Category Archives: Planning

Fracking the Mother of Presidents

fracking rigBy Peter Galuszka

Controversial hydraulic fracking appears to becoming a distinct possibility in areas south and east of Fredericksburg on land that is famed for its bucolic and watery splendors along with being the birthplaces of such historical figures as George Washington, James Monroe and Robert E. Lee.

After several years of exploring and buying up 84,000 acres worth of leases from Carolina to Westmoreland Counties, a Dallas-based company that uses a post office box as its headquarters address participated in the first-ever public discussion of what its plans may be.

According to the Free-Lance Star, the meeting was put together by King George County Supervisor Rudy Brabo to air concerns and hear plans of Shore Exploration and Production Co., which is based in Dallas and has offices in Bowling Green. Its headquarters address is registered with the State Corporation Commission as P.O. Box 38101 in Dallas.

About 100 people attended the meeting April 14, but judging from the newspaper’s account, not many questions were answered. Participants repeatedly asked Shore CEO Ed DeJarnette what his plans were regarding fracking and who would be responsible for damages if something went wrong.

DeJarnette responded that his firm is merely buying up leases and is looking to sell them to other gas drillers and operators. The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues permits one at a time and is responsible for enforcing them, he said.

Hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling have touched off a revolution in the American energy industry in recent years, particularly in the Marcellus Shale gas formations that stretch in the Appalachians from New York State to southwest Virginia. The methods have also been used to reach rich shale oil deposits in North Dakota and other western states.

Fracking has been used as a drilling process for years according to media accounts and authors such as Gregory Zuckerman whose recent book “The Frackers” covers the process’s increasingly widespread use in the past several years.

Among concerns are that the toxic chemicals mixed with water and then pumped hundreds of feet underground could eventually ruin groundwater serving streams and wells. Other concerns are that the inevitable “flowback” in drilling will require surface ponds to handle toxic waste. In places such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia where fracking is permitted, quiet country areas are badly disturbed by the roar of diesel generators at drilling sites and from trucks that are constantly delivering drilling supplies. Methane can leak from drilling rigs, further complicating global warming issues, and flash fires can be problems. Fracking can also consume great amounts of water which often has to be trucked in.

On the plus side, holders of mineral leases can receive great sums in royalties and various taxes and other payments can boost local tax coffers. Natural gas is cleaner and less deadly source of energy than coal, plays a big role in electricity power generation in the Mid-Atlantic.

At the King George meeting, DeJarnette told the audience that he preferred using nitrogen as an element in fracking rather than water, but there were few details in the newspaper story.

While providing scarce details on who would actually handle the drilling, how it would be done and who would be responsible for damages, DeJarnette repeatedly emphasized the monetary benefits and jobs fracking would bring.

If it proceeds, fracking in the Taylorsville Basin would likely be confined to Virginia, which is more business-friendly than Maryland where the basin also extends. The field stretches across the Potomac River into Charles, St. Mary’s, Calvert and Anne Arundel Counties but Maryland has a moratorium on fracking until it can be studied further.

DeJarnette says he wants drilling to start by late this year or in 2015. Major oil firms explored the Northern Neck area and found some evidence of oil and gas deposits there in the 1980s.

The Richmond Elite’s Bizarre Self Image

richmond-times-dispatchBy Peter Galuszka

If one wants to know one source of Richmond’s malaise, she or he need look no further than the pages of the Richmond Times Dispatch, the mouthpiece of the city’s elite. This is especially true when one reads this morning’s edition. The inadvertent revelations about the city and what is wrong with its leadership are stunning.

Some background. Last week, Style Weekly, an alternative newspaper in the city, published a hard-hitting cover story taking a ground-up view of just how awful and neglected the city’s school buildings and system are. The coverage is very much contrary to the image Richmond’s “leadership” wants to sell about the city.

As the schools are mismanaged and families are abused, the Richmond elite, and the RTD’s editors are pushing other pet projects such as building a new baseball stadium in historic Shockoe Bottom to replace a crumbling one elsewhere and a chamber of commerce trip to Tampa by 159 “leaders” to learn how another city works.

