Category Archives: Infrastructure

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

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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

RAM, Coal and Massive Hypocrisy

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

The Pikesville RAM clinic in 2011. Photo by Scott Elmquist

By Peter Galuszka

Sure it’s a photo op but more power to him.

Gov. Terry McAuliffe is freshly arrived from the cocktail and canape circuit in Europe on a trade mission and is quickly heading out to the rugged and impoverished coal country of Wise County.

There, he, Attorney General Mark Herring and Health and Human Resources Secretary William A. Hazel will participate in a free clinic to help the mountain poor get free health care. The political opportunity is simple: Many of the 1,000 or more who will be attending the Remote Area Medical clinic are exactly the kind of people getting screwed over by the General Assembly’s failure to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low income Virginians.

RAM makes its Wise run every summer and people line up often in the wee morning hours to get a free medical and dental checkup. For many, it’s the only health care they get all year unless it’s an emergency. Another problem: Distances are great in the remote mountains and hospitals can be an hour away.

Mind you, this is Coal Country, the supposedly rich area upon which Barack Obama is waging war and harming local people by not going along with coal executives’ demands on environmental disasters such as mountaintop removal, keeping deep mine safety standards light and avoiding carbon dioxide rules.

The big question, of course,  is why if the land is so rich in fossil fuel, are the people so poor and in need of free medical care? It’s been this way for 150 years. And now, coal’s demise got underway in Southwest Virginia in 1991 when employment peaked at about 11,000. It is now at 4,000 or less. It’s getting worse, not better.

In June 2011, by coincidence, I happened along a RAM free clinic in Pikesville, Ky., not that far from Wise when I was researching my book, “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal.” My photographer Scott Elmquist and I spotted the clinic at a high school. There must have been hundreds of people there –  some of whom told me they had been waiting since 1:30 a.m. It was about 8:30 a.m.

Attending them were 120 medical and dental personnel from the U.S. Public Health Service. They were dressed in U.S. Navy black, grey and blue colored fatigues. The University of Louisville had sent in about 80 dental chairs.

Poverty in Pike County had been running about 27 percent, despite the much-touted riches of coal. Pike is Kentucky’s biggest coal producer.

One man I spoke with said he had a job as a security guard, but he doesn’t qualify for regular Medicaid and can’t afford a commercial plan. In other words, had I interviewed him more recently and had he been a Virginian, he would have been lost through the cracks of Medicaid expansion. Alas, he’s in luck. In 2013, Kentucky opted for a “marketplace” expansion system where federal funds would be used to help lower income buy health plans through private carriers.

Lucky the man isn’t from here. The marketplace plan is exactly the kind that McAuliffe has proposed and exactly the one that stubborn Republicans such as Bill Howell in the General Assembly are throttling. The feds would pick up the bill for expanding Medicaid to 400,000 needy Virginians, at least initially.

Yet another irony. Expanded medical benefits are available just across an invisible border in two states whose coalfield residents somehow never got the great benefits of King Coal.

Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? Embrace Congestion Pricing

competitive_advantageby Michael Brown

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

As I contended in my last post, Americans can do mountains of good for sustainability by using free-market pricing tools to solve traffic congestion. In this piece, I will argue that the first state to get serious about Freeway Optimization will enjoy a competitive advantage over all others.

The argument for how your community can become a billionaire has two parts. First, if your neighbors commit to Big Digs but your state solves the problem without construction, then you’ll save those construction costs while others mire themselves in debt. Second, Big Digs temporarily reduce congestion locally while Freeway Optimization solve congestion regionally. The resultant reliability and time savings will translate into financial and societal benefits worth billions of dollars.

Building our way out of congestion

In the 1950s, it was hard to go very far by auto, so transportation planners invented freeways.  Those worked great for 20 years or so, but they motivated people to adopt far-flung lifestyles. It was cheap and easy to add capacity by filling the medians, but then the freeways bogged down again. Next, transportation departments paved the shoulders. Now we have freeways with five to eight lanes each direction, and the latest talk is how to “solve” the worst sections with double-decker freeways! That strategy may work a while, just as previous palliatives did. But the cost of these Big Digs and Double Deckers will be so high that our children will be in debt forever. Has anyone looked at the national debt clock lately?

