Category Archives: Infrastructure

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!

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.

Can Virginia Reverse the Stroadification of Rt. 1?

The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.

The Rt. 1 area under study. Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

People living along the U.S. Route 1 corridor in Northern Virginia seemingly desire contradictory things. They want better pedestrian and bicycle safety, they want mass transit. … and they want automobile traffic to flow faster. Alas, designing the corridor to move automobiles faster makes roads less safe, and it discourages the kind of development that would invite the higher-density, mixed-use development that would support mass transit.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, explores the dilemma in a thoughtful two-part series (Part 1 and Part 2on the challenge of re-developing Route 1. His solution, at the risk of over-simplifying, is to switch the perspective from designing the corridor for cars to designing it for people. Planners are scheduled to submit specific recommendations for the corridor by July. If they focus on creating walkable, transit-oriented communities, Schwartz contends and I concur, automobile traffic flow will improve as well.

A few years back, the Virginia Department of Transportation proposed reducing posted speeds from 45 m.p.h. but an uproar ensued. Apparently, too many people depended upon U.S. 1 as a commuter route and imagined that lower posted speeds would translate into lower actual speeds and longer commuter time. But lowering the speed is critical to achieving the goal of walkability, walkability is required to make mass transit economically viable, and viable mass transit is required to reduce the volume of cars on the highway.

The problem is that U.S. 1 fits the classic definition of a stroad, a street-road hybrid. The route started as one of America’s first national highways. But Virginia state and local governments neglected to control access to the highway, with the result that it became cluttered with haphazard development, cut-throughs, curb-cuts and stoplights. Functionally, in Northern Virginia, Fredericksburg, Ashland, Richmond and Petersburg, the highway became a main street. Yet it failed to fulfill the functions of either highway or main street properly. The lanes were too wide and the speeds too intermittently high to create walkability or the higher-end development that is drawn to walkable places. At the same time, Rt. 1 became so congested with local traffic that it failed as a highway.

At some point, the people of Alexandria and Fairfax County must decide whether they want Rt. 1 fulfill its destiny as a highway or a street. It cannot do both.

Rt. 1 should be easier to salvage in Northern Virginia than in points south. There is so much demand in the region for walkable, transit-oriented communities that private investors should be able to re-develop the low-value development that exists now at higher densities fairly quickly. Proffers and/or impact fees, sweetened by higher density allowances, should be available to pay for streetscape improvements to make the corridor more hospitable to pedestrians. Further, there is such a large volume of traffic that the corridor should be able to support mass transit.

Transportation planners could help by reallocating right of way, in effect converting the former in-name-only highway from a stroad to a street. Reducing lane widths from 12 to 10 feet would free space for bicycle lanes and make the “highway” easier for pedestrians to cross. Yes, narrower lanes would slow the peak travel speed of thousands of commuters to Fort Belvoir. But if the narrower lanes were accompanied by less automobile traffic, lower posted speeds could be offset by shorter waits at traffic lights, less stop-and-go.

All urban Virginians should follow the Rt. 1 experiment with great interest. If Northern Virginia can find a workable solution for the old Jefferson Davis Highway, there is hope for the rest of us.

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.

Tech Insurrection

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

By James A. Bacon

Anthony M. Townsend, a research scientist at New York University, has made a big splash with his book, “Smart Cities: Big Data, Civic Hackers, and the Quest for a New Utopia,” in which he makes the case for a bottom-up, technology-driven transformation of the world’s cities.  But he’s not satisfied with preaching from his academic perch on how a grassroots movement of civic hackers is rewriting the social contract between citizens and government. He is taking active part.

As audacious as it may sound, Townsend hopes to build a peoples’ wireless telecommunications system on the New Jersey coast in place of the ATT and Verizon networks that failed during Hurricane Sandy. He is one of a group of citizen volunteers in the Hoboken area who are patching together a distributed wireless network at very little cost. Paralleling the municipal Wi-Fi movement of a decade ago, each participant contributes a piece of the network. The trick is to tie all the pieces together.

“For $60 we can configure a radio that someone can take to their house and point to our rooftop tower,” he explains. The devices discover one another and, in the fashion of a bucket brigade, pass packets of information from one to another. “We’re putting a network together with our bare hands and spare change.”

The reward will be reliable, almost no-cost Internet service that should have enough redundancy built in to withstand another hurricane. Elevating the network to a level of performance on a par with the incumbent providers will be a challenge, Townsend admits.  There will be gaps in their system. But the plug-and-play, distributed nature of their system will cost a tiny fraction of what the telecoms spend on cell towers, infrastructure and other overhead. “It’s very cheap and easy to build,” he says. “We’ll be a lab to test it in the real world.”