Full disclosure: I am a contributing editor at Style but had no input to the school story. I did file two blog postings about the schools story and received a number of highly insightful comments by readers. The basic problem, as several put it, is that  the schools are a mess is that the middle class has moved to the suburbs, the upper class sends its children to private schools and many of those left aren’t in a position to join the debate are have much influence. One out of every four people living in the city is poor.

The TD’s coverage today is a wonderful blueprint about exactly what is wrong with the elite’s thinking. Examples:

  • The front page features a catch-up story featuring short 125 word essays written by seven city council members and nine school board members. Three council members, Reva Trammell, Michelle R. Mosby and Cynthia Newbill – didn’t respond, perhaps wisely. The story states that judging from the responses, “momentum is building” for “substantive change.” The council, the school board and the mayor are working together. Mind you, this is not based on any real reporting—such as shoe leather in the school halls. Instead, one gets to read what the leadership responsible for the horrific problems thinks about them – sort of like interviewing the foxes after they raid the chicken coop. An added extra: the RTD claims it sent out its questionnaires before Style published its story, sort of like backdating stock options.
  • Flip to the “Commentary” section and a piece by John W. Martin, CEO and president of the “Southeastern Institute of Research in Richmond and frequent opinions contributor to the TD. His piece is basically an extended apology for proposing a new stadium in the middle of the blooded ground of the country’s second-largest slave market – standard stuff. Especially bizarre is the art. It is a cartoon drawing of what appears to be an interracial couple happily walking near what could be a combined slave memorial ballpark. The man is white, blond, wears a Richmond polo shirt and is flipping a baseball. His arm is around an African-American woman in sports togs and carrying designer shopping bags. In front is an apparently mixed-race child in a Flying Squirrels baseball cap happily holding out his glove to catch the ball from dad. The effect is downright creepy. It insults the intelligence of the readers and hits a very sensitive raw nerve, given Richmond’s sad history of race relations and the TD’s historic support of segregation five decades ago when it really mattered.
  • Let’s move to the Op-ed page where there is piece by Nancy Bagranoff, dean of the University of Richmond business school and upcoming chair of the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. She was part of the chamber’s trip to Tampa to “learn” how they do it (while Richmond’s school buildings crumble). Her important takeaways seem to be that Tampa puts lights on its bridges, that it is a big port city, the region has distinctive personalities and that there are some universities there. Her conclusion: “I fell love with Tampa during out visit, but “I’m still married to Richmond.” Now that is extremely helpful.
  • Lastly, there is an impenetrable story by TD publisher Thomas A. Silvestri about several fictitious people discussing Tampa. Unsure of the point, I read the endline bio of Silvestri. It says he used to head the chamber and did not go on the Tampa trip because he’s been there before.

So, there you have it folks. Instead of real reporting, you have Richmond’s elite, some of whom are responsible for the problems, interviewing themselves. And that is a big reason why the city is in such a huge mess.

“Where Is the Closest Tiki Bar?”

tiki_barBy Peter Galuszka

Often times, blog commenters really hit the nail on the head. This is the case with “Virginiagal2” who responded to my blog post earlier this week that Richmond’s schools are decrepit and crumbling, as Style Weekly detailed in a recent cover story.

They note that Richmond’s elite has done little for its public schools while chasing higher-profile and extraneous projects such as a summer training camp for the Washington Redskins and a new baseball stadium for the Minor League AA Flying Squirrels.

Schools? What schools?

Blog posts also note that NFL football star Russell Wilson, a Richmonder, stayed at private Collegiate school after his father saw academics as more important than sports and blunted maneuvers by Richmond public schools to recruit Wilson during his school years.

Part of the problem, as Virginiagal2 notes, is that Richmond’s select and self-appointed “leadership” ignores the city’s serious problems while they embark another pointless road trip to another city, typically in the sunny South, to gather ideas on how they should proceed with their (how to describe?) “leadership.”

