Category Archives: Infrastructure

Closing the Books on the U.S. 460 Fiasco

us460The state will recover $46 million from US 460 Mobility Partners for work never performed on a 55-mile highway between Petersburg and Suffolk, reports the Virginian-Pilot. Under the settlement negotiated with the McAuliffe administration, US 460 will keep about $210 million of the payments it received under former Governor Bob McDonnell but waive an additional $103 million it could have been owed under the contract.

The settlement allows both sides to avoid a lengthy court fight.  The payments were made under a $1.4 billion contract to build an Interstate-quality highway on U.S. 460 to improve transportation access to Hampton Roads. Construction never commenced because the state could not obtain necessary wetlands permits from the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers. The McAuliffe administration does not dispute that US 460 billed and received the money legally, but argues that the company did not spend all money it received while waiting for the permitting issues to be resolved.

The final tally: US 460 keeps $210 million, and the state eats about $43 million spent on its own work developing the project. The total cost for a road never built: $253 million. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne had guesstimated that the bungled project could cost the state $300 million to $400 million.

The settlement closes the books on one of biggest contracting fiascoes in recent Virginia history. Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Transportation has developed a scaled-down plan to build a 12-mile highway between Suffolk and Windsor and make other improvements to U.S. 460. That plan is expected to cost in the realm of $400 million.

— JAB

Taking The Statues Down

stalin By Peter Galuszka

In 1993, I was stumbling along the rough concrete sidewalks of Alma Ata, then the  capital of the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan. I was late for an interview with an official of what was now an independent nation rich in oil, natural gas and uranium.

The street map I had was old. I stopped a Kazakh woman in a kerchief and asked, “Is this Lenin Street?”

“Not anymore,” she replied. “It is Apple Street.”

Therein lies a small history lesson. Every human society, it doesn’t matter, where undergoes a major reassessment of how its humanity squares with its history.

The former Soviet Union is an excellent example. Its architect, V.I. Lenin, was a brilliant organizer but a killer. Josef Stalin murdered at least 20 million (who’s counting?) during the Great Purge and later in the war against Hitler.

Time and again, the old USSR and now the Russian Federation would undergo a change in leadership and the statutes would come down. They did when Stalin died in 1953 in Eastern Europe. Russians were shocked when new chieftain Nikita Khrushchev gave his liberal-minded “Secret Speech” in 1956 denounced Stalin. When another liberal, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, came to power in 1985, he pushed the national conversation even further.

By that time, I was reporting there for an international magazine. I visited a tractor factory in the town of Vladimir in 1987. Its very bright deputy director who would go on the Harvard Graduate School of Business, smirked uneasily when he said the factory was still named after Andrei Zhdanov.

He didn’t need to mention that Zhdanov was a Stalin thug who oppressed artists like Anna Akhmatova and Dmitri Shostakovich. He also was instrumental in starting the great purge of the 1930s during which 1.5 million people were imprisoned and more than 680,000 were shot.

The old statues really started to come down after the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991. The Zhdanov plant got a new name (although the way things are going under Vladimir Putin, the statues are starting to go back up).

So, what’s may point? That all societies need to air their history and their myths – including the ones that white Southerners have clung to for yours. Are some so arrogant as to claim they are above what other nations undergo?

Mother Jones, one of my favorite magazines, has story listing just how many streets, schools and public buildings are named after dubious characters. In Jacksonville, Fla., they renamed a high school named after Nathan. Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army and founder of the Ku Klux Klan. North Carolina has renamed school facilities named after former Gov. Charles Aycock, a white supremacist.

And for the truly strange, look no farther than Richmond. The Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School is on a street named after John Singleton Mosby, a famous Confederate cavalry raider.

What It Takes to Power the Cloud

power_lineby James A. Bacon

If it’s not one thing, it’s another. The “rural crescent” in the western reaches of Prince William County has fended off development threats from Disney’s America to four-lane highways. The latest hazard to rural tranquility: a proposed Amazon Web Services (AWS) data center and an electric transmission line to deliver electric power to it.

Emulating the success of its neighbor Loudoun County in encouraging data-center development, Prince William economic development officials have sought to recruit lucrative data centers in the county. Data centers generate tremendous local taxes — roughly $1 million annually per data center in Loudoun — while making minimal demands on local government services.

