Category Archives: Economic development

A Frenchman Turns Economics Upside Down

Thomas-PikettyBy Peter Galuszka

Call it “The Anti-Baconomics.”

Thomas Piketty, a French economist, is turning conventional, conservative economic thinking on its head. Goodbye to the idea that all boats rise in capitalism. What we are seeing instead is a dangerous concentration of  21st century wealth in the hands of an ever-smaller elite.

This is Piketty’s message in his book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (a 700-pager on my reading list) that caught Europe by storm last year and is now a best-seller in this country.

Unlike convention wisdom, the thesis from this thinker from the Paris School of Economics is that Marx was wrong about capitalism self-destructing but so is Nobel Prize winner Simon Kuznets who posited a few decades ago that the inequality gap inevitably grows smaller with economic growth. Just the opposite, it turns out.

“One of the great divisive forces at work today,” Pinketty has said, “is what I call meritocratic extremism. This is the conflict between billionaires, whose income comes from property and assets, such as a Saudi prince, and super-managers. Neither of these categories makes or produces anything but their wealth, which is really a super-wealth that has broken away from the everyday reality of the market, which determines how most ordinary people live.”

This is why, perhaps, middle class families struggle to see declining disposable income while others who do not produce wealth but slice it and dice, like hedge fund managers or managers of huge corporations, are safe with their unsinkable portfolios. It is the same in just about any country, capitalist or no, from the U.S., to Spain, to China, to India to Russia.

If this continue continues unabated, as it probably will, you will see increasing social unrest as the 21st century wears on.

It seems interesting that Piketty who is in this 40s, came up of this relatively free from the residual Marxist thinking, or Keynesian for that matter, that did lurk in the background of many college economics intro courses. The Frenchman seems to be viewing things through a new prism of what has actually been happening over the past five decades when the middle class dream started evaporating and hard work, sacrifice and productivity simply no longer mattered.

If you read one of the books published a few years back by a prominent blogger here, you get the same-old Reaganomics of trickle down topped with a sauce of the Protestant worth ethic masquerading as agnosticism.

What’s the upshot of Piketty? It seems to be taxes, taxes and more taxes. In other words, it is time to start considering redistributing wealth from the elite back to their societies. The question seems to be “Why not? The elite didn’t really earn it anyway.”

Read meat for conservatives. The right-wing media has launched an anti-Piketty counterattack which is healthy and predictable. But he has a few things going for him. Given his youth, he represents the fresh views of up-and-coming thought leaders. And their thoughts are hardly the conventional all-boats-rise sophistry. Watch as the debate becomes stronger.

The Perils of Gas Fracking

By Peter Galuszka

More media accounts are showing up now that 84,000 acres of lands south and east of Fredericksburg have been leased for possible hydraulic fracturing drilling for natural gas.

This Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch published a map showing the leased area covering big swaths of land from the Fort A.P. Hill military area east across the Rappahanock River on  into the historic Northern Neck. These are some of the loveliest parts of the Old Dominion, featuring  sloping valleys, rich bottom lands and meandering creeks and rivers that are filled with wildlife, not to mention farms and homes.

The newspaper quoted Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council proclaiming fracking as being safe and that the construction activity to place wells only takes a few months. “It’s like a construction site,” Ward said. “As it’s being done, there is going to be truck traffic. There’s going to be noise. There’s going to be some dust in the air. There’s going to be mud around the area. But that’s short-lived.”

Really? To be a better idea, I started surfing YouTube to see what the local impact of constructing fracking wells is really like. I happened upon several films from rural Harrison County, W.Va., an area where I lived as a child from 1962 to 1969.

The videos show an area in western Harrison County near the college town of Salem in landscape surrounded by rolling hills and dairy farms. There has been coal mining in the area and natural gas has been around for decades, but fracking wells are something new.

The videos depict an ongoing nightmare for neighbors who have found their quiet, bucolic existence interrupted 24/7 by the roaring of diesel generators, huge floodlights, and many, many trucks. One woman says that the well site across her road starts up around 4 a.m. and she can’t get back to sleep so she’s constantly tired when she goes to work.

Water and construction trucks, many 18-wheelers, are a big problem. They sideswipe cars on rural, two-lane roads or block traffic for a half an hour after they get stuck trying to turn around. The heavy trucks crumble pavement on country roads. Some local ones have had to be repaved four times since drill site preparation began a couple of years ago when the fracking craze began.