Imagine the same kind of technological disruption applied to the electric grid, mass transit, paid transport services, parking, municipal lighting, water and sewer, education and other municipal systems. Then imagine technology applications that no one in municipal government or the Fortune 500 companies are even thinking about – like citizens collaborating to monitor the environment. Municipal government could become unrecognizable. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that, if Townsend’s vision pans out, institutions for providing utilities and local government services will be reinvented on a scale not seen since the early 1900s.

The agents of disruption likely will not be municipal governments themselves, nor even the big technology companies and management consulting firms peddling efficiency and productivity solutions to local governments, says Townsend. The innovators will be tech-savvy citizens – civic hackers – who exploit the rapidly declining cost of sensors, microchips, wireless connectivity and networking technologies to conduct lots of experiments, learn rapidly and disseminate best practices around the globe. Already, he says, “The really transformative things are built by hackers, artists and entrepreneurs that are very end-user focused.”

Needless to say, there is some very smart money – with very deep pockets – that says Townsend is wrong. Tech giants like Cisco and IBM see local government, utilities and infrastructure as an emerging multitrillion-dollar market. At the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, Cisco CEO John Chambers forecast cumulative revenue and productivity gains for the government sector globally to reach $4.6 trillion by 2020. Big Tech promises the ability to monitor things that have never been monitored, collect unprecedented volumes of data and crunch the numbers to identify patterns and anomalies that municipal managers had not noticed. By reducing leakage from water pipes, improving police response times, coordinating traffic signals and reducing power usage by street lights, technology companies promise billions of dollars in savings. Equally ambitious, IBM markets a “decision support system” that accesses vaults of under-utilized municipal data to analyze the interaction between everything from building permits to high school drop-out rates, housing vacancies to commuting times, to help managers and elected officials understand how investing money in one government sector will reverberate through the system to impact other sectors.

In a recent online debate with Townsend organized by the Economist magazine, Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a VP emeritus with IBM, argued against the proposition that “smart cities are empty hype,” insisting that top-down governance could work. “Digital technologies and the many data services they are enabling will significantly transform cities and make them smarter,” wrote the IBM executive. “These are highly complex projects, requiring considerable research and experimentation. As is generally the case with disruptive technologies, it is all likely to take longer than we anticipate, but the eventual impact will probably be deeper and more transformative than we imagine.” Not surprisingly, Wladesky-Berger sees the big corporations playing a major role.

Taking the position that smart cities are hype, Townsend raised the specter of tech companies creating proprietary “urban operating systems” and ecosystems of software vendors that extract royalties for “shuttling our money and data around smart cities.”  Worse, he said, “once ensconced, these firms will be nearly impossible to dislodge.” Read more.

(Cross posted from the Datamorphosis blog.)

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?

The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

By Peter Galuszka

This story may seem a contrarian piece when it comes to smart growth and exurban sprawl but so be it.

Back in 1969, road planners in Richmond came up with an idea for a superhighway, Route 288,  that would span the iconic James River and connect the far western suburban areas of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, then primarily pine forests or dairy farms. The idea seemed to be to ring Richmond with a Washington-style Beltway and push growth farther away from the center city.

The scheme ran against some curious local snobbery – that of whether one lived on the north or south side of the James. The smug north side, of course, encompassed Richmond and its white ruling elite although many of them had moved to the West End or beyond to escape integration of schools.

Those living on the south side of the river were considered inferior, trailer park folk  whose uncouth views were more in synch with the Southside area of Virginia near the North Carolina border. Dixie would not mix easily with the assumed gentility of the Richmond folk, although southsiders had to drive to Richmond to see a doctor or do serious shopping.

Flash forward 45 years. Route 288 was finished about 10 years ago and despite the 2008 economic crash, it is quietly establishing its own upset of economic and cultural change and growth. It is linking Short Pump and its office parks and restaurants with upscale subdivisions in Chesterfield that boast of the highest income zip codes in the Richmond area. Capital One employees live at Foxfire. I explore this phenomenon in cover stories I wrote this month for the Chesterfield Monthly and the Henrico Monthly.

As George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond told me: “The West End and southwestern Chesterfield were going to grow independently. Then the highway did what public transportation can’t do. It provided links and created markets that didn’t exist before.”