BuildingCycle
Adding capacity without adding lanes

Freeways can carry 2,200 vehicles per hour per lane, but only for about 10 to 15 minutes before they gum up. The next several hours are not merely slow but they move  only about 60% to 70% of what they are designed to carry. It’s like having a V-8 engine that can do zero to 60 in five seconds but sputters because three cylinders stop firing when you need them most! Years ago our freeways were like modest V-4s. When those sputtered and gave us three-cylinder performance, we installed V-6s, which also sputtered and gave us only V-4 performance. Then we installed V-8s and got only five to six cylinders of performance. Now we’re visiting the mechanic again, asking what it takes to install a V-12 into our Honda Civic right-of-way.  The engineers tell us they can double-deck two V-6s for a few billion.

As an engineer I talk to many other engineers. Many are accustomed to adding lanes as the way to boost capacity. But, like the maxim that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” improving efficiency of existing lanes adds as much capacity as building new lanes. Don’t double-deck two V-6s. Your wife will be embarrassed by your soon-to-sputter monstrosity, and you’ll never have the money to take her to Hawaii. Try a cheaper, more sustainable “tune-up” so you can get the V-8 performance you are already in debt for. Then let the next generation decide if it makes sense to go with the V-12.

more_power
Freeway optimization strengthens the economy

What if you could make $2 back for every $1 you spend? Would you call that $1 a loss or an essential part of your success? It happens all the time in America – we call it the free market. Citizens worry that pricing is a tax that just drains the economy and gives little back. Yet money for infrastructure, which is essential to economic success, has to come from somewhere! Creating a targeted user fee need not increase overall taxes – it just changes the collection strategy for the purpose of giving people an incentive to avoid the fee, which in turn optimizes freeways and establishes a sustainable system where the city can grow indefinitely without resorting to double-decker freeways. Continue reading

Does Virginia Want to Be a Wireless Friendly State?

cell_towerStates and regions that want to stay in the vanguard of economic growth need to expand their broadband infrastructure. Mobile data traffic will increase 13-fold between 2012 and 2017 by some estimates. To accommodate that growth, the wireless industry will have to build new cell towers, distributed antenna systems (DAS) and other infrastructure. However, permitting and regulation is a big problem in many states, according to George state Sen. Judson Hill.

Writes Hill in The Hill:

New tower construction and collocations of antennas on existing sites helps local economies. New towers typically cost between $250,000 and $300,000, and collocations run upward from $25,000. Moreover, new 4G wireless broadband networks support local job growth and improve economic vitality. Economists Robert Shapiro and Kevin Hassett found in their recent study that “every 10 percent increase in the adoption of 3G and 4G wireless technologies could add more than 231,000 new jobs to the U.S. economy in less than a year.”

Unfortunately, differing, cumbersome and unnecessarily complex local government permit processes have impeded investment and construction of new wireless facilities infrastructure in many states. Denials or long delays in approving permits for new cell towers or antenna collocations have been the experience for countless wireless infrastructure providers. Public safety communications challenges and lost economic opportunities, including foregone job creation, are regrettable byproducts of these denials and delays.

Georgia law requires local governments to issue timely permits — within 150 days — and ends the practice of imposing excessive processing fees. He concludes: “States should proactively pursue regulatory and tax reforms to remove roadblocks to wireless infrastructure facility construction. Greater economic and public safety benefits will come to states that best position themselves to enhance their 4G wireless broadband network build-out.

Bacon’s bottom line: How does Virginia stand when it comes to cell tower permitting? Hill suggests that Georgia, Missouri and Washington are the only states that have addressed these issues legislatively so far — but maybe Virginia doesn’t have a problem that needs fixing. Or maybe it does. Does anyone know?

– JAB