However, data centers do require electricity — lots of it. Someone has to generate that electricity, which can be an issue because no one wants power plants nearby, and someone has to deliver the electricity, which also is an issue because no one likes looking at power lines. In the case of western Prince William, serving a new AWS facility with electricity would require Dominion to build a six-mile, 230,000-volt transmission line from Gainesville to Haymarket, according to the Washington Post. And many locals don’t want a power line any more than they wanted a Disney theme park or an outer beltway.

Prince William Supervisor Peter K. Candland  is skeptical that a new power line is needed to serve the community, where growth is largely discouraged. “In the last four years, we’ve only approved about 400 new homes and one senior living community,” he told the Post. “I don’t see any other developments on the horizon,” he added. “We’re in a holding pattern.”

Haymarket Mayor David Leake says the power line is “really for one customer, for one need” — Amazon.

Dominion, for its part, says, “The determination has been made that the need is there.”

AWS operates one data center on John Marshall Highway, and county economic developers have held discussions with a local property owner to accommodate another one, including a Dominion sub-station to serve it. Given local resistance, however, the property owner told the Post that it would not seek the zoning necessary to build one.

Bacon’s bottom line: This controversy is instructive in so many ways. First, it shows that localities seeking to bolster their tax base with data centers need to plan for them. Loudoun County is ahead of the game, having developed a special zoning category for data centers and planned for them in other ways. Judging from the Post article, Prince William seems to be winging it.

Second, the hoo-ha in Prince William highlights a potential obstacle to achieving the kind of energy conservation called for by environmentalists to meet the goals of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan. One of the biggest potential sources of energy efficiency is migrating business data and computing from energy-inefficient in-house servers to state-of-the-art data centers maintained by cloud providers like AWS, Google, IBM, Microsoft and others. Data centers can reduce the energy cost of storing and processing data by 80%. They reside in inoffensive buildings that generate little traffic and impose few costs on local government, but they require electric power. Supplying that power sometimes requires building new sub-stations and transmission lines. If the United States, as a society, is serious about achieving gains in energy efficiency, it needs to figure out how to build the sub-stations and power lines needed to power the cloud.

An Update on the Tysons Makeover

Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

Planned Tysons street grid. Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

by James A. Bacon

Transforming Tysons in Fairfax County from an “edge city” into a walkable, mixed-use urban district may be the biggest, most ambitious suburban makeover ever attempted. Anywhere. In the history of the human race.

The obstacles are formidable. The area grew up in such a helter skelter manner, and the layout of streets, buildings and parking lots are so thoroughly auto-centric in design, that Tysons’ built environment will have to be rebuilt from stem to stern. The cost of creating a street grid and providing transportation connections in and out of the district will run into the billions of dollars. It’s not clear where the public dollars are coming from. And it’s not clear either, given Northern Virginia’s current overbuilt office environment, whether the private dollars will be forthcoming any time soon.

But Fairfax County and Virginia are plunging ahead with the decades-long effort. In a presentation to the Tysons Citizens Coalition two weeks ago, Tom Biesiadny, director of Fairfax County’s department of tranpsportation, gave a recap of where things stand. I did not attend the meeting, so I did not hear Biesiadny’s remarks, but a long-time friend of Bacon’s Rebellion who goes by the pen name of Too Many Taxes shared the presentation with me. While the numbers come from Biesiadny, the commentary that follows is mine.

Existing development consists of 48.6 million square feet of mostly commercial office space, with some retail and a smidgen of housing thrown in. Another 2.8 million square feet is under construction, with 45 million square approved or proposed. The street grid won’t be built until landowners begin re-developing their properties and completing their links in the grid.

Tysons is caught in a Catch 22. The real estate market is moving towards walkable urbanism, but Tysons has little walkable urbanism to offer. While developers can create small islands of mixed-use walkability, the fundamental character of the district won’t change until a critical mass has been attained. Until that critical mass is attained, Tysons will suffer a competitive disadvantage with downtown Washington, Arlington, Alexandria and other locations where the walkable, mixed-use fabric is already in place.

