need that money here (where you live) and it appears to be wasted down there.”

    It IS being wasted here. The only legitimate (and people can argue with my definition of legitimate) argument in favor of the bypass is that the state has already spent $47 million on the project. BUT the vast majority of that money has been right-of-way purchase and the right-of-way can be sold back. Today, the state would actually MAKE money in selling it back over what they purchsed years ago.

    In the last major expenditure (non ROW) a $1.5 million North 29 Corridor study in 2009, VDOT very clearly said that the bypass does not deal with congestion or safety and is not a recommended way to spend taxpayer dollars.

  8. I think Rodney Thomas is right. If Charlottesville says “no” they won’t see another substantial improvement for 30 years.

    The Imperial Clown Show in Richmond manages the transportation process in such an incompetent manner you don’t dare say “no” to something that saves 7 minutes. By the time the CTB and the General Assembly get around to looking at your region again the delay might be 47 minutes.

    The CTB is a useless, misshapen organization based on the population demographics in Virginia in 1936. They are a bunch of political wannabes who “rubber stamp” everything put in front of them. And the political masters who decide what to put in front of them have their hands embedded in the pockets of every special interest in the state.

    McDonnell is in yet another jam for charging the taxpayers for his children’s school supplies, etc. Good lord, how deep does this go?

    If you want to make any progress on any major issues in Virginia you must first gut the state government.

    1. Term limits for General Assembly members.
    2. Move to even year elections.
    3. Establish an ethics commission.
    4. Judiciary either elected by the people or appointed by a merit board.
    5. Non-partisan redistricting board.
    6. Limit campaign contributions.
    7. No gifts to government officials by anybody with business before the state.

    You can complain and complain until you are blue in the face. Unless you fix the broken governance process there will be no end to these problems.

  9. I had a transportation reporter say to me that he didn’t want to talk about the excessive costs of the Dulles Rail project, because he didn’t want to torpedo the project. I had another reporter give me a good interview, and her broadcast captured and presented my position accurately and honestly, after she and the whole newsroom had all but cheerleaded the opposite position from the pro-Dulles Rail / Silver Line people.

    My conclusion is that the news media doesn’t know the details, because they don’t have time to drill into the stories in any depth. There are too many stories popping up every day. They are running around like mad trying to cover the stories, and they get snookered by the public relations operations of the monied interests, who are clever and experienced and plan their angles carefully. Facts are usually dry and boring; clever actors who plan their moves and have a happy funny game and/or some version of an October Surprise at every turn, and they get big coverage and have great influence because it excites viewers instead of depressing them or boring them to sleep; and those of us who notice a ripoff and jump in unprepared and inexperienced, thinking that a recital of facts will awaken the masses, are at a huge disadvantage.

    So, what happens is that big international companies that have played these games many times before, set up a game plan and start a surprise campaign, including pre-aligning crooks in various parties and positions of power, and they immediately have a first-strike advantage. They are well prepared for the protests they will get, and the paths and loopholes they will navigate are well known to them, while their civic-minded opponents find it a big surprise-a-minute whack-a-mole game. The editorials say “Oh, well we need to reduce congestion,” and the article comments are full of pen-name trolls you never heard of, dragging everything down to the middle school playground level and then disappearing.

    I’m not sure it would benefit reporters in any way to be more fully aware of what is really going on. What are they going to do? Viewers, listeners and readers want exciting entertainment, but drilling into stories takes hours, and they don’t have hours. So, well-orchestrated distractions rule the day.

    I read that transportation, worldwide, will most likely be a 27 Trillion dollar goldmine in the coming years. You better believe the experienced, well prepared international companies are planning their acquisition of that money, while we mumble and grumble. How can we beat them instead?

    Who knows, we might actually embarrass them once in a while, as Silver Spring Transit Center after Million Dollar Bus Stop after Non-Working Emergency Intercoms (for years!) after Expensive Near-Comic Possible Criminal Antics at MWAA after after Overestimated Ridership after Expensive Dubious Project after Collapsing Bridge after Broken Rail after Seven Million Dollar Shooting Range scroll past, day after day. But they will still laugh all the way to the bank, won’t they.

    • Bob, I am coming to believe that its likely that your above commentary is far too often pretty close to the mark, at lease on certain very major projects.

      And I suspect that on these particular projects, the good guys are far too often outmaneuvered and/ or outsmarted by the contractors. And/or they are also at the same time overworked and/or undermanned, and thus have given up by reason of exhaustion or lack of internal support from their peers and underlings, and/or because their superiors have failed them.

      And/or that somewhere along the line of working within such a system with all of this internal dysfunction, they have in effect gone over to the other side, and thus can no longer effectively represent the state (much less the taxpayer) for a whole range of reasons going from pernicious malfeasance in a few cases to the many cases of simple apathy by reason of their having given up fighting the inertia that the system forces on them, or by having lost perspective on what their job is about given the natural corruption of the system over time, as likely was the case with the million dollar bus stop.

      In any case the result is always the same – all taxpayers and public users get the shaft every day of their lives, as do those in the system who fight it.

  10. re: the international companies

    would not have a chance of a snowball in Hades if the pubic was actually willing
    to pay taxes for transportation. When the public refuses, the the transportation agencies go to tolls. The problem with tolls is that they suck up the borrowing ability of the state so the state tries to find private sector investment capital.

    part of the program is the news people but they’re like a lot of Americans who themselves do not educate themselves on the facts when they could so they blame the papers instead.

    we have a blame game society these days. We refuse to educate ourselves on the issues then when things don’t work out the way we’d like – we find people an institutions to blame.

    It’s US…. as POGO said.

    DJ has made the point many times – that our gas tax is less than 1/2 that it ought to be if it tracked inflation like other things did.

    Yet citizens, like those in Va, have made it clear, that increasing the gas tax will have election consequences. Indeed, they feel like McDonnell stabbed them in the back on his anti-gas-tax bonifies that he ran for election on.

    we are the enemy here… we fail to take some level of responsibility for what we want vs what we are willing to pay for.

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