Category Archives: Infrastructure

Bikes, Bees, Beauty

lowline2

by James A. Bacon

New York City has its High Line park built upon an abandoned, elevated freight rail line. The City of Richmond has its Low Line park, built underneath CSX Corp. railroad trestles.

In the seven years since opening to great fanfare, Manhattan’s High Line has attracted millions of visitors and inspired the construction of nearly 1,400 housing units along its two-mile route. By contrast, the opening of Richmond’s Low Line has been decidedly low key, and no one is expecting it to become a magnet for real estate development. But the Low Line could well become an integral part of Richmond’s park system and spur reclamation of the riverfront.

The vision for the $6 million project calls for flower plots with benches, covered walkways beneath the trestles, rain gardens along the Kanawha Canal, and trees shading HOW MANY?? hundred yards of bike path. Capital Trees, a not-for-profit organized to promote urban greening, has committed to fund the ongoing maintenance.

A year ago, the area was an overgrown ruin, neglected by CSX and the City of Richmond, which shared ownership of the land for more than a century. Located in the flood plain, the property had little value. No one had reason to invest in it or even care about it.

“There was no advocate for this area. It was blighted,” says Susan Robertson, co-chair of Capital Trees. “People would ride on the canal boats from the manicured, renovated canal walk [in Shockoe Bottom] and encounter a scene with invasive weeds and trees. From June through November, you couldn’t see the canal [from the land].”

When the Low Line is complete, it will knit together a cluster of recreational assets including the Richmond terminus of the 52-mile Capital Trail, the Great Shiplock Park, the Kanawha Canal, and Chapel Island with its trails and kayak launch. The Low Line also will provide an amenity for the 1,500 residents of Tobacco Row apartments and condominiums on the far side of the flood wall.

“It’s so great,” Victoria Hedegger, a Tobacco Row resident, said recently while walking her new-born in a stroller. “It was nice before. Now it’s even nicer. [The gardens] make the trail so much more attractive.”

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Before Capital Trees got involved, this was the view from the Capital Trails bike path.

Capital Trees originated as a collaboration between the Richmond region’s four garden clubs in the expectation that they could undertake projects with greater impact if they worked together. The new generation of garden club leaders aren’t content with traditional beautification projects. They are exploring the intersection of beautification, conservation, storm water management and urban place making.

In its early incarnation, the group worked with city officials to reform the urban tree-planting program. Then it spear-headed the building of rain gardens on 14th street in Richmond’s downtown to control storm water runoff. With each success, Capital Trees’ projects became more ambitious.

In 2011 Lynda Miller, head of New York City’s Central Park Conservancy, visited Richmond to describe how volunteers had reclaimed part of Central Park. “She told use we could tackle big, important projects that can make our lives better, recalls Clare Osdene Schapiro, a Richmond Times-Dispatch writer active in the organization. Continue reading

The Tradeoffs of Burying Electric Power Lines

How much is it worth to ensure faster restoration of electric service after a major storm? A lot, if it’s you. Perhaps not so much, if it’s someone else!

by James A. Bacon

Anyone who regards the State Corporation Commission as a wholly owned subsidiary of Dominion Virginia Power really isn’t paying attention. SCC commissioners have their own priorities, and they aren’t necessarily those of Dominion. An example was on display yesterday when the commission held hearings on a Dominion request to spend $140 million to bury its most vulnerable power lines so it could get customers back on line quicker after widespread outages.

The SCC had rejected an earlier Dominion proposal to spend $263 million on a plan to bury the 20% of overhead lines most responsible for outages and time lost. Dominion had argued that burying those lines would cut average electricity restoration times after major storms in half. After the SCC rebuffed that proposal, the utility came back with a scaled-back proposal to spend $140 million, adding a modest $6 per year to customers bills.

Based on their comments and questions, the commissioners did not look favorably upon it. Writes John Ramsey with the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Commissioner Mark C. Christie said during the hearing that the utility’s calculation of the societal benefit to justify the plan is the wrong measurement since less expensive options to reduce outages — such as increased tree trimming — would have similar impact.

“The whole question about this thing is bang for the buck,” Christie said. “Certainly, you will get fewer outages when the storm comes through. But how do you know all the extra money you spent on undergrounding was more cost-effective than having more trucks out there or tree-trimming or whatever less expensive options?