Planners are counting upon completion of the first phase of the Silver Line spur on the Washington metro to jump start the development. However, at present, Silver Line ridership averages around 16,000 boardings per day, according to Biesiadny. After nearly a year since the Silver Line opened, ridership falls far short of the 46,000  forecast made as recently as 2013 in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s marketing plan. (Update: I have been told that comparing 16,000 boardings to 46,000 total riders is comparing apples and oranges. Sixteen thousand boardings translates into 32,000 trips, or riders. Thus, ridership has fallen short of projections but not by as grievous a margin as implied.)

Other parts of the plan appear to be unfolding on schedule. Six major road projects are in the works. Farthest along is a Route 7 bridge over the Dulles Toll Road, for which a design-build contract has been approved. Funding has been approved for a widening of Route 7. Four other projects are in various phases of study and design.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County is working on Tysons’ bicycle and pedestrian connections. Twelve projects have been completed, nine are under design, nine are in the land-acquisition phase and five are under construction. A Virginia Department of Transportation repaving project will add eight miles of bike facilities this summer.

Also of note, the Tysons Partnership has developed a transportation demand management program that will provide services to property owners on a subscription basis. Services include trip reduction strategies, ride-matching assistance, telework support, transit incentives and monitoring of travel behaviors. So far, eight companies have signed up.

Bacon’s bottom line: My reading of this presentation is that Fairfax County is doing all the right things but the Tysons makeover still has a long, hard climb ahead of it. We may not see much visible progress until the Northern Virginia commercial real estate market rebounds strongly, vacancies fall and developers have an incentive to start building again. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not close to the situation and my interpretation could be all wrong.

Shining Sunlight on the Accomack Solar Project

Approximate location of the Amazon Web Services solar generating facility.

Approximate location of the Amazon Web Services solar generating facility on the Eastern Shore.

Amazon’s giant solar power plant will lighten the environmental footprint of the company’s growing cluster of Northern Virginia data centers. It won’t do much to lighten the tax burden of Accomack County.

by James A. Bacon

Amazon Web Services (AWS), the cloud-services business unit of retailing giant Amazon, made big energy news earlier this month when it announced plans to build an 80-megawatt solar generating plant in Accomack County. The nearly 1,000-acre facility will be one of the biggest solar power plants east of the Mississippi, generating enough electricity to power 15,000 homes or, to use a more appropriate unit of comparison, about 200,000 servers.

AWS was tight-lipped about the project, declining to answer questions posed by Bacon’s Rebellion and binding business partners such as Dominion Virginia Power and A&N Electric Coop on the Eastern Shore to non-disclosure agreements. All the company was willing to say in its press announcement, above the sparest details, was that the electricity will be delivered into the electric grid through a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) to serve “both existing and planned AWS datacenters in the central and eastern US.”

“We continue to make significant progress towards our long-term commitment to power the global AWS infrastructure with 100 percent renewable energy,” said Jerry Hunter, Vice President of Infrastructure at Amazon Web Services. “Amazon Solar Farm US East … has the added benefit of working to increase the availability of renewable energy in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Neither the Governor’s Office nor the Virginia Economic Development Partnership issued its own press release — highly unusual in a deal reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch to be valued at $200 million, surely one of the biggest investments by an out-of-state company in the Old Dominion this year. The deal was shrouded in secrecy. Even the state’s solar energy expert, Ken Jurman with the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, was kept out of the deal-making loop. “You probably know as much about it as I do,” he told Bacon’s Rebellion.

Too bad nobody’s talking because there is a fascinating back story here: the rapid rise of Northern Virginia as the leading locus of AWS data centers in the United States. According to a Greenpeace investigation of the Amazon cloud, AWS has publicly admitted to more than 10 data centers in its US East “Availability Zone,” but based on diesel permits for backup generators filed with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the total number of AWS data centers operating or under construction in Virginia stood at 23 in May.

Regarding 2014 energy consumption, said Greenpeace, “AWS expanded the capacity of US East by over 200 MW (megawatts), as much as the total amount of capacity in the rest of its U.S Availability Zones combined, bringing the total energy demand capacity of AWS facilities in Northern Virginia to 500 MW.”

AWS is under heavy pressure from environmental organizations to conserve energy or find zero-carbon emission sources for its energy-chugging server farms. If Greenpeace’s estimates are anywhere near accurate, the Accomack facility will supply only a modest fraction of the company’s total power consumption in Northern Virginia. AWS’s commitment to go 100% renewable suggests that the company could be on the prowl for significant additional solar capacity in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Meanwhile, the company is using the caché of the East Coast’s largest solar facility to drive a hard bargain with local government.

