Category Archives: Infrastructure

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 Part III of a three-part series.

“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 Part II of a three-part series.

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

More Defense Cuts Plague Virginia

Special deliveryBy Peter Galuszka

Virginia continues to see painful military spending cuts in the aftermath of the years’- long U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Among the latest news is that the Army may cut 3,600 jobs at Ft. Lee, ironically the site of a recent and large expansion, by 2020. That could result in a decline of 9,000 residents near Petersburg which is close to  the base.

Plus, the Air Force plans on cutting 742 positions at its Air Combat Command headquarters at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton although some of the positions are already vacant and won’t be filled.

These are just some of the changes that are affecting Virginia, which is the No. 2 defense industry state after California. Many of the cuts involve active duty personnel whose vacancies are not being filled or are being asked to take early retirement.

Defense industry jobs are likewise taking cuts. A report by the National Association of Manufacturers states that in 2014, California will lose the most military-related jobs (148,400) followed by Virginia (114,900) and then Texas (109,000). Maryland will lose 40,200 jobs, the report says.

Many of the jobs are in heavy manufacturing, such as aerospace and ship building, and search and navigational services, but general business and other services will also be affected.

The news is especially hard on Petersburg and nearby Ft. Lee which just a few years ago enjoyed a major boost after a Base and Realignment and Closure round consolidated many multi-service logistics and supply functions. The influx of thousands of soldiers, contractors and their families boosted the city and surrounding areas.

Hampton, the location of Langley Air Force Base, doesn’t seem to be in store for such heavy impacts since the cuts involve some jobs already being lost to attrition. Other bases and areas hurt by the Air Force cuts include Washington, D.C.; San Antonio; Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and Belleville, Illinois.

Newport News Shipbuilding, now owned by Huntington Ingalls Industries, could lose a deal to build one submarine and might delay another to build as Ford class nuclear attack carrier, if automatic defense budget cuts return in 2016. Another potential hit: refueling the nuclear-powered carrier George Washington but may mothball the ship if the budget cuts kick in. About 24,000 people work at Newport News Shipbuilding, making it the largest private employer in the state.

Besides the Washington area, Hampton Roads is greatly dependent upon defense spending. Some 47 percent of the regional economy depends on it. Anticipating more defense cuts, former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell formed a commission to come up with ideas before he left office this year. One of them is to be pro-active and recommend cuts of its liking before the federal government acts.

One of its recommendations cuts both ways on environmental issues. It recommends against offshore oil and gas drilling in watery areas where the military trains, thus making them available over the long term. It likewise recommends against wind turbines in the same areas.

These are interesting, but very difficult choices.

For Sustainability, Convert Freeways to Fastways

tollsThis is the first in a series of three columns.

by Michael Brown

By many peoples’ reckoning, faster-running, free-flowing freeways are the enemy of environmental sustainability. But what if I told you of a strategy that would:

  • Result in faster freeways without causing further sprawl?
  • Have miniscule construction and maintenance costs?
  • Double or triple transit ridership, as well as reduce auto trips on arterial streets?
  • Break the cycle of “building our way out of congestion,” saving billions for other worthwhile efforts?
  • Create thousands of permanent jobs, and strengthen the economy by billions?
  • Be a market-driven solution that allowed people options for any given trip?

This article will show how faster freeways are entirely consistent with the goals of greening environment, improving public health, increasing economic productivity, and reducing land consumption.

“Fast and Free” has degraded to “Free but not Fast”

The early decades of the great American freeway experiment enjoyed freeways that were both “fast and free,” as in not tolled.  Everyone loved it, including me.  But recent decades have fallen into “free but not fast.” As traffic and congestion increased, we filled medians with new lanes to get back to fast and free. Then we paved shoulders, and that worked too – for a while. But adding lanes to increase throughput enabled millions of drivers to adopt far-flung lifestyles, creating more demand. Now that the easy solutions have been completed, the next generation of freeway improvements is incredibly expensive. Boston’s “Big Dig” project spent over $24 billion for about 8-miles of underground freeway!  Now virtually every city has engaged in extremely costly freeway construction and many are talking seriously about their own “Big Dig” double-decker freeway projects.

Today Fast and Free is achievable only at sky-high prices and the “fast” will last only a short time. So consider a third possibility – Fast But Not Free.

Big tunnel proposed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Seriously?

Big tunnel proposed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Seriously?

Fast But Not Free — paying with money

Many transportation strategies strive for more transit and less driving. But the structure of transportation taxes creates a perception that driving is “free” while transit requires expensive fares or passes. Of course, drivers do pay at the pump, but that cost is well hidden. Moreover, taxes and fees tied to driving generate less revenue than the cost of building and maintaining roads and highways, and fuel taxes offer no incentive for someone to avoid being part of the 5-p.m. problem.