Just a week or so ago, about 160 of Richmond’s “leaders” were bopping around Tampa, sampling its eateries and noting the watery views. The biggest cheerleader for these junkets is The Richmond Times-Dispatch, which is very much a propaganda organ of the area’s chamber of commerce. Its publisher Thomas A. Silvestri was chamber chair a few years back yet few commented on the potential conflict of interest. On the Tampa trip, the editor of the editorial pages wrote a supposedly cute series of reports in a “postcard” (ha-ha) style about the Tampa trip. Here’s one tidbit:

“About 160 Richmonders will spend three days sipping from Tampa’s version of youth’s fabled fountain. Where oh where is the closest tiki bar?”

I couldn’t have said that better myself. Next, I’d like to copy what Virginiagal2 had to say in response to my blog. She absolutely nails it:

“The cost of sending a kid to Collegiate is beyond a lot of young families. What do you think those Richmond families value the most – a sports team that has around 5,000 people attend games, or a good safe public school for their kids? The RTD has been shilling for the stadium for months – when’s the last time the RTD advocated for money for better city schools? Do you ever remember them encouraging businesses to partner with city schools? Advocate for vouchers, yes – advocate for baseball, yes – improve the overall public schools, no.

‘nuf said.

Richmond’s Huge and Hidden Problem

The Seahawk's Wilson

The Seahawk’s Wilson

 By Peter Galuszka

There’s been plenty of image-building on this blog site in favor of what is perceived to be a “new” Richmond.

In this view, the former Capital of the Confederacy famous for its gentile white elite and, unfortunately, race politics, is being transformed to a major draw for talented young people and active retirees with plenty of diversity. Some evidence bears this out, such as the wealth of arts and culture and increasing upscale apartment rentals in the city.

The image is being pushed along by Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones who wants to anchor his downtown drive by placing a controversial baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom. There is plenty of angst about his idea given that the city has other, more pressing concerns. They include its 26 percent poverty rate and the fact that the mostly white suburban counties seem to be moving farther from the Richmond sphere of influence.

There’s yet another big and unaddressed problem that may spell the ultimate fate of the city. Its school system is decrepit, as two recent stories in Style Weekly to which I contribute, point out.

One is a deeply reported cover story this week by Tom Nash that takes readers on a horrifying tour of several Richmond schools. Thompson Middle School has ceiling that ooze gunk. Diluted tar falls in classrooms. Fairfield Court Elementary needs a new roof. A tile fell on a student but the fix is $90,000 or one fifth of the district’s school budget for the year. Tom reveals more problems at Carver Elementary and Armstrong High, among others.

Most of Richmond’s school buildings are more than 60 years old. Dana Bedden, the system’s new superintendent, says school buildings are the worst he’s ever seen and that includes a stint in the District of Columbia. Reports say that $26 million is needed just this year to make a corrective dent in the problem.

Another Style story of note is an opinion piece by Carol A.O. Wolf, a former journalist and school board member. It was published in February, just after the Seattle Seahawks crushed the Denver Broncos in the Superbowl. The star was Seahawk quarterback Russell Wilson who grew up in Richmond.

Wilson’s dad placed him at Collegiate, a highly regarded private school in the West End. The Sporting News reported that when Wilson was a ninth grader at Collegiate, Richmond public schools started angling to recruit him to play ball for them. Dad said no. According to him, “I didn’t put Russell in Collegiate for sports, I put Russell in Collegiate to get the best education he could get.”

So much for Richmond’s public schools. It’s really too bad, as well, that the public school system is so neglected and that the mayor and other opinion makers are ignoring huge municipal problems in favor of top-down development like the new baseball stadium of questionable value.

The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

By Peter Galuszka

This story may seem a contrarian piece when it comes to smart growth and exurban sprawl but so be it.

Back in 1969, road planners in Richmond came up with an idea for a superhighway, Route 288,  that would span the iconic James River and connect the far western suburban areas of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, then primarily pine forests or dairy farms. The idea seemed to be to ring Richmond with a Washington-style Beltway and push growth farther away from the center city.

The scheme ran against some curious local snobbery – that of whether one lived on the north or south side of the James. The smug north side, of course, encompassed Richmond and its white ruling elite although many of them had moved to the West End or beyond to escape integration of schools.