Accomack officials are excited about AWS’s decision to locate in the county, whose economic base is primarily farming, agribusiness and tourism. “This puts an Amazon-branded facility in our county,” beams Steven B. Miner, county administrator of Accomack County. But, he adds, “They’ve made it very clear that these [solar] projects are very sensitive to taxation.” Tax concessions are expected from the county.

Big data needs a home

Northern Virginia has the largest cluster of data centers in the world, and Loudoun County the largest percentage — about 80% — of any jurisdiction in Northern Virginia. Buddy Rizer, director of economic development for Loudoun County, says there are “sixty or so” data centers in Loudoun County at the moment. The number is always changing because “there hasn’t been one day in without data center construction in six years.” All the major players have a presence in Loudoun, he says. “Facebook has their largest footprint anywhere in the world here. … Visa has its main credit card processing plant here. You swipe your credit card anywhere in the world, and it’s using our infrastructure here in the county.” So dominant is Loudoun, he says, that 70% of the world’s Internet traffic moves through the county. Continue reading

Why There’s No Swimming Pool at Gilpin Court

gilpin courtBy Peter Galuszka

Heat and humidity seem to have been especially intense this summer. But it can be much worse at an inner city public housing project where there are few trees and other vegetation and lots of bricks and concrete that and retain heat.

So, wouldn’t a swimming pool seem nice, especially when your housing project already has one?

That’s what I thought when I visited Gilpin Court, one of Richmond’s 11 public housing projects. Housing 2,200 residents, many of them children, Gilpin is one of the worst ones run by the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. It was built in the 1940s. Here’s my story in Style Weekly.

There is a swimming pool. But, the indoor basin has been shut down for three years and the RRHA says it can’t be fixed. “The pool is closed for maintenance and repairs and diminishing funds we have available,” a spokeswoman says.

In the meantime, the RRHA has been spending money on other things, according to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A list:

  • The RRHA spent $1,515 in 2012 to take 55 residents of Creighton Court, another project, for a bus charter to a West Virginia gambling casino.
  • The former RRHA police chief spent $900 on a television and more for cable services for an emergency operations center” that didn’t exist.He and his wife also got to go to a conference in San Diego with a side trip to Las Vegas.
  • Former authority chief executive Adrienne Goolsby, who resigned under a cloud in January, was being paid $183, 800 a year plus a $10,000 bonus. This is well above U.S. Department and Urban Development guidelines of $155,500 a year. The state governor makes less: $175,000.

U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) wrote to Goolsby last year asking for answers for these matters. His staff says he never got an answer.

Meanwhile, RRHA is being run by a temporary chief. No one seems to know when a permanent one will be appointed.

Gilpin children say they can swim at other city-owned pools or at Pocahontas State Park, which is 27 miles away.

One other takeaway: one hears a lot on this blog from writers about how the problems of poverty are a lack of personal responsibility. I guess if you grow up in a furnace like Gilpin, you just have to work harder.

Tobacco Commission: Six of Eight Projects Fail

The old logo

The old logo

 By Peter Galuszka

Down Danville way, of eight companies that have received money from the Tobacco Region Opportunity Fund (the old, embattled tobacco commission) only two have managed to fulfill contractual obligations to create jobs and help the local economy.

According to a report by Vicky M. Cruz in the Danville Register & Bee, the six firms that have failed to meet their obligations mean a loss of 1,340 potential jobs and $63 million in local investment. It also means that Danville owes the tobacco commission $5.47 million.

Here’s a list of the companies.

The tobacco commission has been around since 1999 to supposedly help residents in the tobacco growing areas of the state move into non-leaf related jobs. The money came from the huge multi-billion dollar Master Settlement Agreement between four cigarette companies and 46 states that had sued them over health concerns.

The tobacco commission has been a bit of a sham. Money has been doled out without checks on how it was spent or how successful projects have been. A former director ended up in prison for siphoning off funds. A state audit has been ultra-critical of the fund, which figured in the political corruption conviction of former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell and his wife.

Last month, Gov. Terry McAuliffe renamed the fund, appointed a new director and changed its board. The cases reported by the Register & Bee obviously date before the reforms. Let’s hope they work.

(Hat tip to Larry Gross).

