Category Archives: Infrastructure

Is McAuliffe Crying Wolf on the Economy?

naval shipyard By Peter Galuszka

Just how bad is the Virginia economy, really?

Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who released a rather modest state budget proposal just a few days ago, has said that the state’s economic picture is bleak because of government spending cuts, most of them at the U.S. Department of Defense, the state’s largest employer, and at other agencies.

“We’re looking down the barrel of a gun,” he told reporters, noting that automatic cuts in federal spending due to sequestration and the run-down of military spending after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are badly hurting the state.

There are two curious points. The Washington Post notes that McAuliffe had based some of his gloomy thinking after revenues dipped by $439 million earlier this year. This relates to the $2.4 billion shortfall in the biannual budget. Now, says Finance Secertary Ric Brown, revenues have picked up as the governor and lawmakers have worked to close the shortfall.

There is also a story in this morning’s The Virginian-Pilot that the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (located in Portsmouth, actually) plans to hire some 1,500 workers by this coming September. This will be a net gain of 800 workers making about $21 an hour. The other 700 workers will be to replace retiring ones.

The shipyard, which can handle work on large nuclear ships like aircraft carriers, has a total workforce of 9,500 and the extra hires will take it past 10,000, the highest number since the early 1990s. Most of the new jobs are in skilled trades such as welding and ship fitting.

The Pilot reports that Hampton Roads will lose a total of 18,000 skilled workers by the end of the decade as older employees retire. Replacing them should help mitigate the cuts in federal spending and McAuliffe is doing the right thing by focusing on jobs training and credentialing that will boost high-paying blue collar jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.

The state’s 23 community colleges are working to come up with a plan required by the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, passed this year, to streamline training and make sure that trained workers pass certain requirements.

The Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission recently issued a scathing report on just how disjointed job training is in the state. It said that there was no system to track how $341 million was spent in state workforce training programs and that only 16 percent of the companies in the state use it. The new federal law may help change that by requiring states to come up with four-year plans on coordinating training.

It could be that McAuliffe is crying wolf to shake up the General Assembly before it convenes Jan. 14. He’s doing just that by including funding Medicaid in his budget again and by calling for restrictions on gun sales (needed). But it may be important to keep in mind that things may not be all that bad, economically.

Easy Savings: LED Street Lights

LED street lights in action -- China

LED street lights in action — China

by James A. Bacon

Installing LEDs  in street lights may be no panacea for municipal budget woes, but the payback is so high that one can’t help but wonder why every local government in Virginia isn’t doing it.

It’s heartening to heart that Virginia Beach, Virginia’s most populous city, is taking the plunge. Well, dipping its toe might be a more accurate description. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Highway Electric of Chesapeake will install about 180 LED street lights in the median of the newly expanded Princess Anne Road beginning January 5.

The main drawback of LEDs (light emitting diodes) is that they are more expensive than the high-pressure sodium lamps they replace: $6,600 compared to $4,800.  But fewer LEDs are needed to light Princess Anne Road — 182 compared to 257 of the sodium lamps —  so the total project cost is lower.

Moreover, maintenance and electricity costs are lower. An LED street lamp lasts five times longer than conventional lights. Over time, that saves the cost of buying new lights and the cost of sending crews to replace them. They also consume about half as much electricity as a sodium light. Virginia Beach spends about $5.4 million a year lighting all of its street lights, according to the Pilot. The city expects to be saving $650,000 annually within ten years by phasing in the LED lights.

Arlington County had converted 85% of its street lights to LEDs by August. But only a few Virginia localities have implemented the technology.

Bacon’s bottom line: The payback is so high that any citizens ought to get up in arms if their locality is failing to take advantage of this cost savings. But why not go a step further? Local governments can save even more by attaching sensors that detect the movement of cars and people. The lights turn on when someone is walking or driving nearby and turn off when no one’s around. As a bonus, burning less electricity reduces carbon dioxide emissions and power-plant pollution.

Admittedly, in Virginia the picture is complicated by the fact that Virginia Dominion Power owns many street lights. I’m not clear on how much say-so local governments have over how those lights are maintained. With that caveat, smart LED street lights is low hanging fruit that every local government should be plucking.