It seems likely that areas near Fredericksburg and on the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula will taste some of the same problems if fracking begins. The Taylorsville Basin in the area may hold 1 trillion cubic feet of gas.

Further questions abound about the company that’s putting together leases for the area. It is an obscure company called Shore Exploration & Production Co. with offices in Dallas and Bowling Green. The plan, company officials have said, is to put buy up gas leases and then flip them to a drilling company.

The company insists it won’t use a “watery” method of fracking but can’t seem to explain its supposed substitute which is to use some form of nitrogen. In West Virginia, wells can need up to five million gallons of water that must be trucked in. Does this mean that trucks carrying nitrogen will come in instead?

Answers seem to be as fleeting as the Shore company which has two full-time employees and has no annual report or website. It has never drilled a well itself, just exploratory ones. One official told a newspaper that having an annual report and website “would provide information to competitors.”

That statement alone should give tremendous pause. What happens if you live in the country of the Northern Neck and a gas well emerges next door? What happens if your life is disrupted by 24-hour diesel generators, lights and dozens of heavy trucks? What happens if the “flow-back” ponds that contain waste, including radioactive material and methane from the drilling area below, breach?

Eastern Virginia is not used to such challenges. As a former resident of West Virginia where such challenges are common, I know well what this kind of set-up can mean, especially in Virginia that has some gas wells in its southwestern tip but has little experience with fracking.

Silicon Valley Knows Technology, Not Land Use

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif.

Apple headquarters, Cupertino, Calif. Impressive facade but poor public spaces.

by James A. Bacon

Apple, Google and other collosi of Silicon Valley are re-shaping the world with their technology but you could never imagine them as masters of innovation by viewing their corporate campuses. While the office interiors may be arrayed with java bars and collaborative workplaces to stimulate creativity, the building exteriors are for the most part bland steel-and-glass boxes of a type that can be found anywhere in the United States. Moreover, surrounded by parking lots and landscaping, the buildings are isolated — islands in a sea of mulch and asphalt. Creativity and interaction end at the front door. The streets, sidewalks and other pieces of the public realm are innovation dead zones.

That was the impression I gained from the Bacon family’s whirlwind tour of Silicon Valley earlier this week that took in the corporate headquarters not only of Apple and Google but Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo! and LinkedIn. Perhaps we arrived at the wrong time of year, the wrong time of the week or the wrong hour of the day but we saw almost nothing going on. Most of the street-level activity at Apple was generated by tourist traffic to the Apple store. The environs of the famed Googleplex were even more desolate.

google_bikes

Vaughn and Wilson in “The Internship.”

I was expecting bustling outdoor scenes like those shown in the movie, “The Internship,” in which Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn finagled their way into summer jobs at Google and into movie goers’ hearts. We didn’t see bupkis. I sneaked around the back of one of the buildings in the Googleplex and did discover an inviting patio with bright umbrellas but didn’t see anyone except a couple of maintenance guys standing around and shooting the breeze. As we drove around the Google corporate campus with its dozens of buildings, we did espy one multi-colored Google bike leaning against a wall and we did spot one fellow riding down the road, but we saw hardly anyone walking outside. Undoubtedly, billions of neurons were burning brightly inside Google’s buildings — but there was no sign of the company’s massive brainpower on display outside. It turns out that, according to CNN, much of the movie wasn’t filmed at Google at all — but the Georgia Institute of Technology campus in Atlanta!

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. According to the Google corporate address listed in Google maps, we did.

The Google H.Q. is so low-key in appearance, we wondered if we had the right place. This is where Google Maps led us.

Who cares whether the innovation occurs inside or outside? Why mess with a proven formula? More to the point, what does a techno-tard like me have useful to say to the likes of Apple and Google, two of the greatest wealth creation machines in human history?

I didn’t visit Silicon Valley with the idea of lecturing the region’s political, business and civic leaders how to improve, which would be incredibly presumptuous on my part. I visited to learn what lessons other communities might learn. Scores of regions around the United States yearn to re-create some of the valley’s technology magic, and I worry they could draw the wrong conclusions. The one dimension of Silicon Valley that others can most readily replicate is its “suburban sprawl” pattern of development — and that would be the worst possible lesson to take away.