Richmond’s Pathetic Leadership

At the Diamond

At the Diamond

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond is going through an existential crisis. Its “leadership” can’t get anything done after wasting the public’s time and attention on the supposed possibilities of this so-called “Capital of Creativity.”

Two examples come to mind. One is the city’s and region’s utter failure to do anything about its crumbling ballpark. The other is wasting everyone’s time on pushing an independent children’s hospital and then having VCU Health and Bon Secours pull the rug out from everyone.

Mind you, you hear ramblings out the wazoo about how Richmond is all about “regionalism” and how the “River City” is just a dandy place to live. One of the worst offenders is Bacon’s Rebellion, which shamelessly crams Richmond boosterism down readers’ throats.

But what really sets me off is a full page and unabashedly revisionist editorial in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch titled “Ballpark in the Bottom? Definitely not.” The writers claim they “having listened carefully, and at great length, to all sides, we have become convinced a proposal that seemed promising at first is fatally flawed.”

Yipes! This comes after a couple years of the newspaper’s flacking Mayor Dwight C. Jones’ dubious plan to put a new $67 million stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom for the city’s Minor League AA team, the Flying Squirrels, rather than refurbishing or replacing the crumbling Diamond on the Boulevard near the strategic intersections of Interstates 64 and 95.

TD Publisher Thomas A. (TAS) Silvestri, the one-time and obviously conflicted chair of the local chamber of commerce, pushed the Shockoe idea because that was the flavor of the month with parts of the Richmond elite, including some developers, the Timmons engineering group, the Jones regime and others.

It was a bad idea from the start and had been shot down before. The Bottom has no parking and is too cramped. Even worse, it would disturb graves of slaves and other reminders of the city’s darker past such as being the nation’s No. 2 slave trading capital (this is before the “creativity” part).

The AAA Richmond Braves hated the Diamond so much that they bolted to a new stadium in Gwinnett County outside of Atlanta in 2009. A new team associated with the San Francisco Giants decided to move in. The Flying Squirrels have been an outstanding success and in the five years they have been here, their team has drawn more fans than any other in the Eastern League. In fact, their stats place them among the best draws in all of minor league baseball.

But the Squirrels had been led to believe they would get new or greatly improved digs. Instead of focusing on the Diamond (which has ONE elevator for the sick and elderly and it often doesn’t work). A couple of weeks ago, Lou DiBella wrote an open letter to the community noting that nothing has happened. Their deal with the city end next year, raising the issue of whether they will bolt as the Braves did.

Squirrels owner DiBella

Squirrels owner DiBella

I did a Q&A with DiBella for Style. Here’s how he put it:

“We have been a great asset for the whole Richmond region. Where am I looking? I’m not trying to look. You want me to look, tell me. I want to create a dialogue. I want people to be honest and open and candid right now. If you’re going to screw around with us the same way you did with the Braves, the way Richmond did under false pretenses, and there’s no chance of any regional participation or the city being creative in building a stadium — let me know now because I do have to start thinking about the future.”

He has a point. Richmond did screw around with him. Chesterfield and Henrico Counties did, too. The Squirrels get most of their spectators from the suburbs but their political leaders don’t want to spend anything to help. They neatly got off the hook when they conveyed the Diamond from the Richmond Metropolitan Authority, of which they are members, to the city exclusively.

The Jones administration, meanwhile, wasted everyone’s time (except that of the Richmond Times-Dispatch) by pushing the Bottom idea. The business elite sponsored trips for so-called local leaders to fly around the country and look at other stadiums.

Then, nothing. A development firm called the Rebkee Co. came up with a plan to build a new stadium near the Diamond with private funds. But the city refused to even review the plan. They did not accept formal written copies of the idea.

The Jones team did manage to come up with a summer practice area for the Washington Redskins that is used about two or three weeks a year. It hardly draws anything close to what the Squirrels do, but they had little problem pushing with their idea.

Bill Goodwin

Bill Goodwin

Next up is a stand-alone children’s hospital, an idea backed by a group of pediatricians and Bill Goodwin, a wealthy philanthropist and one of the most powerful men in Richmond. He and his wife pledged $150 million for the project and many, including the RTD, talked about it to death. Goodwin’s idea would be to create a world class hospital on the level of the famous Childrens Hospital of Philadelphia.