Those living on the south side of the river were considered inferior, trailer park folk  whose uncouth views were more in synch with the Southside area of Virginia near the North Carolina border. Dixie would not mix easily with the assumed gentility of the Richmond folk, although southsiders had to drive to Richmond to see a doctor or do serious shopping.

Flash forward 45 years. Route 288 was finished about 10 years ago and despite the 2008 economic crash, it is quietly establishing its own upset of economic and cultural change and growth. It is linking Short Pump and its office parks and restaurants with upscale subdivisions in Chesterfield that boast of the highest income zip codes in the Richmond area. Capital One employees live at Foxfire. I explore this phenomenon in cover stories I wrote this month for the Chesterfield Monthly and the Henrico Monthly.

As George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond told me: “The West End and southwestern Chesterfield were going to grow independently. Then the highway did what public transportation can’t do. It provided links and created markets that didn’t exist before.”

And, as corporate relocations draw in more high-income workers from other areas, the old cultural biases are eroding. The newbies want convenience and could care less about Richmond’s ancient vanity about which side of the James one resides. Schools on either side of the river are comparable in quality, tests scores show. The north has more jobs and the south more houses, but that will shift over time.

Therein lies the rub. You have created a thriving exurban corridor that really doesn’t relate to the various and worthy land use ideals such as minimizing car traffic and creating bike trails. The most significant thing is that this outer corridor completely bypasses inner Richmond, its perpetual squabbling over over issues like a baseball stadium and its onerous 26 percent poverty levels. It doesn’t mean that the city is doomed to decay. Signs show more young people and retirees moving there. Unfortunately, however, low income ghettoes are stuck in a cycle of no jobs and inadequate transportation and the efforts of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones haven’t produced many solutions.

The 288 phenomenon also is evidence that the cul-de sac ideals are not quite dead yet. Locating somewhere has long ceased being about white flight. The newcomers to the “New West”  include many people of color for whom Richmond’s racial animosities are more of an historical footnote. They may drive in to enjoy the city’s eateries and museums but choose not to live there and are hardly obsessed by what happened years ago.

So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.

Sprawl’s Hidden Subsidies

perverse_citiesby James A. Bacon

If planning and regulation were the answer to sprawl, then the Toronto metropolitan region ought to be a smart growth paradise. Toronto has a sophisticated, multi-tiered planning process, starting with an regional plan, plans for 30 upper-tier municipalities, and plans for 241 lower-tier municipalities (towns and townships, mostly). Yet outside the city of Toronto itself, which is undergoing a condo boom, there isn’t much to show for it.

The various municipal plans, which are comparable to Virginia’s comprehensive plans, define urban boundaries, control densities and show where growth should take place. The goal is for 40% of all new residential units to be built in already-urbanized areas. “That’s not happening,” says Pamela Blais, a city planner and principle of Toronto-based Metropole Consultants. “All the plans said all the right things. … [But] the regulatory approach isn’t sufficient to bring about the change.”

The failure of regulation to halt sprawling, auto-centric development was the basis for Blais’ 2010 book, “Perverse Cities: Hidden Subsidies, Wonky Policy and Urban Sprawl.” She had researched and written the volume to figure out how the planners’ plans had gone awry. If smart growth made so much sense, and if planners had the power to bring it about, why weren’t developers and home builders doing what they were supposed to do? Something else had to be going on, she reasoned, something that was not commonly recognized.

pamela_blais

Pamela Blais

As she delved into the subject, Blais found that real estate development is guided by massive hidden subsidies that shift costs from inefficient, land-intensive development to efficient, compact development. These invisible subsidies work at cross purposes to the regulations. As it turns out, developers follow the dollar.

Blais describes herself as a pragmatist. “It’s not an ideological argument I’m making,” she told Bacon’s Rebellion. “I’m interested in getting better cities. I’m happy to talk to everybody on the whole spectrum.” But her approach to urban development is one that fiscal and free-market conservatives can appreciate. The system for pricing public goods such as roads, water, sewer, electricity and public services bears little relationship to the cost of providing those services, she argues, with the result that a tangled skein of hidden subsidies incentivizes low-density development.

