Category Archives: Infrastructure

The Huge Controversy Over Gas Pipelines

atlantic coast pipeline demonstratorsBy Peter Galuszka

Just a few years ago, Gov. Terry McAuliffe seemed to be a reasonable advocate of a healthy mix of energy sources. He boosted renewables and opposed offshore oil and gas drilling. He was suspicious of dangerous, dirty coal.

Then he started to change. During the campaign last year, he suddenly found offshore drilling OK, which got the green community worried. But there’s no doubt about his shifts with his wholehearted approval of the 550-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline proposed by Duke Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas and AGL Resources, along with Richmond-based Dominion, one of McAuliffe’s biggest campaign donors.

The $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline is part of a new phenomenon – bringing natural gas from the booming Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia towards busy utility markets in the Upper South states of Virginia, North Carolina and parts ones even farther south. Utilities like gas because it is cheap, easy to use, releases about half the carbon dioxide as coal, which is notorious for labor fatalities, disease, injuries and global warming.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline would originate at Clarksburg, W.Va. (one of my home towns) and shoot southeast over the Appalachians, reaching heights of 4,000 feet among rare mountain plants in the George Washington National Forest, and then scoot through Nelson, Buckingham Nottoway Counties to North Carolina. At the border, one leg would move east to Portsmouth and the Tidewater port complex perhaps for export (although no one has mentioned that yet). The main line would then jog into Carolina roughly following the path of Interstate 95.

It’s not the only pipeline McAuliffe likes. An even newer proposal is the Mountain Valley Pipeline that would originate in southern West Virginia and move south of Roanoke to Chatham County. It also faces strong local opposition.

atlantic_coast_pipeline mapThe proposals have blindsided many in the environmental community who have shifted some of their efforts from opposing coal and mountaintop removal to going after hydraulic fracking which uses chemicals under high pressure and horizontal drilling to get previously inaccessible gas from shale formations. The Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia, the birthplace of the American oil and gas industry, has been a treasure trove of new gas.

The fracked gas boom has been a huge benefit to the U.S. economy. It is making the country energy independent and has jump started older industries in steel, pipe making and the like. By replacing coal, it is making coal’s contribution to the national energy mix drop from about 50 percent to less than 40 percent and is cutting carbon dioxide emissions that help make for climate change.

That at least, is what the industry proponents will tell you and much of it is accurate. But there are big problems with natural gas (I’ll get to the pipelines later). Here’s Bill McKibben, a Middlebury College professor and nationally known environmentalist writing in Mother Jones:

Methane—CH4—is a rarer gas, but it’s even more effective at trapping heat. And methane is another word for natural gas. So: When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere. If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it’s no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America’s substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming.

Howarth’s (He is a biogeochemist) question, then, was: How much methane does escape? ‘It’s a hard physical task to keep it from leaking—that was my starting point,’ he says. ‘Gas is inherently slippery stuff. I’ve done a lot of gas chromatography over the years, where we compress hydrogen and other gases to run the equipment, and it’s just plain impossible to suppress all the leaks. And my wife, who was the supervisor of our little town here, figured out that 20 percent of the town’s water was leaking away through various holes. It turns out that’s true of most towns. That’s because fluids are hard to keep under control, and gases are leakier than water by a large margin.

Continue reading

The Simple, Lovable Sidewalk

sidewalk By Peter Galuszka

Forever humble, the simple sidewalk is becoming an issue in land planning and transportation.

In densely-populated populated urban areas, sidewalks have been a staple of living since the time of the Ancient Greeks. They were classics in the familiar grid plans that marked most American towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It all changed after World War II when thousands of veterans came home with access to cars and cheap mortgages and builders started constructing car-centric neighborhoods. The cookie-cutter plan included big subdivisions with only one or two access points, lots of cul de sacs and long streets and wound around until they emptied into the few access roads.

You couldn’t walk anywhere. The feeling was, with the complicity of such car-centric bodies as the Virginia Department of Transportation, that you didn’t need sidewalks because the kids could play in the cul de sacs and anyone could drive.