Express Lanes as Precursors to Ubiquitous Road Pricing

express_lane_simulation

I-95 Express Lanes simulation

by James A. Bacon

After years of anticipation, 95 Express Lanes opened its Interstate 95 HOT lane system to the public Sunday. Drivers get to use the lanes for free outside of rush hour, when the lanes remain restricted to high-occupancy vehicles (HOVs). Tolls will go into effect around the end of the month.

The nearly $1 billion project converts existing HOV lanes along I-95 into tolled HOT lanes while letting HOVs continue to drive for free, and extends the lanes to Stafford County. While the project won’t do much to shorten the commute for most commuters, it will give them an option when they place a high value on their time, said Matthew Click, vice president-national director of price-managed lanes for HNTB, an engineering firm that worked with 95 Express Lanes on the project.

“We expect most people to use them sometimes, when they really need to get somewhere and they need to get there now,” said Click in an interview with Bacon’s Rebellion. Click took issue with the description of HOT lanes as “Lexus” lanes. Tolled lanes provide a valuable option for less affluent drivers, he said. Someone making $25,000 a year could use the express lanes to pick up their kid at day care to avoid the $10-per-minute late charges. Plumbers might use the lanes to squeeze in an extra call, or taxi drivers an extra fare.

That was the predictable part of the interview, entirely in line with the business case for building HOT lanes. I have written extensively on this blog in support of HOT lanes. They come as close to a “win win” arrangement politically as it’s possible to devise in the transportation realm. They conform to the principle of “user pays,” they use market mechanisms to ration scarce capacity, and no one has to use them if they don’t want to.

Traffic forecasts. The conversation got much more interesting when we veered into the topic of demand for the HOT lanes. Will the volume of traffic on the Beltway and I-95, both of which are public-private partnerships, generate sufficient revenue to pay the back the billion-dollar investments?

The revenue forecasts for express lane projects are “very sensitive” to demand, Click said. “In an express lane situation, the competition is three feet away in the general-purpose non-tolled lane,” he said. The worse the level of service in the general lanes, the greater the traffic — and revenue — in the tolled lanes. An increase in demand for the tolled lanes does two things. It increases the number of cars being tolled, and it increases the toll rates, which are dynamically priced according to demand.

Click conceded that 495 traffic volumes are lower than forecast. “You’re seeing some initial birthing pains getting up and running,” he said. “It’s taking a little longer for volumes to ramp up during peak hours. … We’re seeing the impact of the recession of 2008., the greatest downturn in the economy since the Depression.” As the economy recovers, he said, he expects traffic demand to increase. The public-private partnership has a 75-year time horizon. “It’s warranted to give a couple or few years” for traffic volumes to recover.

But there are risks over the mid- to long-term as well, Click acknowledged. Demographic pressures may dampen Vehicle Miles Driven (VMT) overall and demand for HOT lanes specifically. Members of the Millennial Generation tend to drive less than predecessor generations. The population is aging, and the elderly don’t drive as much. Also, technology and the sharing economy are scrambling long-term demand forecasts.

“Imagine a future when people don’t own a car,” Click said. “I’ve got my mobile phone. I walk up to a subscription car, and it recognizes me. The car starts driving. I see my buddy Tim two blocks over. I pick him up. He bumps his phone to mine, and we split the fare. … Destructive creativity is really coming. It’s real.” And it means that VMT will not grow in the same linear relationship with population and the economy as in the past. “I see a future where [demand] is flat.”

Transformative technology. Click sees express lanes as the “precursor” of a world in 25 years “in which all lanes are priced.” The main barrier to such a future is not technology, it’s political will, he said. “The American public has a 50-year relationship with the fuel tax and the federal Interstate program. Peoples’ reaction to tolls is, ‘I’ve already paid.’ But I say, once you’ve paid off the mortgage on your house, you still have to fix the roof. You have to maintain the roads.” As fuel taxes decline and infrastructure degrades, express lanes will look better and better.

“We will fondly look back on express lanes as the first step toward the new transportation paradigm,” Click said. Charging drivers for usage of all roads on the basis of dynamic pricing will be the greatest driver of urban transformation since the invention of the elevator. “The next generation will change everything.”