Apple parking lot

The parking lots outside Apple’s headquarters are beautifully landscaped but they wall off pedestrian access to the world outside.

I would humbly suggest that Silicon Valley has been insanely successful in spite of its dysfunctional human settlement patterns. Combine world-class research universities, the largest venture capital community in the world and an unparalleled workforce, then shake and stir. You’ll get technological innovation. Silicon Valley’s corporations can create a built environment that discourages interaction outside the firm and it doesn’t matter — the advantages of a Silicon Valley location far outweigh the drawbacks. But no one else has Silicon Valley’s potent mix of research universities, venture capitalists and the smartest engineers drawn from around the world. Other communities need every competitive advantage they can muster — and smarter land use patterns is one of them.

As Hans Johannson has argued in his book, “The Medici Effect,” innovation comes at the intersection — the intersection of different industries, disciplines, cultures or ways of thinking — that allow people to make unlikely combinations of ideas. Some places lend themselves to that kind of interaction, others don’t. Based on her experience living in Greenwich Village a generation ago, renowned urbanist Jane Jacobs brilliantly argued that sidewalks, small parks and mixed uses lent themselves to the kind of meetings and encounters, often serendipitous, where different perspectives and ideas can collide. To spawn entrepreneurship from the ground up, those are the kinds of neighborhoods and communities that aspiring tech centers should be creating.

The built environment of Silicon Valley is Northern Virginia with palm trees — predominantly single-family houses, strip malls and office parks. Thanks to municipal codes and NIMBYs, the region can increase density only sparingly, so it cannot grow “up” by building taller buildings. But wedged between the bay to the north and mountains to the south, it cannot grow “out” through additional sprawl. As a consequence, real estate prices are incredibly high. The cost of housing across the Valley and throughout the entire Bay area is consistently cited as one of the greatest hindrances to living there. The number of homeless in the San Jose metro region, according to the Wall Street Journal, numbers roughly 7,600. To adopt similar land use policies would suicidal for any other region.

Municipal leaders recognize these shortcomings and are attempting belatedly and with mixed results to deal with them. I will discuss two such initiatives in Sunnyvale, as time permits.

Over Budget, Seven Months Late… and Counting

Phase 1 of the Rail-to-Dulles project was supposed to be the good phase. For quite a while, it appeared to be running on budget and on time, providing reason to be optimistic that the highly controversial Phase 2 of the project might do so as well. But it hasn’t worked out that way. The story has been chronicled in the Northern Virginia press but has gotten little attention downstate, even though Virginia taxpayers are helping to foot the bill for the mega-project.

The track and stations all have been built but a critical piece of the infrastructure – the installation of radios that don’t meet code — as well as leaky roofs at rail stations and various technical problems have delayed the opening seven months so far. Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority officials say they do not know when the rail line will open. Now, in the latest wrinkle, project manager Pat Nowakowski has announced his resignation, purportedly for reasons unrelated to the delays, according to the Washington Post, making resolution of the issues even more difficult.

When a project of this magnitude runs this late, and property owners in the Tysons area have invested millions of dollars in expectation of a Metro-led surge in demand, this cannot end well. Meanwhile, we have this piece of news: The office vacancy rate in Fairfax County crept another half percentage point higher in 2013 to 14.9%, the highest since the Savings & Loan crisis of 1991. So reports Inside Nova.  And, as I blogged yesterday, population growth in Northern Virginia has slowed markedly.

– JAB

April Is The Cruelest Month

deepwaterBy Peter Galuszka

April is the cruelest month, especially for brutal energy disasters.

This Sunday is the fourth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling blowout that killed 11 and caused one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. April 5 was the fourth anniversary of the Upper Big Branch coal mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29.

What lessons have been learned from both? Not a hell of a lot. In both cases, badly needed, tougher regulations to prevent such messes from happening again go languishing while politicians – including Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe – say move on fast for more exploitation of energy resources including in Virginia’s sensitive offshore waters.

Take Deepwater Horizon. The rig linked to British Petroleum in the Gulf of Mexico was tapping reserves 5,000 feet down. When the rig hit a rough patch, the blowback exploded upwards, racking the surface part with explosion and fires. Down below, a blowout protector was supposed to swing into action, chop into the pipe and shut down any flow. That didn’t happen and oil flowed freely at the bottom until July 15 generating one of the biggest oil spills ever.