This started to change a decade or so ago as pe0ple wanted to walk more to the library, the store or to visit a neighbor. Suburban planners are taking this into consideration and are “encouraging” developers to put in sidewalks.

A couple problems here:

First, although the Tim Kaine administration changed VDOT policy to advocate more intersecting streets in new developments along with sidewalks, the policy has been watered down under pressure from the development industry.

The other problem is that while it is a simple matter to put sidewalks in new projects, retrofitting them in older ones is tough. It is expensive, there are rights of way issues and sometimes the terrain doesn’t lend itself to them. And, when sidewalks are put in, they merely connect with gigantic feeder roads where one might have to walk a half a mile to a stoplight just cross safely, as is the case in one instance in Chesterfield County.

For more, read my recent pieces in the Chesterfield Monthly and Henrico Monthly.

The Emerging Exurban Dead Zone

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

Hope Plantation, Bertie County, N.C., circa 1800. The McMansion of its day.

by James A. Bacon

The Northern Virginia exurbs, like exurbs across the country, are cruising for a bruising. EM Risse would never express himself so inelegantly or imprecisely but that’s the thrust, in colloquial terms, of a new essay, “The Great Submergence,” he has posted on his website.

The United States economy, argues Risse, a former Bacon’s Rebellion contributor, is in the midst of a profound shift — what he calls the U Turn — away from the scattered, low-density pattern of growth widely referred to as “suburban sprawl” (a label he avoids as a “core confusing word”) toward infill and re-development of the nation’s urban cores. This trend, which is taking place for reasons amply documented on this blog, has profound implications for homeowners and political jurisdictions on the metropolitan edge where landowners, developers and speculators valued land with the expectation that it would be developed some day into shopping centers, office parks and residential subdivisions.

Given the cost of providing transportation, utilities and municipal services, the logical limit for development in the Washington metropolitan region is about 20 to 35 miles from the metropolitan center in Washington, D.C., Risse writes. Land beyond that limit, he contends, is experiencing collapsing demand as people seek to live closer to the metropolitan core, closer to jobs and amenities in walkable communities with more transportation options. That collapse he calls “the Great Submergence.”

Some clusters of development may adapt and survive but others will be economically unsustainable and wilt away. Another phrase for “wilt away” would be “dry up and blow away,” just like western mining towns when the claims ran dry, just like Great Plains farming towns during the Dust Bowl and Depression. Risse’s home town of Warrenton, he warns, is the “bulls eye of the danger zone.”

As demand evaporates for single-family dwellings on large lots in remote locations, land and housing prices will fall. Every new single-family dwelling built in Greater Warrenton-Fauquier (and other communities situated more 25 to 30 miles from the metropolitan center) will serve to drive down the value of existing properties. Writes Risse:

The downward trend will be exacerbated by the fact that there are dwellings selling BELOW their replacement cost. Further, there will be many scattered Units that have not been maintained, which will further deflate the market via assessment / appraisal “comparables.”

Declining land and improvement values, he says, will have a devastating impact on municipal tax bases in this exurban dead zone as well as household net worth, much of which is composed of housing equity.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m in 95% agreement with Risse. The reason I hesitate to say 100% is that there are powerful forces at work to sustain “sprawl,” the most important of which is the slow pace, due to zoning restrictions, at which urbanized jurisdictions close to the Washington metropolitan core can free more land for more compact, higher-density development. If demand for housing exceeds supply in Washington’s urban core, growth will default to exurban communities (beyond the 25-mile radius) planned and approved in the 2000s simply because there is nowhere else to build.

With that caveat aside, I share Risse’s larger concern. A dozen or more exurban counties on the metropolitan fringe of Washington, Richmond and Hampton Roads are likely to experience deflating land values, shrinking real estate property revenues and chronic fiscal stress. Their scattered, low-density settlement patterns have high embedded costs and local governments will be hard-pressed to maintain the supporting services and infrastructure. Once the newness wears off and depreciation sets in, these places will become worn, shabby and dilapidated.