“We know if you underground a line down a block, we know it’s going to benefit that block in all likelihood. Does that mean it was worth the expenditure that goes into peoples’ bills?

Dominion maintains a portfolio of a dozen different reliability programs, encompassing tree trimming, upgrading old equipment to current standards, and installing sensors to detect failing parts and prioritize investment, among others. (See “Towards a Smarter Grid.”) The company is continually fine-tuning its allocation of resources. For example, it has moved from trimming routes every three years to an approach that takes into account line voltage, how fast the trees grow and many other factors. The inability to trim trees outside of electric-line right of way, said Dominion lawyers at the hearing, places a major restriction on how aggressively the company can trim.

Bacon’s bottom line: Two points…

First: Electric reliability is part of the company’s DNA. One of the metrics Dominion uses to gauge its own performance is the speed at which it restores electricity service. Undoubtedly the SCC commissioners take reliability into account, but they appear to be more concerned at the moment with the impact of spending on rate payers. And who can blame them? Dominion, like other utilities across the country, has spent billions of dollars meeting tougher federal standards for toxic emissions, and it expects to spend billions more meeting the Clean Power Plan standards for carbon emissions. With all the concern over terrorism, cyber-attacks, electro-magnetic pulses and other threats to grid security, the company also is spending hundreds of millions on measures to harden the grid. Ultimately, citizens and businesses pay for all this. In the instance of restoring service after storms, the SCC seems to be prioritizing cost over reliability.

Second: Dominion has sought, or is seeking, SCC approval for a half dozen major electric transmission line projects that have aroused the ire of citizens concerned about the visual impact. Invariably, transmission-line foes suggest burying the line. That option has been prominently suggested for the controversial Surry-Skiffes Creek line which would impact views of the James River near the historic Jamestown settlement. I am speculating here, but I’m wondering if the SCC is skeptical about the cost of burying electric lines in any context, not just for ensuring reliability.

In terms of pure self interest, Dominion has no reason to object to burying distribution and transmission lines — as long as the SCC allows it to recover its costs. If Dominion balks at burying lines, it’s because the executives who deal with the SCC daily and know the minds of regulators anticipate a tough sell before the commission. It may be hard for people to wrap their mind’s around this, but the SCC is boss and Dominion is the supplicant.

Virginia Procurement Process Needs Reform

Complex projects from transportation to IT need risk management.

Complex projects from transportation to IT need risk management.

by James A. Bacon

The Commonwealth of Virginia needs to reform its procedures for contracting and administering billions of dollars of contracts, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has found in a new study.

In 2015 Virginia spent more than $6 billion through contracts, including for transportation projects, information technology, and building construction, noted JLARC. The process for managing the contracts is decentralized, with each agency handling its own work. State procurement staff are insufficiently schooled in risk management, and the state pays insufficient attention to monitoring and enforcing the contracts.

Even though contracts account for a significant portion of state spending, the state does not maintain comprehensive information on how contracts are performing. This prevents individual agencies and state-level decision makers from assessing whether their investments in individual contracts have provided value to the state. It also prevents agency staff from avoiding problematic vendors and developing and administering contracts in a way that takes into account previous “lessons learned” at their own agency or other agencies.

JLARC embarked upon the study in 2014 after the maladministration of the U.S. 460 superhighway project resulted in a $250 million loss to the state without any ground being cleared or asphalt laid. The state has been embroiled in other high–profile contractual disputes involving the provision of IT services and the explosion of a rocket at the Wallop’s Island space port.

“Risk management isn’t on the radar,” said Tracey Smith, study project leader, in a presentation to lawmakers Monday. Writes Michael Martz in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:

Legislators on the commission, particularly the lawyers, expressed shock that state agencies routinely enter into big, often risky contracts without legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office.

Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, called it “ludicrous” that agencies would draft major contracts without lawyers.

Bacon’s bottom line: State procurement laws reformed corrupt practices of an era in which politicians routinely gave contracts to their friends and supporters. The laws emphasized putting contracts out for competitive bids, procuring the lowest price and making the process transparent. The nature of business has changed over the decades, but with one important exception, the state procurement process has not kept pace.