Big Energy’s Conspiracy with Attorneys General

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller --toady for Big Energy

Former Va. Atty. Gen. Miller –toady for Big Energy

By Peter Galuszka

What seems to be strong opposition to a host of initiatives by President Barack Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to curtail carbon and other forms of pollution is no mere coincidence.

According to a deeply reported story in Sunday’s New York Times, some state attorneys general, most of them Republicans, are part of what seems to be a covert conspiracy to oppose carbon containment rules in letters ghost-written by energy firms.

And, there’s a big Virginia connection in former Democratic Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller and George Mason University which have been bankrolled by conservative and Big Energy money for years.

The cabal has drawn its modus operandi from the American Legislative Exchange Council, funded by the ultra-right, oil-rich Koch Brothers of Kansas. In that case, ALEC prepares “templates” of nearly identical legislation that fits the laissez-faire market and anti-government and regulation principles held dear by the energy and other big industries. Many marquee-name corporations such as Pepsi, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble have dropped their ALEC membership  after public outcries.

In the case of the attorneys general, big petroleum firms like Devon Energy Corporation of Oklahoma draft letters opposing proposals that might hurt their profits such as ones to regulate methane, which can be a dangerous and polluting result of hydraulic fracking for natural gas. The Times notes that Oklahoma Atty. Gen. E. Scott Pruitt then took Devon’s letter and, almost-word-for-word, submitted it in his “comments” opposing EPA’s proposed rules on regulating fracking and methane.

The secretive group involves a great deal of interplay involving the Republican Governor’s Association which, of course, helps channel big bucks campaign contribution to acceptable, pro-business attorneys general. In 2006 and 2010, Greg Abbott of Texas got more than $2.4 million from the group. Former Virginia Atty. Gen. Kenneth Cuccinelli got $174,5638 during his 2009 campaign.

One not-so-strange bedfellow is former Virginia Atty. Gen. Andrew P. Miller who was in office from 1970 to 1977 and is now 82 years-old. He’s been very business promoting energy firms. As the Times writes:

Andrew P. Miller, a former attorney general of Virginia, has in the years since he left office built a practice representing major energy companies before state attorneys general, including Southern Company and TransCanada, the entity behind the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The New York Times collected emails Mr. Miller sent to attorneys general in several states.

“Mr. Miller approached Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma in April 2012, with the goal of helping to encourage Mr. Pruitt, who then had been in office about 18 months, to take an even greater role in serving as a national leader of the effort to block Obama administration environmental regulations.

“Mr. Miller worked closely with Mr. Pruitt, and representatives from an industry-funded program at George Mason, to organize a summit meeting in Oklahoma City that would assemble energy industry lobbyists, lawyers and executives to have closed-door discussions with attorneys general. The companies that were invited, such as Devon Energy, were in most cases also major campaign donors to the Republican Attorneys General Association.

“Mr. Miller asked [West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey] to help push legislation opposing an Obama administration plan to regulate carbon emissions from existing coal-burning power plants. Legislation nearly identical to what Mr. Miller proposed was introduced in the West Virginia Legislature and then passed. Mr. Morrisey disputed any suggestion that he played a role.”

Not only that, but George Mason has an energy study center that is bankrolled by Big Energy and tends to produce policy studies of what the energy firms want. It also has the Mercatus Center, a right-wing think tank bankrolled by the Koch Brothers.

So, when you see what seems to be a tremendous outcry against badly needed regulations to curb carbon emissions and make sure that fracking is safe, it may not be an accident. And, it comes from attorneys general who should be protecting the interests of average residents in their states instead of being toadies for Big Energy.

Suddenly, It’s Raining Gas Projects and Tax Breaks

Anti-Pipeline By Peter Galuszka

Suddenly it seems to be raining natural gas pipelines and snowing millions of dollars in tax breaks and incentives for rich electric utilities.

Dominion Resources, the powerful and politically well-connected Richmond-based utility, apparently is getting $30 million in public money from the Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Revitalization Commission without apparently asking for it to help build a new natural gas-fired generating plant in Brunswick County. The information was broken by the Associated Press.