Congestion pricing brings out the pitchforks because it is perceived as double taxation. To that I would ask, “Would you rather be taxed $1 billion from a single gas tax? Or $900 million from a gas tax and the last $100 million from the 10% to 20% of drivers most responsible for expensive freeway construction?

The total collected can be the same, but the second option solves a problem. Rural residents, and even most urban dwellers, are not driving 40 miles on urban freeways at 5 p.m., so why ask them to pay higher fuel taxes so that a small minority can consume an excessive share of a Big Dig freeway? Congestion pricing generates revenue from the right people.

But, as important as that is from a moral and political standpoint, it is incidental to the higher purpose of ensuring our freeways won’t fail.

falling_speeds

Continue reading

Should Virginia Beach Subsidize a New Arena?

Image credit: ESG Companies

by James A. Bacon

United States Management (USM), a Virginia Beach development company, wants to build a $200 million, 18,000-seat arena and sports complex adjacent to the city’s convention center, which, it claims, will create jobs, boost the local tourism industry, bolster city property values and bring events to Hampton Roads that enhance the regional quality of life. Backed by $150 million in financing from Chinese interests, the company would spend $200 million of its own money.

All it will take from the City of Virginia Beach is a $52.7 million contribution to infrastructure costs for road improvements, utilities and parking. … Plus $26 million in optional streetscape improvements and additional road improvements…. Plus $7 million yearly in tax revenue generated by the project to pay down USM’s debt.

This project has consumed the attention of Hampton Roads much in the way that the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium has absorbed Richmond residents. The arena is back in the local news thanks to the release of a consultant report detailing the commitment the city would have to make under the terms of the deal proposed by USM. That commitment, though large, is significantly smaller than called for in a proposal made and rejected earlier in the year, which makes it look good by comparison. Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms is supportive of the project, although some City Council members have expressed concern about the public cost.

If Hampton Roads residents wonder why their region has been such an economic laggard in the current business cycle, the fact that Virginia Beach is debating how much to subsidize a sports arena should tell you all you need to know. Sessoms had shown a penchant for grandiose public projects — extending light rail from Norfolk to the Virginia Beach resort area is another — that require the expenditure of massive public funds for highly speculative benefits. Rather than focusing resources on making Virginia’s largest city more competitive in a technology-intensive knowledge economy, the mayor is doubling down on the city’s past as a tourism destination – a second-tier tourism destination, at that.

It is undoubtedly true that the proposed arena, which could host everything from a pro basketball team to monster truck rallies, would stimulate economic activity. In a 2012 study, economist and former Old Dominion University James V. Koch estimated that an arena would generate $98 million in revenue throughout Hampton Roads, two thirds of it in Virginia Beach itself. (Two critical caveats: Koch’s study assumed that the arena would attract an NBA team that would play regular games there, and it included a multiplier effect as initial spending rippled through the economy.)

As Koch made clear in his study, he drew no conclusions regarding whether the arena should be built or how it should be financed. Nor did he, nor anyone else that I have been able to find, analyze the city’s Return on Investment of public dollars. Nor did he or anyone else conduct a risk analysis of what could go wrong, and what exposure the city would have, if, say, a recession came along and the wonderful assumptions behind the economic forecasts fell short. Risk analysis, as citizens of Southeastern Virginia should have learned from the U.S. 460 fiasco, is critical. Finally, I have seen no analysis of what alternative uses Virginia Beach might have for $53 million to $79 million.

Personally, I can think of many other ways for Virginia Beach to invest sums of that magnitude, although none would be as flashy as a new arena. The city could invest in creating islands of mixed-use, higher-density urbanism that bring in far more taxes, with fewer offsetting spending liabilities, than traditional suburban-style development. The city could invest in “smart cities” technologies that could cut energy expenditures, reduce water consumption and do a better job of managing traffic. The city could invest in integrating online learning into the curriculum of Virginia Beach schools. If city officials were feeling especially adventurous, they could foster the creation of innovation districts that would stimulate sustainable, entrepreneurial-based economic growth. Most of those priorities, however, require a decidedly un-sexy, stick-to-the-basics approach in which government focuses on those things that government can do well while leaving risky development schemes to the private sector. Alas, stick-to-the-basics doesn’t garner headlines or add to the aura of activist mayors.

Local governments in Virginia face chronic fiscal challenges. Virginia Beach doesn’t have a lot of money to waste. City officials need to show discipline in allocating tens of millions in discretionary spending. Once they commit to spending that money, they foreclose alternatives that could offer bigger payoffs at less risk.