Unless you’re procuring commodity products like office supplies or janitorial services, the lowest price is almost meaningless. The quality of work is often a critical but hard-to-define variable. Another is the allocation of risk — who pays when something goes wrong? Identifying and allocating risk is why we have lawyers. Sometimes the lawyers get carried away, picking at nits, but they perform a critical business function because things often do go wrong. Accidents occur. Disagreement arise. Unanticipated events throw everyone for a loop.

Government employees are not trained to think about risk. Politicians aren’t inclined to worry about risks that might explode on someone else’s watch.But as contracts grow increasingly complex with the trends to outsourcing and public-private partnerships, the allocation of risk can be as important as the price.

There is one outfit in state government that has been acquiring the competencies to engage in sophisticated risk management — the Office of Public-Private Partnerships (OP3), which oversees contracts for some of the state’s most complex transportation projects. As I recall, OP3 raised red flags relating to the infamous U.S. 460 project but its warnings were overruled for political reasons. The office has developed a network of contacts it can call upon to supplement the skills of its in-house staff. Virginia’s Secretary of Technology and the head of the Department of General Services should have comparable capabilities.

Good management doesn’t excite the electorate like, say, banning guns or restricting bathroom options for transexuals. But billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake. And that makes it a sexy topic for me.

Haymarket Project More than Amazon’s “Extension Cord,” Dominion Says

electric_cordDominion Virginia Power would have to upgrade its electricity distribution system to the Haymarket area of Prince William County sooner or later, even without the development of a data-center campus, testified Mark R. Gill, an electric transmission planning engineer with Dominion, in State Corporation Commission testimony filed yesterday.

“Without the request for service to the Haymarket Campus the Project would not be needed at this time; however, the high likelihood for nearby load growth, as showed in Prince William County’s own Build-Out Analysis, indicates that the Project would be needed at some point in the future to maintain reliable service in the area,” said Gill.

According to the build-out analysis, 8.5 million square feet of non-residential development and at least 889 residential units could be developed in Dominion and Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative (NOVEC)’s service territory around Haymarket, Gill said.

Gill was responding to earlier testimony by SCC staff engineer Neil Joshipura that in the absence of data centers proposed by an electric customer widely presumed to be Amazon Web Services, the electric system upgrade “would not be needed.” Dominion’s estimate for the preferred upgrade is $50 million. An alternative that would entail burying part of the route is estimated to cost $166.7 million.

Neighbors have vociferously opposed the project, fearing that it will obstruct rural views and negatively impact home values. Describing the new line, new substation, and existing line upgrades as a giant “extension cord” for Amazon, project foes argue that the cost of the project should be charged to Amazon rather than Dominion ratepayers generally. By arguing that the improvements will serve homeowners and businesses other than the “customer” presumed to be Amazon, Gill’s testimony buttressed the position that the project should be rolled into the Dominion rate base.

— JAB

Could Virginia Beach Become the Next Mecca for Data Centers?

This map shows the route of transatlantic cables, circa 2012.

This map shows the route of transatlantic cables, circa 2012. Note: no Mid-Atlantic connections.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach is finally getting its Tide — not the Tide light rail system, but MAREA, the Spanish word for tide, which happens to be the name of a transatlantic cable project recently announced by Facebook, Microsoft and Teleconica, the Spanish telecommunications giant, according to the Virginian-Pilot.

The 4,000-mile cable will have a capacity of 160 terabytes of data per second, the highest-capacity cable of its kind to be laid under the ocean. The cable will be operated by Telxius, a unit of Telefonica. The company also will build the first transoceanic fiber cable station in the MidAtlantic region, in Virginia Beach off General Booth Boulevard.

Also, according to the Virginian-Pilot, Telefonica recently announced construction of a 7,000-mile cable stretching from Brazil to Puerto Rico and VirginiaBeach.

Virginia Beach officials see an economic opportunity. Said City Councilman Ben Davenport, chairman of the Virginia Beach Broadband Task Force: “Having Microsoft, Facebook and Telefonica come into Virginia Beach is an exciting development for our city, and it helps us continue our mission of becoming one of the most connected cities in the world.”