And, as corporate relocations draw in more high-income workers from other areas, the old cultural biases are eroding. The newbies want convenience and could care less about Richmond’s ancient vanity about which side of the James one resides. Schools on either side of the river are comparable in quality, tests scores show. The north has more jobs and the south more houses, but that will shift over time.

Therein lies the rub. You have created a thriving exurban corridor that really doesn’t relate to the various and worthy land use ideals such as minimizing car traffic and creating bike trails. The most significant thing is that this outer corridor completely bypasses inner Richmond, its perpetual squabbling over over issues like a baseball stadium and its onerous 26 percent poverty levels. It doesn’t mean that the city is doomed to decay. Signs show more young people and retirees moving there. Unfortunately, however, low income ghettoes are stuck in a cycle of no jobs and inadequate transportation and the efforts of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones haven’t produced many solutions.

The 288 phenomenon also is evidence that the cul-de sac ideals are not quite dead yet. Locating somewhere has long ceased being about white flight. The newcomers to the “New West”  include many people of color for whom Richmond’s racial animosities are more of an historical footnote. They may drive in to enjoy the city’s eateries and museums but choose not to live there and are hardly obsessed by what happened years ago.

So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.

How North Carolina Halted a Bridge Boondoggle

mid-currituck_bridge

Map credit: Lochner MMM

by James A. Bacon

Many Virginians know the agony of driving to vacation in the Outer Banks at the peak of the summer season. Heading south between Chesapeake and Kitty Hawk, you follow four-lane roads jammed with as many as 50,000 cars on Saturdays. Then, if you’re staying in Duck, Whalehead or Corolla, you have to head back north through more congestion. It sure would be nice to have a bridge across the Currituck Sound directly to Corolla.

As it happens, the state of North Carolina was planning to build a seven-mile span from Coinjock to Corolla. The Mid-Currituck Bridge, expected to cost $411 million in its most recent incarnation, could save an hour’s driving time. The project worked its way through the traditional North Carolina project-approval system and, at one point, construction was expected to begin in 2012 and to be open to traffic in 2013.

I’m sure there are a lot of vested interests in the Outer Banks that would love to see new transportation capacity that would make it easier for even more visitors to come rent cottages, rent kayaks and go surfing. But North Carolina has instituted a system that we’re still working on here in Virginia: a methodology for ranking proposed highway projects according to cost, saved travel time, congestion relief, safety and economic benefits. According to the Virginian-Pilot, the Tarheels have scored some 1,284 projects and plans to release results for another 500 in May.

The result for the proposed Currituck Bridge: a score of 23.4 points out of a possible 100, giving it a rank of 178th in importance to North Carolina. It doesn’t look like the bridge will get state funding any time soon.

I have a problem with over-development of the ecologically fragile spit of land that originates in Virginia and extends almost unbroken all the way to Hatteras. The Outer Banks are a national treasure. Federal flood insurance subsidies are already encouraging excessive building on sand that could literally wash away with the next hurricane. The state of North Carolina doesn’t need to be subsidizing over-building as well.

That concern aside, I have a suggestion for the county officials of Currituck County who have been lobbying for the bridge. Don’t ask the citizens of North Carolina to pay for your bridge. Figure out how to pay for it yourself.

Issuing 30-year, tax-free bonds to cover the cost of $411 million bridge would require roughly $30 million a year in revenue. Could the bridge generate enough value for the tourism industry in the Northern Outer Banks to pay $30 million in financing costs and have local businesses come out ahead? If so, enact the needed legislation and get the deal done. If not, then the bridge, which is needed to accommodate peak traffic that occurs 13 or 14 Saturdays out of the year, would destroy economic value, not create it, and should never be built.

There are at least three potential financing mechanisms: tolls, value capture and excise taxes.

Tolls: A harried dad with antsy kids in the back seat would gladly fork over $10 or more to shave an hour off his drive to Corolla or points south. A toll could generate millions of dollars in revenue each summer to pay off the bonds issued to build the bridge. Indeed, before the project was put on hold, the Mid-Currituck Bridge project would have charged tolls. However, the North Carolina legislature envisioned the need to spend $28 million a year in gap funding, according to the News & Observer.

Value capture. Major beneficiaries of a bridge would be the owners of hotels and rental property. A bridge that cut driving time and made Currituck destinations the closest to Northern markets would allow owners to raise rents and generate more revenue. Set up a special district to impose a property tax surcharge to capture some of that added value and use it to pay off the bonds.

Resort meals tax. Other beneficiaries include owners of restaurants, shops and other beach amenities. Create a special resort tax district that collects an extra penny per dollar on retail sales. Apply that to pay off the bonds. Continue reading