Largesse for Dominion stretches to the other side of the Potomac River as well. The Washington Post reported Sunday that Calvert County Md., where Dominion has approval to convert a liquefied natural gas facility to handle natural gas exports, is going to give the utility about $560 million in tax credits.

And, back in Virginia, controversial is growing over the $5 billion natural pipeline that Virginia and three other southern utilities are planning to take natural gas drilled by hydraulic fracking methods from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has drawn criticism from environmentalists who fear that gas is not the cleaner panacea to coal that many think. Landowners complain that Dominion and its powerful Richmond law firm, McGuireWoods, are using strong arm methods to force their way on their land to survey possible routes.

mountain valley pipelineYet another pipeline – this one doesn’t involve Dominion – is drawing concern in southwestern Virginia. The $3.5 billion Mountain Valley Pipeline that would likewise begin in the fracked gaslands of northern West Virginia and head south west of Roanoke and then cut to the small town of Chatham.

The complaints are the same as the Atlantic Coast Pipeline – green concerns about leaking methane and the threat of bulldozing bucolic private land by companies using eminent domain.

The Mountain Valley project is being spearheaded by EQT Corp. of Pittsburgh and NextEra Energy of Florida.

So what gives? Utilities like Dominion are using more gas, namely at its new Brunswick County natural gas plant and at an older coal-fired station that’s been converted at Bremo Bluffs on the James River. But how much gas does it actually need?

In the case of Cove Point, Dominion notes that the plant has been importing LNG from places like Northern Africa and Scandinavia for decades although imports have come to a spot given the glut of cheap, domestic gas.

Dominion, which bought the facility about a decade ago, can get gas from an older pipeline that for years has linked the Chesapeake Bay area with gasfields in Pennsylvania where some of the fracking for new product is occurring. Dominion can also tap gas from the venerable Transco Pipeline that for decades has transported gas the traditional way – from the Gulf State processing stations to the northeast.

Dominion says it already has contracts to export gas – from where it comes domestically – to utilities in Japan and India. But when one looks at the spaghetti-like twirl of all of the proposed new pipelines, one wonders what the game really is.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has a leg that bounds over to Hampton Roads from near the North Carolina border. Dominion says that this one will help supply one of its pipeline partners with gas because it serves South Hampton Roads. Ok, fine, but it might also serve another new LNG export facility in that area that has perfect deep water conditions for such a facility.

And, as some environmentalists and property owners wonder, why couldn’t the energy companies tap rights of way near existing pipelines? Why can’t existing pipelines be expanded? Go back to the utilities and they say they don’t know exactly where the pipelines will go.

That is very curious. While they don’t know where mega-billion project projects are going to go, they seem to be getting tens, if not hundreds, of billions of dollars in public funds and tax breaks to help them proceed with the Brave New World of natural gas.

 

Freeways, New and Improved!

Freewaysby Michael Brown

Urban freeways provided unprecedented mobility for decades, and helped the United States sustain a strong economy throughout those decades.  But their success eventually became their demise.  They enabled far-flung lifestyles, which induced demand and congested them faster than we expected.  At first it was cheap and easy to convert medians and shoulders to lanes. Unfortunately that enabled even further driving from the next wave of fringe residents. Now it is getting too expensive to expand, and we know that congestion will return soon anyway.

But hey, we’re Americans! Big things are what we do!  Yes, the spirit is able, but when we think about that federal debt clock getting close to $20-trillion, a small voice inside gnaws at us, “You already spent all the money, and your children’s money too. Fort Knox is full of IOU’s to who-knows-who?  Even if you can get another loan from China – they’re figuring out that you’ll never pay them back – how can you do this in good conscience?”  And we respond, “But how can we not?  Mobility is life!  Mobility is the economy!  We can’t earn the money we need to get out of our debts if we can’t get around!”