Questions, questions. Most transoceanic cables serving North America land in New York and New Jersey. This is a first for the Mid-Atlantic. Just how big a coup for Virginia Beach is this? Will Virginia Beach businesses benefit from higher speed access to Europe? Will access to the two transoceanic cables make Virginia Beach a logical location for the placement of data centers? In particular, are Microsoft and Facebook likely to build data centers there?

Then there are the spin-off questions. How would the rise of a major cluster of data centers in Virginia Beach affect the demand curve for electricity in the Dominion Virginia Power service territory? Would Microsoft and Facebook want access to “green” electricity from solar and wind? Could demand from a cluster of data centers be parlayed into a market for offshore wind?

This development could be a game changer. It bears close watching.

Swapping Easements

This Dominion map submitted to the VOF shows the location of conservation easements in the Augusta-Bath-Highland area (parcels outlined in red), and the location of the Hayfield Farm where Dominion would create an easement and turn over to the VOF. (Click for larger image.)

This Dominion map submitted to the VOF shows the location of conservation easements in the Augusta-Bath-Highland area (parcels outlined in red), and the location of the Hayfield Farm where Dominion would create an easement and turn over to the VOF. (Click for larger image.)

by James A. Bacon

Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has proposed to donate two parcels totaling nearly 1,200 acres to offset the intrusion of its proposed 600-mile pipeline onto lands protected by conservation easements.

In a proposal made to the Virginia Outdoor Foundation (VOF), which holds the conservation easements, Dominion would donate the land and easements for a 1,100-acre parcel and and 85-acre parcel to offset the conversion of 68 acres of protected open space on ten different easement-protected parcels in Bath, Highland and Nelson Counties. The donations would create a “mitigation ratio” of 16 to 1 in one case and 20 to in the other, according to Robert Hare, senior business development manager with Dominion.

Dominion presented its proposals Thursday to VOF’s Energy & Infrastructure Committee. The Mountain Valley Pipeline, which proposes to build an interstate transmission line through Virginia, also described a plan to offset an easement in Montgomery County that it wants to route its pipeline through. The ACP proposals are expected to be reviewed by the full VOF board next month.

The stakes are potentially momentous for the governance of conservation easements in Virginia. In its entire 50-year history, VOF has received only 14 “conversion-diversion” requests to alter easements, which landowners grant in order to protect scenic, environmental, cultural or historical resources on their property in perpetuity. Most conversions involved slivers of land needed for public purposes such as widening a road, adding a turning lane for a school or extending water-sewer lines. In every case, the requests were supported by the local governments involved. The pipeline cases are very different. They are proposed by for-profit utilities, they would be far more intrusive, and they are all opposed by the respective local governments.

Conservation easements are protected by state law, and they are hard to bust using eminent domain under state law. But Dominion’s interstate pipeline is regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). In the event of a conflict, it is unknown whether federal or state law would prevail because no case has been tested in the courts.

VOF board members find themselves between a rock and a hard place, said Tom Slater, chairman of the energy and infrastructure committee. A Richmond attorney, he spends weekends tending to 110 Angus cows on a Loudoun County farm that his family has owned since the 1840s. Board members are passionate about conservation and sympathetic to landowners who entrusted their easements to the VOF, he said. “We want to enforce state law.” At the same time, he added, they are cognizant that state law could be “pre-empted” by federal law.

Under FERC guidelines, pipeline companies must go through an exhaustive process of working with state agencies to avoid or mitigate intrusions upon historical, cultural and environmental resources. Virginia is unique in having an entity like the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which holds 3,835 easements totaling more than 750,000 acres. While VOF’s mission is to conserve viewsheds, wildlife habitat and other resources, it is also enjoined by state law to work with railroads, utilities, the Virginia Department of Transportation and other entities citing a public-need justification for infringing on the easements.

Dominion has made literally hundreds of adjustments to its proposed route. The resulting zigs and zags around residential areas and land with historical, cultural or environmental value have increased the pipeline length from an estimated 550 miles to 600 miles.

An early version of the route had managed to avoid 23 VOF easements, Hare told the VOF committee. However, when the U.S. Forest Service wrote a letter to FERC in January stating that the pipeline would be “incompatible” with the protection of rare salamanders and other species in Virginia and West Virginia national forests, Dominion had to re-route 95 miles of the line. With severely constrained options, the new route ran through 10 VOF-protected parcels.

The Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) hasn’t faced the same routing challenges as ACP, but it still found itself unable to avoid one easement. The company has asked the VOF if it could mitigate the impact of crossing that parcel, as well as allowing a temporary construction-access road, by purchasing land elsewhere and turning over the easement to VOF. In the meantime, MVP is working on a work-around that may allow it to withdraw its request, said Lindsey Hesch, senior environmental specialist.

Dominion and MVP have shown “good faith” in trying to route their pipelines around conservation easements, said Slater, the committee chair. “But these land swaps are a first — on a scale way beyond anything we’ve experienced before.” Continue reading

Justifiable Jitters or Unwarranted Worry?

Leslie Hartz, the Dominion executive in charge of pipeline construction shows the width of steel to be used in smaller-diameter sections of pipe.

Leslie Hartz, the Dominion executive in charge of pipeline construction, shows the width of steel to be used in smaller-diameter sections of pipe.

Virginians living in the path of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline fret about the threat of explosions. Dominion Transmission says their fears are overblown.

by James A. Bacon

Irene Leech, a consumer studies professor at Virginia Tech, grew up on a farm in Buckingham County where her family has raised beef for more than a hundred years. The family has preserved many of the original structures, including the old ice house, granary and smokehouse. Her husband, she says, devotes half his time to help keep the farm going. “Our plan is to retire to the farmhouse. Our goal is to pass on a sustainable business to the next generation.”

But Dominion Transmission, managing partner of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline, has thrown her for a loop. The company wants to route a high-pressure transmission pipeline through the farm. While Leech acknowledges that the odds of gas leaking and igniting anywhere near her are remote, if the gas does explode, the farmhouse and outbuildings are within the danger zone.

“From my perspective, they put my life at risk, all our property, all our heritage,” says Leech. “I know the odds of something happening are very, very small. But I had a brother killed in a farm accident. My grandmother died in an accident. My husband was working for the Pentagon on 9/11. I was at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting. Things happen. We’ll have to live with the risk for the rest of time.”

Leech is just one of thousands of residents along the route of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) who worry about the safety risks. Like many others, she remains unpersuaded by Dominion assurances that the ACP will incorporate the latest, greatest technology, best practices, and specifications that exceed federal safety standards. Running pipe on the steep slopes and through sinkhole-ridden karst geology of the mountainous Nelson and Augusta counties poses issues that pipelines don’t encounter in less rugged terrain.

“The possibility of an explosion is the really frightening thing,” she says. “You can come up with statistics that make it seem very remote. The problem is, if it occurs, it’s really deadly.”

Dominion responds that it is pushing the envelope of industry best practices to ensure the safe operation of the pipeline, which, if approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), would run from West Virginia through Virginia to North Carolina. “We’re a safety first company,” says Dominion Transmission spokesman Aaron Ruby. That’s not a P.R. slogan, he insists. An emphasis on safety permeates the organizational culture and informs everything the company does.

Dominion makes every reasonable effort to accommodate landowners like Leech, says Ruby. The company has offered to re-route the pipeline from an 800-foot distance from her farmhouse to 1,900 feet, he says, “but she has refused to let us survey her property to see if the alternative is suitable.”

In the meantime, the company is designing safety into pipeline construction and operations at every step, says Leslie Hartz, vice president of pipeline construction. The quality-control process entails a rigorous inspection protocol for fabricating the pipe in the mill, and then X-ray and hydrostatic testing of pipes and welding in the field. When up and running, ACP will use robots to inspect the pipe interior and will deploy aerial patrols and sensors to monitor the exterior. If conditions deviate from narrowly defined parameters, operators will not hesitate to shut down the pipeline.

Pipelines co-exist with people all around the country, and hardly anyone thinks about it, says Ruby. As an example in Virginia, he cites Lake Monticello, a bedroom community in the Charlottesville metropolitan region with a 2010 population of almost 10,000. “Lake Monticello …. developed over many decades alongside four large-diameter natural gas pipelines!”

The Big Picture

Interstate gas pipelines are the safest mode of energy transportation, says Catherine Landry, a spokesperson for the Interstate Natural Gas Alliance of America (INGAA). “Last year 99.999997% of gas moved without incident.” That compares very favorably to moving propane or petroleum by truck or rail. Continue reading