Four years later, what has been done? According to experts S. Elizabeth Birnbaum, and Jacqueline Savitz, not enough. In December 2011, the National Academy of Engineering reported that Deepwater’s blowout preventer had never been designed or tested for the conditions that occurred and that other rigs may have the same problem.

Sixteen months later, nothing has been done in terms of new regulations – not even proposed one. It sounds as if that socialist-minded, regulation maniac Barack Obama is actually off the job. Meanwhile, McAuliffe changed his mind about the risks of offshore drilling and has jumped on board the Republican bandwagon led by former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell to expose Virginians to similar dangers.

McAuliffe’s turnaround came last year during the gubernatorial campaign. According to the Washington Post: “Terry has learned more about offshore drilling from experts in Virginia,” said McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin. “He thinks that because of technological progress we can now do it in a responsible fashion.”

Say what? Maybe he should take a trip to Brazil and Norway that have more advanced blow-out preventers and policies. By the way, Democrat Mark Warner, running for re-election for U.S. Senate, is for offshore drilling as well.

If you really want to see evidence of the lack of regulation, check out Upper Big Branch owned by the former, Richmond-based Massey Energy.

The firm was notorious for its anti-regulation, anti-labor union policies led by its in-your-face chief executive Don Blankenship. Four reports say that Massey’s lax safety standards allowed the disaster to happen, including letting badly maintained equipment be used and not taking measures to keep highly explosive coal dust from building up. A flame caused by a ball of flaming methane touched off the dust leading to an underground blast that covered seven miles underground. In the process, 29 miners were either blown apart of asphyxiated in the worst coal mine disaster in 40 years.

Every mine event has led to some kind of regulatory reform such as the one at Farmington, W.Va. that killed 78 in 1968 and the Buffalo Creek W.Va. coal sludge pond breach and flood that killed 125 in 1972.

Post-Upper Big Branch reforms have been proposed, notably the Robert C. Byrd bill that would protect whistleblowers, hold boards of directors responsible for knowing and doing nothing about safety threats and giving the feds subpoena power which, incredibly, they do not now have in the case of mine safety. The Department of Agriculture can subpoena records in the case of possible milk or meat price-fixing, but the Mine Safety and Health Administration cannot in the case of human miners.

The Byrd bill is all but dead mostly because of the Republican controlled House of Representatives where the majority leader is none-other than business toady Eric Cantor of Henrico County.

And if you want to understand just how little miners’ lives are regarded, compare the media coverage of Deepwater Horizon versus Upper Big Branch. I guess you could say that in the media’s eyes, the life of an offshore rig worker is worth 2.6 times that of a coal miner.  Six months after Deepwater, there were at least six books about the disaster. Four years after Upper Big Branch there is one book about it and it happens to be mine.

So, this Sunday, I propose a toast to the dead oil rig workers and coal miners. Let’s not allow their souls to stay on our consciences. Let’s have anti-regulation reign in the name of free market economic policies and profits! It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. Salute!

Fracking the Mother of Presidents

fracking rigBy Peter Galuszka

Controversial hydraulic fracking appears to becoming a distinct possibility in areas south and east of Fredericksburg on land that is famed for its bucolic and watery splendors along with being the birthplaces of such historical figures as George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.

After several years of exploring and buying up 84,000 acres worth of leases from Carolina to Westmoreland Counties, a Dallas-based company that uses a post office box as its headquarters address participated in the first-ever public discussion of what its plans may be.

According to the Free-Lance Star, the meeting was put together by King George County Supervisor Rudy Brabo to air concerns and hear plans of Shore Exploration and Production Co., which is based in Dallas and has offices in Bowling Green. Its headquarters address is registered with the State Corporation Commission as P.O. Box 38101 in Dallas.

About 100 people attended the meeting April 14, but judging from the newspaper’s account, not many questions were answered. Participants repeatedly asked Shore CEO Ed DeJarnette what his plans were regarding fracking and who would be responsible for damages if something went wrong.

DeJarnette responded that his firm is merely buying up leases and is looking to sell them to other gas drillers and operators. The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues permits one at a time and is responsible for enforcing them, he said.

Hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling have touched off a revolution in the American energy industry in recent years, particularly in the Marcellus Shale gas formations that stretch in the Appalachians from New York State to southwest Virginia. The methods have also been used to reach rich shale oil deposits in North Dakota and other western states.

Fracking has been used as a drilling process for years according to media accounts and authors such as Gregory Zuckerman whose recent book “The Frackers” covers the process’s increasingly widespread use in the past several years.

Among concerns are that the toxic chemicals mixed with water and then pumped hundreds of feet underground could eventually ruin groundwater serving streams and wells. Other concerns are that the inevitable “flowback” in drilling will require surface ponds to handle toxic waste. In places such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia where fracking is permitted, quiet country areas are badly disturbed by the roar of diesel generators at drilling sites and from trucks that are constantly delivering drilling supplies. Methane can leak from drilling rigs, further complicating global warming issues, and flash fires can be problems. Fracking can also consume great amounts of water which often has to be trucked in.

On the plus side, holders of mineral leases can receive great sums in royalties and various taxes and other payments can boost local tax coffers. Natural gas is cleaner and less deadly source of energy than coal, plays a big role in electricity power generation in the Mid-Atlantic.

At the King George meeting, DeJarnette told the audience that he preferred using nitrogen as an element in fracking rather than water, but there were few details in the newspaper story.

While providing scarce details on who would actually handle the drilling, how it would be done and who would be responsible for damages, DeJarnette repeatedly emphasized the monetary benefits and jobs fracking would bring.

If it proceeds, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin would likely be confined to Virginia, which is more business-friendly than Maryland where the basin also extends. The field stretches across the Potomac River into Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties but Maryland has a moratorium on fracking until it can be studied further.

DeJarnette says he wants drilling to start by late this year or in 2015. Major oil firms explored the Northern Neck area and found some evidence of oil and gas deposits there in the 1980s.

The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image

richmond-times-dispatchBy Peter Galuszka

If one wants to know one source of Richmond’s malaise, she or he need look no further than the pages of the Richmond Times Dispatch, the mouthpiece of the city’s elite. This is especially true when one reads this morning’s edition. The inadvertent revelations about the city and what is wrong with its leadership are stunning.

Some background. Last week, Style Weekly, an alternative newspaper in the city, published a hard-hitting cover story taking a ground-up view of just how awful and neglected the city’s school buildings and system are. The coverage is very much contrary to the image Richmond’s “leadership” wants to sell about the city.

As the schools are mismanaged and families are abused, the Richmond elite, and the RTD’s editors are pushing other pet projects such as building a new baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom to replace a crumbling one elsewhere and a chamber of commerce trip to Tampa by 159 “leaders” to learn how another city works.

Full disclosure: I am a contributing editor at Style but had no input to the school story. I did file two blog postings about the schools story and received a number of highly insightful comments by readers. The basic problem, as several put it, is that  the schools are a mess is that the middle class has moved to the suburbs, the upper class sends its children to private schools and many of those left aren’t in a position to join the debate are have much influence. One out of every four people living in the city is poor.

The TD’s coverage today is a wonderful blueprint about exactly what is wrong with the elite’s thinking. Examples:

  • The front page features a catch-up story featuring short 125 word essays written by seven city council members and nine school board members. Three council members, Reva Trammell, Michelle R. Mosby and Cynthia Newbill – didn’t respond, perhaps wisely. The story states that judging from the responses, “momentum is building” for “substantive change.” The council, the school board and the mayor are working together. Mind you, this is not based on any real reporting—such as shoe leather in the school halls. Instead, one gets to read what the leadership responsible for the horrific problems thinks about them – sort of like interviewing the foxes after they raid the chicken coop. An added extra: the RTD claims it sent out its questionnaires before Style published its story, sort of like backdating stock options.
  • Flip to the “Commentary” section and a piece by John W. Martin, CEO and president of the “Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond and frequent opinions contributor to the TD. His piece is basically an extended apology for proposing a new stadium in the middle of the blooded ground of the country’s second-largest slave market – standard stuff. Especially bizarre is the art. It is a cartoon drawing of what appears to be an interracial couple happily walking near what could be a combined slave memorial ballpark. The man is white, blond, wears a Richmond polo shirt and is flipping a baseball. His arm is around an African-American woman in sports togs and carrying designer shopping bags. In front is an apparently mixed-race child in a Flying Squirrels baseball cap happily holding out his glove to catch the ball from dad. The effect is downright creepy. It insults the intelligence of the readers and hits a very sensitive raw nerve, given Richmond’s sad history of race relations and the TD’s historic support of segregation five decades ago when it really mattered.
  • Let’s move to the Op-ed page where there is piece by Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the University of Richmond business school and upcoming chair of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. She was part of the chamber’s trip to Tampa to “learn” how they do it (while Richmond’s school buildings crumble). Her important takeaways seem to be that Tampa puts lights on its bridges, that it is a big port city, the region has distinctive personalities and that there are some universities there. Her conclusion: “I fell love with Tampa during out visit, but “I’m still married to Richmond.” Now that is extremely helpful.
  • Lastly, there is an impenetrable story by TD publisher Thomas A. Silvestri about several fictitious people discussing Tampa. Unsure of the point, I read the endline bio of Silvestri. It says he used to head the chamber and did not go on the Tampa trip because he’s been there before.

So, there you have it folks. Instead of real reporting, you have Richmond’s elite, some of whom are responsible for the problems, interviewing themselves. And that is a big reason why the city is in such a huge mess.

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

The Seahawk's Wilson

The Seahawk’s Wilson

 By Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of image-building on this blog site in favor of what is perceived to be a “new” Richmond.

In this view, the former Capital of the Confederacy famous for its gentile white elite and, unfortunately, race politics, is being transformed to a major draw for talented young people and active retirees with plenty of diversity. Some evidence bears this out, such as the wealth of arts and culture and increasing upscale apartment rentals in the city.

The image is being pushed along by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who wants to anchor his downtown drive by placing a controversial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. There is plenty of angst about his idea given that the city has other, more pressing concerns. They include its 26 percent poverty rate and the fact that the mostly white suburban counties seem to be moving farther from the Richmond sphere of influence.

There’s yet another big and unaddressed problem that may spell the ultimate fate of the city. Its school system is decrepit, as two recent stories in Style Weekly to which I contribute, point out.

One is a deeply reported cover story this week by Tom Nash that takes readers on a horrifying tour of several Richmond schools. Thompson Middle School has ceiling that ooze gunk. Diluted tar falls in classrooms. Fairfield Court Elementary needs a new roof. A tile fell on a student but the fix is $90,000 or one fifth of the district’s school budget for the year. Tom reveals more problems at Carver Elementary and Armstrong High, among others.

Most of Richmond’s school buildings are more than 60 years old. Dana Bedden, the system’s new superintendent, says school buildings are the worst he’s ever seen and that includes a stint in the District of Columbia. Reports say that $26 million is needed just this year to make a corrective dent in the problem.

Another Style story of note is an opinion piece by Carol A.O. Wolf, a former journalist and school board member. It was published in February, just after the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. The star was Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson who grew up in Richmond.

Wilson’s dad placed him at Collegiate, a highly regarded private school in the West End. The Sporting News reported that when Wilson was a ninth grader at Collegiate, Richmond public schools started angling to recruit him to play ball for them. Dad said no. According to him, “I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.

Columbia Pike Streetcars: Delving Deeper into the Value-Capture Scenario

by James A. Bacon

Last week, I made the case that the best way to finance construction of the proposed Columbia Pike street car line in Arlington was to set up an improvement district along the route and impose a real estate tax surcharge on property owners to pay off the bonds. (See “A Second Opinion on the Columbia Pike Streetcar.“) “If the property owners are willing to go along, it’s probably a good idea. If they balk, it’s probably not.”

In response, I received an email from Eric Balliet, a communications specialist with Arlington County. His email is worth reproducing in full:

Your concern that the County is not asking the primary beneficiaries of streetcar – property owners along the streetcar line – to pay for these improvements is not completely accurate. Local funding for the streetcar will come from the Transportation Capital Fund, which is used for major investments in transportation infrastructure throughout the County. The Fund is supported by a commercial real estate tax rate of $0.125 per $100 of assessed value. This tax rate applies to all commercial and industrial properties – including those along the streetcar line. Before the General Assembly provided this funding mechanism for jurisdictions to improve transportation infrastructure, the County used limited general tax revenue for that purpose, including for development of Metrorail in the Rosslyn-Ballston and Route 1 corridors.