Driving back from vacation on the North Carolina coast a couple of weeks ago, I passed through a dozen hamlets and crossroads in farming communities. I was shocked to see so many boarded up and tumble-down buildings that property owners had simply abandoned. The knowledge economy has passed these inland communities by. Sure, the real estate is cheap but no one wants to live there anymore. The houses don’t even have for-sale signs on them. The price of better houses is so low that it’s not even worth patching up the decaying ones. Virginia’s exurbs have not reached that stage yet. But give them time. Let the shiny newness wear off. In 20 years, we could see the same thing.

Those who miss Risse’s writing on Bacon’s Rebellion should check out the “Current Perspectives” on his website.

Update: Ed Risse has responded to Larry Gross’ comments on this post in the form of an essay, “Blogging, Geographical Illiteracy and the Great Submergence.”

Map of the Day: Average Broadband Speeds

broadband_map
While Virginians beat themselves up over Medicaid expansion, slow economic growth and the McDonnell corruption trial, here’s a morsel of good news: According to Akamai’s latest “State of the Internet” report, Virginia has the highest average broadband speeds of any state in the nation — 13.7 Mbps (megabytes per second). That’s world-class, exceeded only by the average speed in South Korea and Japan. When it comes to the most important infrastructure of the knowledge economy, we’re in good shape.

global_connection_speedsThe news is not so good for the nation as a whole. Broadband penetration and speeds lag in many parts of the country. As a nation, the United States doesn’t even rank in the Top 10 nations for average broadband speed.

Also, there’s no way of telling how evenly those great speeds are distributed around the commonwealth. I’d guess that the statewide average is powered by phenomenal speeds in Northern Virginia, location of a ginormous percentage of the world’s Internet traffic. The region is laced with fiber-optic cable lines and studded with server farms.

Here in Henrico County, I’m served by Comcast (having just switched from Verizon FiOS). When I conducted an XFINITY speed test, my download speed was 121.15 Mbps while my upload speed was a lame 11.77 Mbps. Averaging the two numbers, that sounds awesome compared to the national average, but I don’t know if I’m comparing apples with oranges. (I can’t believe I’m four or five times faster than the national average.)

If you understand the technical issues, you can read Akamai’s notes on its methodology for calculating broadband speeds here. Take the EXFINITY speed test yourself (I don’t think you need to subscribe to Comcast). I’d be interested in hearing what others are experiencing.

(Hat tip: Larry Gross)

– JAB

How Not to Shift From Coal

coal-plantBy Peter Galuszka

Coal is rightly the scourge of environmentalists. Economic pressure is on to shift to cleaner natural gas made plentiful by controversial hydraulic fracking. Political pressure is on to replace fossil fuels with renewables such as wind, solar and other methods.

In Virginia, Dominion, the state’s largest utility, relies for 46 percent of its generating capacity on coal and is moving in fits and starts to natural gas. It doesn’t get much from renewables. How much and how fast should it shift?

Yet out of Colorado comes a cautionary tale. According to The Washington Post, a family in the impoverished city of Pueblo is at odds running power. They only use a window air conditioner part of the time. They avoid using their oven in the summer. It uses electricity they not longer can afford because it overheats the house in summer.

For the family of Sharon Garcia, the problem is Black Hills Energy, which recently bought the local power company – Aquila, which got some of its power from a coal plant that was first built in 1897 with peaking extra power from Xcel, another utility.

Then, in 2008, Black Hills bought out Aquila and everything changed. Xcel decided it could make more money selling power at retail rates in Denver and not at wholesale rates to the utility serving Pueblo. In the midst of these events, a state law prompted Black Hills to shut down older coal plants for cleaner natural gas.

The state approved rate increases so Black Hills could build new infrastructure to handle natural gas and and rates when up significantly.

The problem is likely to be further complicated if the utilities move on the renewables, which, in the short term, are more expensive than either coal or gas.