There Are Solutions!  Before you get liquored up at the “Build-Your-Way-Out Bar & Grill” once more, READ THIS!!  Earlier articles in this series articulated the benefits of two freeway optimization strategies – congestion pricing and preventive ramp metering (sometimes called “Managed Motorways”).  Either system can optimize traffic flow (i.e., eliminate mainline congestion), but both come with negative side effects and political hurdles.  That’s why there are few examples!  HOT lanes are the baby steps we’ve been able to make because they’re politically acceptable.  But the bang-for-buck of HOT lanes is much less impressive than pricing or preventive metering.

Combining Win-Lose, Lose-Win, to Get Win-Win

Congestion drags the economy and creates frowny-faces. I believe that with congestion pricing, virtually everyone comes out a winner in some way. There are huge wins for sustainability and everyone has the option for fast travel at any time of day. But paying to access a freeway is also a visible loss to everyone, and that makes the strategy politically problematic.

Preventive metering also has positive economic effects — new efficiency means things will move!  But traditional activity centers may continue to lose out to the fringe because the preventive metering of Managed Motorways tends to reward long trips.  That could accelerate sprawl and increase Vehicle Miles Traveled, making its positive effects more temporary than pricing. More on that momentarily…

This article articulates a way to combine these separate ideas to get the benefits of pricing and metering without the negatives, resulting in an “advanced new formula” for freeways that can potentially support 30-50% more peak-period traffic without any new lanes!  This advanced formula could guarantee high speeds, but also counteract the sprawl caused by high speeds. This idea requires very little construction to implement on existing freeways, and in contrast to congestion pricing, which requires 100% of people to pay for a 5 p.m. drive, this hybrid system can be free to many and maybe most users at 5 p.m., making it more politically practical.

But wait! There’s more!  The first region to implement this new concept will become billionaires! Not only will they free themselves from billions in “Big Dig” construction debt, but they will also gain a major competitive advantage over other states worth billions in higher Gross Regional Product.  As mentioned in Who Wants to Be a Billionaire, we used the EDRG’s Transportation Economic Development Impact System, or TREDIS, to test this concept for Salt Lake. That effort suggests that the 30-year accumulated societal value of time saved could be over $50-billion, and the value of more and better paying jobs could be around $12-billion.  But before introducing this new concept, first consider its cousins which have many positives, but also many negatives.

Cousin #1:  HOT Lanes.

Freeways2Earlier in this series, I pointed out that when freeways are overwhelmed, they will lose 30-50% of their throughput – dropping from 2,200 vehicles per hour per lane (their maximum potential) down to 1,500 vphpl or less in actual measured flow.  That was the case with SR-191 in Riverside, California, which reported average speeds of 15 mph, and average throughput of only 800 vphpl prior to adding HOT lanes.  Afterwards, the HOT lanes achieved 65 mph speeds and throughput of 1,600 vphpl, a tremendous improvement!  Eighty percent of low-income residents had a positive opinion of the project, since they did pay for the fast lanes sometimes and were grateful for the option.

But the Riverside example has several problems, which are observable from the photos below and their own data. While an improvement from 800 to 1,600 vphpl is very impressive, why didn’t they get to 2,000 or 2,100, given that the opportunity is about 2,200?  There won’t be much elbow room at 2,100, but a freeway lane can carry that much without breaking down.  In the photo, you can see the free lanes are clearly overwhelmed, while the priced lanes are relatively empty (presumably not higher than 1,600, but visually this looks to be even less than that).  This suggests that they are not trying to maximize throughput, but may instead be trying to maximize revenue to pay for HOT lane construction.  Or maybe they are trying to guarantee great service – “elbow room” to those who pay the high fare.  When facing imminent failure, the system cannot remain free without failing.  But if your goal is maximum throughput, then you also cannot charge too much or the lanes end up with low flow because few will pay the excessively high price.  With high prices, you create Lexus Lanes that don’t need as much elbow room as you are creating. Continue reading

Virginia’s Very Own Keystone XL

acl pipeline map By Peter Galuszka

The rise of natural gas keeps raising more questions about the proper future of Virginia’s and the nation’s energy policies. What just a little while ago seemed a benign source of energy has gushed into a mass of controversy and advantage.

One focus of the conflict – good and bad – is the $5 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline that Dominion Transmission and three other southern utilities want to build from the booming natural gas fracklands of northern West Virginia, across sensitive Appalachian terrain and on through Virginia and North Carolina.