Then, without warning, non-profits VCU and Bon Secours health system pulled the rug out from under Goodwin and everyone else. They said an independent children’s hospital wasn’t needed, there was no market for it and pediatric care is moving more towards out-patient service, anyway.

The real reason, says Goodwin, is that a stand-alone children’s hospital would mean that other local hospitals would have to scale back their money-making pediatric units.

Also for Style, I asked Goodwin for his thoughts. He was flabbergasted at shutting down the idea without warning. He said:

“We were planning for an independent children’s hospital that was regional and would provide more comprehensive coverage than what VCU and Bon Secours are currently providing. This effort would have been a heck of an economic driver for our community and would provide significantly better medical care for children. Better medical education and research were also planned. We would be creating something that was creating good jobs, and it would be something that the community would be proud of, which we haven’t had recently.”

So there you have it, sports fans – a moment of truth. With its current leadership, Richmond couldn’t strike water if it fell out of a boat. You know it when the editorial writers on Franklin Street start revising history.

“Spankdown” at Woodlake

S&MBy Peter Galuszka

Homeowners Associations are double-edged swords. They can preserve home values by enforcing covenants but sometimes  morph into Neo-Nazi privatized governments that make life miserable by meddling.

One HOA in suburban Richmond is in something of a unique situation.

Woodlake, a 2,800 home, 1980s-styled PUD in Chesterfield County, has been having problems. The realty firm that owned its extensive swim and recreational facilities sold them to the HOA in 2010 which ended up $700,000 in debt.

It has caused lots of gnashing of teeth because no one wants a special assessment. I don’t live there but I play tennis there and hear a lot about it from my friends.

The board is new, the old community manager left and they hired a new manager who has an extensive professional background in the field.

The manager, Bethany Halle, also has another life. She’s the author of about 70 erotic fantasies specializing sado-masochism, bondage and other delights, including ones involving the paranormal. She enjoys exploring “murder and mayhem” at HOAs in her literary life.

Here’s my story about it in the Chesterfield Observer.

Halle’s books have been published by such houses as “Naughty Nights.” She blogs and has radio shows about erotic literature. The HOA board supports their decision to hire her , saying they knew about her other life but she was the best qualified to run the HOA.

Halle writes under her own name or “Cassandre Dayne” and “Dakotah Black”

One of her titles is “Spankdown.” Maybe that’s just what Woodlake needs.

At Last: Objective Criteria for Scoring Transportation Projects

weighting_frameworks

by James A. Bacon

After lengthy study, the Commonwealth Transportation Board yesterday approved new metrics for prioritizing transportation funding in Virginia. The new metrics are designed to create objective criteria for evaluating the selection of road and rail projects. It remains to be seen how the metrics will be applied in practice, but in theory they represent a big step forward.

As seen in the chart above, the metrics will be assigned different weights for different parts of the state. For instance, Category A, which assigns the greatest weight to congestion mitigation, consists primarily of the highly congested Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads transportation planning organization districts. Category D consists mainly of lightly traveled rural districts. (View the classifications here.)

The different weights reflect the different priorities of different parts of the state. The classifications and methodology can be amended as needed to reflect changes in priorities and advances in technology, data collection and reporting tools.

Here is a breakdown of the measures that go into the weighting framework:

measure_breakdowns

These metrics will provide CTB board members unparallelled insight into the relative benefits of different transportation options. It should be much more difficult now for any administration to gain approval for “highway to nowhere” road and rail projects.

Bacon’s bottom line: I have long called for tools that make it possible to measure projects based on their “Return on Investment,” reflecting congestion mitigation, safety improvements and environmental benefits. This methodology goes beyond that by incorporating additional measures, such as economic development and accessibility, but falls short by providing no mechanism for calculating ROI. Given the complexity of the evaluations, it may be impractical to boil down all these metrics to a single ROI figure, so CTB board members will retain considerable discretion.

Some of the criteria look really fuzzy. How does one evaluate “land use consistency?” How does one measure “project support for economic development”?

Despite modest reservations, the new approach appears to represent a big step forward by limiting the potential for ideology, politicking and log rolling in transportation funding decision-making. I look forward to seeing how the new methodology works in practice. While one can rarely go wrong by taking a cynical view of human nature and the political process, I am hopeful that the transparent use of objective metrics will curb the worst instincts of the political class.