This is not to say that companies should stick with coal forever, or natural gas. Renewables should still be the goal. But during the transition, green activists, many of them affluent, need to realize who pays the price. What’s a few dozen extra dollars for some is a tragedy for others.

How to Convince Your Mom that Congestion Pricing Is Good

by Michael Brown

Odds are if you show up at a family reunion and try to convince your parents and siblings that congestion pricing is good, you’ll be lonely pretty quickly. People want the freeways to work but they hate paying tolls! If you are reading this, then you’re probably part of the choir. My goal isn’t to convert the converted as much as to provide new arguments and sound bites when talking to others.

So, how do we reach others? Millions must be convinced to put down their pitchforks long enough to test the theory and decide for themselves if congestion pricing is worthwhile. Elected officials are afraid to take a position contrary to polls, and polls are overwhelmingly dominated by uninformed opinions.

Too many citizens “learn” the issues of the day in 30-second television spots. Even those who make an effort to stay well informed are not the best ones to ask.  There are many fine teachers, dentists, and doctors with intelligent opinions but if you ask them about Congestion Pricing, most would focus on a single point – “double taxation.” Because no one listens long enough for a good explanation, politicians conform to polls of the uninformed rather than risk trying to change public opinion.

congestion_pricing1

=================
This is the fourth part of a four-part series.

Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4
=================

Geeks and used car salesmen

Congestion Pricing’s true believers are insiders who spend years exploring how market mechanisms can solve our transportation headaches. Typically, they are “nerdy engineer” types and Ph.D.’s at universities. They come up with great ideas but their main focus is convincing other geeks. Peer-reviewed articles loaded with incomprehensible equations and data may be good stuff and true, but the world will never move out of the congestion morass until the world “gets it” at the lowest-common- denominator level of things that matter to them.

Many geeks know Congestion Pricing is worth billions but they’re poor at delivering the message personally. So they set aside “public awareness budgets” that are embarrassingly tiny relative to the potential payoff. That’s like hiring a used car salesman to deliver the message. That approach may persuade a few but it won’t convince your mom – it won’t even reach your mom. Great ideas need great enlightenment efforts.

congestion_pricing2Evangelists and professional marketers

When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they actually had a hard time selling it. Everyone was intrigued, of course, but few understood how it could help them in a way that was worth the price. The airplane seemed like an exciting new toy that could kill you! So the Wrights became evangelists. They met with government officials and anyone else with the means and potential motive to buy, and sold them hard on dozens of potential uses. Now we could scarcely imagine the world without planes.

Think of the Bible. Many find it very difficult to read and hard to get excited about. But some people are very passionate about the bible, and very gifted at translating its meaning to large crowds. Congestion Pricing and Freeway Optimization have been peddled mainly by geeks and insufficient public awareness efforts. Are we really surprised that people are skeptical?

Gifted evangelists are essential but so is “Hollywood.” By that, I mean it takes people who have figured out how to sell stuff to people. We need marketing artists who can place an object in the hands of a big star, then watch that object fly off the shelf in the following month. For ideas worth billions, we should spend millions to attract the top-notch marketers, and give them a budget to craft emotionally persuasive visuals and sound bites. Continue reading

How Planners Can Rescue Virginia from the Fiscal Abyss

This is a copy of a speech that I presented to the Virginia Chapter of the American Planners Association Monday, with extemporaneous amendments and digressions deleted. — JAB

Thank you very much, it’s a pleasure to be here. Urban planning is a fascinating discipline. As my old friend Ed Risse likes to say, urban planning isn’t rocket science – it’s much more complex. Planners synthesize a wide variety of variables that interact in unpredictable, even chaotic, ways. In my estimation, you don’t get nearly enough respect and appreciation for what you do

OK, enough with the flattery. Let’s get down to business.

toastThis is you. You’re toast. Unless you change the way you do things, you and the local governments across Virginia you represent are totally cooked. … Here’s what I’m going to do today. I’m going to tell you why you’re toast. And then I’m going to tell you how to dig your government out of the fiscal abyss, earning you the love and admiration of your fellow citizens.