The pipeline is unusual since it doesn’t follow the usual post World War II path – Gulf States to the industrial northeast — but it shows just how the U.S. energy picture is being turned on its head.

People in West Virginia have faced the raw end of energy issues for a century and a half, but it is a new matter for the bucolic areas of Nelson County and some of Virginia’s most pristine and appealing mountain country.

Here is a story I wrote for Style Weekly on the promises and problems of Virginia’s very own Keystone XL.

Dominion’s Strange Tobacco Money

tobacco commission logo By Peter Galuszka

Dominion Resources, the powerful, Richmond-based utility with $13 billion in revenues, has strangely been getting $30 million public funds to bring a natural gas pipeline to a new generating plant in Brunswick County.

Odder still (or maybe not so) the public funds are coming from the GOP-controlled Virginia Tobacco Indemnification and Community Revitalization Commission which has figured in a wave of corruption since it was formed in 1999.

Even more bizarre, the tobacco commission made up of politically-appointed people arranged for Dominion to receive millions more than its own staff recommended, according to an intriguing report by the Associated Press.

The tobacco commission was created to use money from a massive 1996 settlement that 46 states received from four top tobacco companies in health-related lawsuits. Many states used their funds to promote health and anti-smoking campaigns. Virginia did some of that but created a pork barrel commission to dole out $1 billion to projects allegedly aimed at helping residents of Virginia’s Tobacco Road along the state’s southern tier for economic development projects.

In the Dominion case, the utility says it never lobbied for grants, but somehow it got $30 million – or $10 million over three years for a pipeline to its $1.3 billion Brunswick gas plant. The commission’s own staff said $6.5 million should have been sufficient for the first installment.

So, you have a situation where Dominion, which is a huge contributor to political campaigns,  says it never really wanted grants, the commission staff recommended one amount and the tobacco commission awarded a much bigger one. And, according to the AP, no one seems to know anything about it.

Well, that’s about par for the course. Here’s something I wrote for The Washington Post in September:

“No one seems to be checking whether commission projects are worth it. A 2011 study by the state’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found that, of 1,368 projects funded for $756 million, only 11 percent were measured for results. “They are just handing out money,” Del. Ward Armstrong (D-Henry) said in 2011.

John W. Forbes II, a former state secretary of finance and a tobacco commission board member, was convicted in 2010 of defrauding the commission of $4 million. He used the money for “The Literary Foundation of Virginia,” which he created, and set up himself and his wife with six-figure jobs. The rest was siphoned to shell companies.

The commission has awarded $14 million in grants to the Scott County Economic Development Authority, which is headed by John Kilgore Jr., Terry Kilgore’s brother (Terry heads the commission and his brother Jerry is major Republican politician). Meanwhile, their father, John Kilgore Sr., heads the nonprofit Scott County Telephone Cooperative’s board, which has received $7 million in tobacco money to expand broadband access.

The Kilgore family affair isn’t illegal, but it looks bad. The tobacco stench just doesn’t go away. In June, federal agents subpoenaed commission records in their probe of former state senator Phillip P. Puckett. The powerful Democrat from Russell was supposedly discussing a lucrative staff job on the tobacco commission with Terry Kilgore just before a key vote on expanding Medicaid. Puckett resigned in time to throw the vote toward opponents, most of them Republicans.”

The gas pipeline apparently would connect with a major interstate pipeline operated by Transco and runs from the Gulf State gas fields through Virginia to the Northeast. And, Dominion is one of four utilities planning a brand new $5 billion that would take natural gas fracked in West Virginia, over sensitive tops of the Appalachians, southeast to North Carolina. That project includes a spur line to the Dominion Brunswick plant.

One wonders why Dominion needs two pipelines to one plant — especially one built with funds intended directly for public service.

Well, as they say in the giant newsroom in the sky, good stories only get better.