The County also has established tax increment financing (TIF) to capture the property value created by redevelopment to fund streetcar and other priorities. The Crystal City-Pentagon City-Potomac Yard TIF is helping to pay for infrastructure improvements such as streetcar in support of the Crystal City Sector Plan. The new Columbia Pike TIF will dedicate up to 25 percent of tax revenue growth generated by new development and property appreciation in the commercial and multi-family residential revitalization districts to affordable housing along the Pike. This ensures that some of the money generated by streetcar will help meet our goal of preserving existing affordable housing along the Pike as property values and rents increase.

One final note – regarding the capacity of streetcar versus bus: Today on Columbia Pike, nearly 600 bus trips per weekday carry more than 16,000 passengers daily. Buses already come every 2-3 minutes in rush hour. Based on updated regional population projections and County-adopted plans, we need transit capacity of 38,000+ daily on Columbia Pike by 2035 to ensure it doesn’t become gridlocked. There is not enough street capacity for buses alone to accommodate that many passengers. A streetcar vehicle can hold 100% more passengers than a regular bus and 40% more than an articulated bus. Accommodating more people in fewer vehicles is key to keeping traffic moving.

I thank Balliet for educating me about the mechanisms being used to finance the street car line, of which I had been unaware. This information enrichens the debate. I must give the Arlington Board credit for recognizing that commercial interests would be major beneficiaries of the county’s roughly $300 million streetcar investment and for creating mechanisms that would capture some of the value created by that investment to lessen the burden on general taxpayers. That alone puts Arlington’s streetcar proposal way ahead of downstate mass transit projects, such as Bus Rapid Transit in downtown Richmond and a light rail extension in Virginia Beach, which have no value-capture elements of any kind. So, I toff my hat to the Arlington Board.

That said, while preferable to funding the entire county share from General Fund revenues, Arlington’s financing mechanism is still deficient. First, by imposing what amounts to a real estate tax surcharge on all commercial and industrial properties, the board is creating what might uncharitably be termed a slush fund for transportation projects which, by their very nature, benefit some commercial interests but not others. While the mechanism is fair to residential taxpayers, it is not necessarily fair to commercial property owners. Second, using tax increment financing (TIF) to tap 25% of the growth in property tax revenue generated by new development is largely a cosmetic measure. Columbia Pike property owners enjoy the blessings of higher leases and rents but don’t pay any more under this scheme.

To my mind, there are two important benefits to a strict value-capture financing scheme. One is that it is fairer, requiring beneficiaries of the public improvement pay for the improvement. Second, it creates an objective and non-political mechanism for weighing the risk-adjusted rate of return on the improvement. Let’s imagine that we set up a special Columbia Pike Streetcar District and tell property owners in that district (picking numbers for purposes of illustration), “We’re going to add a 25% surcharge to cover the full cost of financing construction of the streetcar and pay for operating costs not covered by fares. In return, you will get a streetcar system which, by our calculations, will bolster your rents and leases by 10% over time. There are uncertainties in all these numbers but we think we’re pretty close. Would you vote for or against this idea?”

If presented with this choice, the property owners would engage in a vigorous debate over the merits of streetcars and the assumptions embedded in the proposal, leavened by their own intimate knowledge of business conditions and property values along the route. Unlike planners, politicians and pontificators, they would have skin in the game. They would have the most to gain if the streetcar is a hit and the most to lose if it’s a bust. They, unlike politicians, would be likely to base their preference not on ideology but upon a keen awareness of the bottom line. They would be far less likely to engage in wishful thinking. If a significant majority of property owners agreed — as they did when they set up the special tax district to finance U.S. 28 improvements near Washington Dulles International Airport — then the public can have far more confidence that the project makes sound economic sense. That’s no guarantee, of course; businesses often bet wrong on investments. But they bet wrong a lot less frequently than do politicians playing with others peoples’ money.

One last note: Regarding for the carrying capacity of buses versus street cars, there is a lively discussion on an email thread initiated by Rob Whitfield. Has anyone considered the economics of running double-decker buses along Columbia Pike?