“Everybody thinks [sprawl] is the the invisible hand of the market. It’s a highly distorted market,” she says. “I’ve been arguing, let’s remove the distortions and take it from there. Remove the distortions and you’ll get a different development pattern. That should be the starting point.”

That is very much the argument that I have made in Bacon’s Rebellion, based largely on the work of EM Risse in his work, “The Shape of the Future” and essays published on this blog several years ago. Risse argued that charges do not reflect their “location-variable costs,” a succinct phrase that captures the spirit of Blais’ argument. In my reporting, I have focused mainly on one set of costs — transportation — but Blais carries the analysis to charges for utilities, municipal services, housing, parking and development charges as well. In “Perverse Cities,” she exhumed an impressive body of research to document her thesis across the board.

When you subsidize sprawl, you get more of it. When you penalize smart growth, you get less of it. To achieve smart growth objectives, Blais argues, what the United States and Canada need is not more regulation, which can create distortions of their own, but prices that reflect the underlying costs of development. 

Blais doesn’t oppose all subsidies. But she thinks they should be transparent and a subject of public discussion. “Right now, we’re not even having those discussions. People aren’t aware those cross subsidies are happening.” Here is a sampling from her book of how hidden biases are built into the system:

Water-sewer. Water-sewer charges typically are applied uniformly across a service area, regardless of how much it costs to provide the service. Sometimes charges vary by the volume of water; sometimes they do not. But charges rarely vary by the capital cost of extending water-sewer pipe longer distances to serve scattered, low-density housing, nor the operating cost of pumping water those greater distances. As a consequence, homeowners living in compact urban areas where the service is inexpensively supplied wind up subsidizing homeowners living in low-density areas where it is more expensive. Those subsidies could be avoided by breaking water charges into two components: a charge based on the volume of water consumed and a location-based charge that reflects the cost of building and maintaining the pipes. Continue reading

An Ex-Coal Baron’s Strange Movie

Blankenship

Blankenship

By Peter Galuszka

Almost four years after 29 miners employed by then Richmond-based Massey Energy were killed in a West Virginia mine explosion, its former chief executive under federal investigation for widespread safety violations has come forward with an apparently self-funded “documentary” proclaiming his innocence.

Donald Blankenship released the film “Upper Big Branch, Never Again” this week which reiterates his claims that he and the firm were innocent of wrongdoing and that an unexpected flood of natural gas and meddling by federal regulators caused the blast.

Three investigations have cited Blankenship and Massey for a culture of cost-cutting  and ignoring safety problems. So far, four former Massey employees have been imprisoned for related convictions.

The strange, 51-minute film brought immediate demands for its retraction by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia who claims he did not know of Blankenship’s involvement when was interviewed for the film  being played on YouTube. Manchin is shown making what seem to be supportive statements of coal in general and, presumably, Blankenship.

The film also features interviews with E. Morgan Massey, a retired Massey executive who lives in Richmond. Another is University of Utah mining professor named Tom Hethmon who has told National Public Radio that he was also misled about the film and wants nothing to do with it.

The movie was made by a Chesapeake –based firm called Adroit Films whose officials have refused to tell reporters who funded the production.

In the film, Blankenship, Massey and Stanley Suboleski, a former Massey director who lives in Chesterfield County, repeat earlier claims that the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. on April 5, 2010 was caused by an unexpected flood of natural gas. The explosion was affected by what Blankenship claims were wrong-headed demands by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to change the ventilation system which stretches for more than seven miles underground.

An MSHA probe along with one ordered by Manchin when he was state governor claim that the blast was caused when badly-maintained mining equipment hit a pocket of gas that touched off a huge coal dust explosion. The company was required but failed to keep highly combustible coal dust at bay by spraying mine shafts with powdered limestone, investigators say.

After he was forced out as Massey’s CEO in 2010 and the company was sold in 2011 for $7 billion to Alpha Natural Resources of Bristol, Blankenship kept a low profile.  He stirred to life about a year ago when he launched a website offering his views that coal is overregulated and that global warming is a hoax.He is also well-known for his staunchly anti-labor views and his support for mountaintop removal mining methods that are highly destructive of watersheds, wildlife and landscapes.