Dulles Gets High Scores in at Least One Metric — Frustration

Washington Dulles International -- the wow factor ends with the architecture

Washington Dulles International — the wow factor ends with the architecture

by James A. Bacon

Washington Dulles International Airport is the Brazil of U.S. airports — it’s the airport of the future… and always will be. Unfortunately, that future is looking further and further off as both passenger and freight traffic decline precipitously. Peaking at 27 million in 2005, the number of passengers declined to 22 million last year. Peaking at 767 million pounds in 2007, air freight dove to 524 million in 2013, according to airport statistics.

It is dogma in Virginia’s political class that Dulles, along with the ports of Virginia in Hampton Roads, is one of the economic development “crown jewels” of the Old Dominion, and that whatever is good for Dulles is good for Virginia. Hence, proposals are working their way through the state’s transportation funding system to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in highway projects to make Dulles freight cargo more economically competitive — and that’s on top of more than $7 billion to extend the Washington Metro system to Tysons, Reston and Dulles.

Now comes the Airport Frustration Index published by Bloomberg, which ranks Dulles as the third most frustrating of 36 major North America airports, trailing only LaGuardia and Newark.  What are the factors that go into compiling the frustration index?

One is the length of the commute to get to the airport. The rush hour drive time, at 67 minutes, is the seventh worst in the country.

Another factor is the passenger experience at the terminal. Based on survey scores, Dulles scored 5.6 on a one-to-ten scale for security, the worst of any airport but Miami. Its restrooms, with a 6.3 score, ranked seventh worst. Shopping, at 5.1, also ranked seventh worst. Interestingly, competing Ronald Reagan Washington National and Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall outscored Dulles in all of these passenger-amenity ratings by wide margins.

Finally, Dulles scored 9th worst in on-time flights (tied with three other airports); only 75% of its flights took off on time.

Bacon’s bottom line: When the Silver Line service opens at Dulles in several years, its airport commute time may improve. (For $7 billion, it had darn better improve!) But the Bloomberg survey suggests that there are some fundamental management issues at work here. What excuse is there for poor security or dirty bathrooms? What excuse is there for a second-rate shopping experience?

Dulles is a tremendous economic development asset for Virginia, at least potentially. But if the Dulles airport lobby wants to soak Virginia taxpayers for hundreds of millions of transportation dollars in subsidies to make its air cargo business more competitive, I’d have a lot more confidence that the money would be invested effectively if I saw evidence that the airport was being run really well. But if airport management can’t keep the restrooms clean, how can it be trusted to build a world-class air freight business?

My Drive Through Two West Virginias

A natural gas well fire in nothern West Virginia

A natural gas well fire in northern West Virginia

 By Peter Galuszka

It was a biting eight degrees when I hit the road in Beckley, W.Va. last Wednesday morning having held a book signing and given a talk in Charleston the night before.

I wanted to drive two hours up to Harrison County, where my family lived from 1962 to 1969, and see what had changed. I hadn’t been there in a few years.

Harrison and neighboring counties Doddridge and Lewis had long been coalfield areas along with natural gas. Coal had pretty much played out after the 1980s but there are still some big mines. Its real claim to fame is the underground rock formation ideal for glass-making. In the 1890s, it had attracted hundreds of craftsmen from Italy who made Clarksburg an important glass center and home to the locally-famous “Pepperoni Roll” – a small loaf of bread with a long stick of pepperoni inside.

As I drove up Interstate 79, I noticed the first signs of the area’s most recent transformation. There were plenty of oversized truck rigs with oddly-shaped machines. A number carried long steel pipes.

When I drove on familiar roads, I noticed that small lots that might have stored strip coal mine gear were all now filled with bright-orange wellheads. Davisson Run, a small creek where we used to hunt for frogs, is now near a large new building for Dominion Transmission — yes, that Dominion based in Richmond — which plans a $5 billion natural gas pipeline from the area through Virginia and North Carolina.

Welcome to Fracking Central. This part of northern West Virginia is booming thanks the Marcellus Shale formation rich with hard-to-get natural gas. In just a few years, hydraulic fracking, using high pressure water and powerful chemicals to fracture underground gas pockets and pump them out, has revolutionized the U.S. energy industry.

My mission (which failed) was to find a woman living in a rural house in the rolling hills and dairy farms of western Harrison County. She had been on YouTube two years ago complaining how her neighbor had sold gas rights and turned pleasant pastureland into an obnoxious industrial site with all-night floodlights and diesel generators roaring 24/7. Huge trucks carrying water for high pressure injection clogged narrow county roads.