Why You’re Toast

old_people2Here’s the first reason you’re in trouble — old people. Or, more precisely, retired government old people. Virginia can’t seem to catch up to its pension obligations. The state says the Virginia Retirement System is on schedule to be fully funded by 2018-2020. But the state’s defines 80% funded as “fully funded,” which leaves a lot of wiggle room. The VRS also assumes that it can generate 7%-per-year annual returns on its $66 billion portfolio. For each 1% it falls short of that assumption, state and local government must make up the difference with $660 million. As long as the Federal Reserve Board pursues a near-zero interest rate policy, depressing investment returns everywhere, that will be exceedingly difficult. A lot of very smart people think 5% or 6% returns are more realistic. In all probability, pension obligations will continue to be a long-term burden on localities.

potholesSecond, the infrastructure Ponzi scheme — that’s Chuck Marohn’s coinage, not mine — is catching up with us. For decades, state and local government built roads and infrastructure, typically with federal assistance, proffers or impact fees with no thought to full life-cycle costs. State and local governments have assumed responsibility for maintaining and replacing this infrastructure. Well, the life cycle done cycled, and the bill is coming due. We’re finding that we built more infrastructure than we can afford to maintain at current tax rates, leaving very little for new construction.

accotinkThird, after years of delay, serious storm water regulations are kicking in. Local governments bear responsibility for fixing broken rivers and streams like Accotink Creek, showed here. (Yeah, that’s a creek. It’s having a bad day.) Best guess: These regs will cost Virginia another $15 billion. But no one really knows. And it may just be the tip of the iceberg. I recently talked to Ellen Dunham-Jones, author of “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and she noted that a lot of the storm water infrastructure that developers built in the ‘50s and ‘60s is crumbling. The developers are long gone. Someone’s going to have to fix that, too. Guess who?

property_taxMeanwhile, the largest source of discretionary local tax dollars – real estate property tax revenues – is stagnating. According to the Demand Institute, residential real estate prices in Virginia will increase only 7% through 2018 – the third worst performance of any state in the nation. Don’t count on magically rising property tax revenues to bail you out.

In fact, the tax situation is worse than it looks. Demand for commercial real estate is dismal, too. Consider what’s happening to the retail sector. We’re going from this…

shopping_centerTo this..

amazon_warehouse

Every Amazon.com distribution center represents dozens if not hundreds of chain stores closing. It means more vacant store fronts, more deserted malls, less new retail development. Continue reading

The Top Ten Positive, Sustainable Effects of Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing on the Capital Beltway Express

Congestion pricing on the Capital Beltway Express

by Michael Brown

This is the third part of a four-part series.
Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4

“Free” freeways aren’t as free as they used to be. Adding new capacity costs billions of dollars and mires communities in unaffordable debt. We can’t continue borrowing, taxing and building like we did a generation ago. In Parts I and II of this series, I outlined a  strategy for using tolls to limit access during periods of peak demand in order to avoid the roughly 30% capacity loss caused by overloading a freeway. Not only will this Freeway Optimization strategy help preserve the environment and reduce the fiscal burden on the next generation, it will provide tangible benefits today!  Here are the Top 10 Benefits of Freeway Optimization.

#10. Use more off-peak capacity

Freeways have a lot more capacity than we think. It’s just that much of the time it isn’t being used. If there are incentives to avoid peak travel, some people will shift some of their trips to off-peak periods — in effect utilizing some of that unused capacity.