I drove through Salem, a tiny college town, and noticed signs reading “Antero Resources” that reminded truck drivers supplying rigs to drive slowly and not to “Jake Brake” – use brakes on some trucks that make a loud, machine gun sound as they tap engine exhaust to slow down.

Antero Resources was a big clue. They are an independent gas and oil firm based in Denver that has hit the fracking craze in a big way. They have rights to something like 384,000 acres of gasland in the surrounding area. Having gone public only recently, the company has revenues that have zoomed from $195 million in 2011 to $259 million in 2012 to $689 million last year.

Antero has had its problems. In July 2013, “flowback” material from a Doddridge Count well exploded, badly burning five workers and killing two. Earlier this year, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issued a case operations order to Antero because of tank ruptures. The firm has also been accused of released methane into the private wells of 12 individuals.

I couldn’t find out if some are enjoying the economic benefits of fracking. One reads of people suddenly drawing $1 million a year in royalties. I did notice was that there was a lot more drilling support activity and more shopping malls.

My road trip was in marked contrast to one I had taken the day before in the southern part of West Virginia.

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

Upper Big Branch memorial in Whitesville

I was on my way to give a talk in Charleston about the paperback edition of my book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” I had the time so I chose to head up fateful Route 3 through the Coal River Valley where I have spent a lot of time in the past four years.

Route 3 in Raleigh County is a lot different from any road in Harrison County. The peaks are taller, steeper with more distinct hollers. Rock outcrops jam out at you, unlike the gently rolling hills of the north. The late fall sun is dramatically restricted.

This is the road that suddenly became flooded with ambulance and fire trucks on April 5, 2010. A huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch deep mine owned by then-Richmond-based Massey Energy killed 29 miners. Before then, it had been Ground Zero in the environmentalists’ vigorous war against Mountaintop Removal, which is strip mining on an obscenely large scale. Hundreds of feet of mountaintops are lopped off by gigantic drag lines. The leftover dirt and trees are dumped into creek beds destroying habitat.

I headed north along Big Coal River, which is anything but. Its valley provides just enough space for a road and a CSX rail line in some areas. I went past the new Marsh Fork Elementary School that Massey Energy was forced to build to replace one a few miles away that was threatened by its mine operations.

There was Jarrett’s store (new sign) where bystanders watched all the police cars and ambulances that fateful April day. Soon, the old Marsh Fork school appears. It had been a focus of yet another battle over coal but today it is abandoned and fenced in. Its playground is close to huge coal storage towers. Soaring above them is an earthen dam holding back a lake with about 3 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

There was very little activity – odd since the coal of the valley is the best in the world. Then it came – Upper Big Branch mine – lifeless. It was sealed after the disaster. Past roads with signs reading “Ambulance entrance” there was the portal where the UBB miners came and went. There is a lonely memorial of 29 black helmets at the base of a steel tower. Another memorial to them is a few miles north at Whitesville – a classic coal town filled with empty stores, although the florist shop is still busy.

No coal trucks, no pickups, for miles. The only activity was at the Elk Run deep mine at the very top of Route 3.

Why? One reason is that fracked natural gas from Harrison County and its region is stealing electric utility market share away from coal.

The other reason is Asia’s economic slowdown. Coal River and UBB provide metallurgical coal used for export to smelt steel in foreign mills. (They don’t anything to do with “Keeping Our Lights On” as the pro-coal propagandists say.) Met coal can be enormously lucrative but its prices are down two thirds from three years ago.

That’s bad news for Bristol-based Alpha Natural Resources, which bought out Massey for $7 billion after the disaster. Alpha is in such bad straits that hedge funds are lining its stock up for shorting trades, according to this morning’s Wall Street Journal.

Well, that’s my road trip. Not to worry, though, I’ll be back soon. The criminal trial of Donald L. Blankenship, former Massey CEO and otherwise known as “The Dark Lord of the Coalfields,” starts Jan. 26 in U.S. District Court in Beckley.