Utah's FrontRunner

Utah’s FrontRunner

#9. Triple transit ridership

Salt Lake City recently opened FrontRunner, an 80-mile commuter rail line from Ogden to Salt Lake to Provo, that competes directly with Interstate 15. The price for a monthly pass is nearly $200, which, of course, drives off some would-be riders. But how many? In the 1980s Austin, Texas, tested “free fare transit” for over a year. Ridership system-wide nearly doubled. (Hasselt, Belgium, went fare-free in 1996 and by 2006 had increased ridership 13-fold.) Austin discontinued the program in part due to complaints of vagrants and in part to insufficient capacity to handle the volume. Today, smart cards can handle the vagrancy problem. Taking the Austin experiment as a benchmark of what free transit can do, Salt Lake could use revenue from congestion pricing to reduce or eliminate the fare on FrontRunner. Austin doubled ridership in an environment where driving was free and far less congested.  Imagine what could happen to ridership on Salt Lake’s FrontRunner if premium slots on I-15 at 5 pm were sold at fair market value, and proceeds were used to make FrontRunner free or very low cost! Judging from Austin, ridership could at least double if not triple!

#8. Recover lost 30% of capacity

As noted in Part 2, when the system fails, it is like having a V-8 motor that only fires on 5 cylinders — the freeway loses 30% of its capacity. Preventing failure ensures maximum value from your freeway infrastructure.

#7. Reduce spillover to side streets

A common objection to congestion pricing is that motivating drivers to leave the freeway will push them onto parallel arterials, displacing congestion from the freeways to the arterials. Seems logical, but it isn’t true. When freeways go into failure and lose 30% of their throughput, many of those drivers are already seeking other routes. With freeway optimization, the system intentionally hovers at about 5% under maximum throughput in order to avoid losing 30%. The net effect is that arterials could carry less traffic because freeways will carry more.

#6. Bring A Closer to B

When we had Free and Fast, we adopted far-flung lifestyles. There are benefits to sprawling cities but there are also many costs and side-effects. Congestion (Free But Not Fast) sets in , which forces us to shorten our overall driving – a good thing for reducing sprawl. But accepting congestion also means we’re not solving the problem, which is inefficient, frustrating and politically unacceptable. One last shot at Fast And Free requires adding capacity, which is becoming too expensive now and causes more sprawl. But a third way — Fast But Not Free using congestion pricing – can give us reliably high speeds while also discouraging excessive freeway usage.  To some, that may sound like social engineering. In reality it is just free market allocation of a limited resource.

#5. Make freeways more environmentally sustainable

With pricing, you don’t need to widen freeways. Just sell premium slots to those willing to pay. Those unable or unwilling to pay for any given trip will opt instead for transit, try parallel free roads, or travel during off-peak times.  The overall effect is to reduce congestion, dependence on foreign oil and the emission of Greenhouse gases – common ground for conservatives and liberals. Continue reading

Boomer….Wha?

a-bomb peace signBy Peter Galuszka

Remember the federal deficit that lurked behind the corner? Where did it go?

Al Kamen of The Washington Post asks that question in a column today. He writes:

“Not long ago, the federal deficit was projected to destroy the country, our country’s future and just about everything else. The politicians and the news media regularly fretted about what to do. Budget battles shut down the entire government for a couple of weeks.”

He continues: “So, what happened? The simple answer, of course, is that the deficit is way down and, for now, is no longer a big problem.”

The Congressional Budget Office estimated last week that the deficit for f/y 2014 is $492 billion or 2.8 percent of GDP. That puts us back in the early years of the George W. Bush administration.

Hmm. Kinda of makes you wonder where all this out-of-control spending is coming from that the Tea Party types talk about so much.

It is off the media radar screen. The Post has a graphic showing that the words or mention of the “national debt,” federal debt” or “federal deficit,” reached a high around the first half of 2010. The conservative Washington Times the most at 18; The Post with 13; and the New York Times with 10. Now it’s around three.

This isn’t to say that federal spending doesn’t merit watching. But where is Jim Bacon when you need him?

Maps of the Day: Condition of Virginia Roads and Bridges

Citing data provided by the White House as President Barack Obama makes the case for more federal transportation funding, the Wall Street Journal has produced these interactive maps showing how the condition of roads and bridges varies widely by state. Virginia’s roads are in relatively good shape (only 12% rated poor) but its bridges are dicey (26% rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete).

Hat tip: Tim Wise