The film also shows footage of President Barack Obama as if to suggest a connection between him and the mine blast. At the time, Obama had been in office for a little more than a year. In other words, if he mangled the coal industry, he did so in a remarkably short period of time. The film also revives “War on Coal” footage shot during the 2012 presidential campaign. It tends to suggest that the coal mined at Upper Big Branch was used to generate electricity for America’s benefit when, in fact, all of it was of a metallurgical variety bound for export to foreign steel mills.

Another odd aspect of the film is why Manchin would agree to an interview with filmmakers he did not know. When I was researching my 2012 book “Thunder on the Mountain: Death at Massey and the Dirty Secrets Behind Big Coal” (St. Martin’s Press), I could only talk to Manchin and other elected officials at public events, although Massey, Suboleski and other former company officials spoke with me at length. Blankenship declined to be interviewed.

Federal prosecutors in West Virginia say that their ongoing probe may extend to top officers and directors of the defunct firm. It is unclear why Blankenship made the movie now.

Full Disclosure: I have been interviewed and have acted as an unpaid consultant for an upcoming documentary  titled “Blood on the Mountain” produced by Evening Star Productions.

The Koch’s Bizarre Meddling in Chesterfield

koch brothersBy Peter Galuszka

The Koch brothers are back in the bucolic suburban tracts of Chesterfield County.

This time, their national group, Americans for Prosperity, has launched a robocall campaign to oppose a proposed real estate tax hike of 4.6 cents to help pay for $304 million renovations to schools or perhaps hire more teachers to bring classroom sizes back to pre-recession levels.

It’s apparently the second time that Americans for Prosperity have been on their case in Chesterfield. Last year, the hard-right group sent out bizarre “report cards” to ordinary citizens bashing them for not registering to vote.

In one famous local case, a recipient was actually a registered and active voter and greatly resented the idea that a multi-million dollar national outfit like the Americans for Prosperity was trying to monitor his personal business.

This time, Sean Lansing, the group’s Virginia director told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the goal is to “educate” residents on the issues, as if they are too stupid to understand local tax and classroom size problems that they probably know far better than some AEP appartchiki.

Chesterfield has caught itself in a bind because it hasn’t raised real estate taxes since 1990 despite its brisk growth rate. Voters in November voted down a 2 percent meals tax that could have raised money for schools. Henrico County voters, by contrast, narrowly approved a 4 percent meals tax and thus have no budget crisis that another tax hike is needed to resolve.

Admittedly, one of Chesterfield’s problems is bad planning. The staunchly Republican county has a long history of being very friendly to developers. Consequently, the county is in a constant service “catch up” mode. Need schools, such as Cosby High near some of the county’s largest residential developments, was already way overcrowded before it was finished a few years ago.

What is puzzling is what the Koch brothers are so interested in Chesterfield. It is hardly an election battleground. There is no strong Democratic or other opposing party. Yet with consummate arrogance, this cabal believes that residents need robocalls to “educate” them.

“Educate” them for what? If you want good schools and other services, someone has to pay for them. And as a Chesterfield resident for nearly 14 years, I can attest that taxes here are considerably lower than other places I have lived as an adult (Washington, New York, Chicago, suburban Cleveland, etc.).

Virginia’s Behind-the-Scenes Transportation Planning Revolution

SONY DSC

Nick Donohue

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration is generating big headlines by re-thinking mega-projects like the Charlottesville Bypass and the U.S. 460 Connector favored by the previous administration. Those projects came to the fore because federal regulatory authorities made it clear they had major problems with them, leaving Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne scrambling to keep ahead of the situation. But if you want clues to what long-term transportation strategy will look like under Governor Terry McAuliffe, the man to watch yesterday was Nicholas Donohue, the deputy secretary of transportation.

Donohue briefed the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) about VTrans, Virginia’s long-term transportation planning process, explaining how the McAuliffe team would take a different approach to forecasting travel demand and how the process for allocating road dollars would be subjected to a more rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

Layne underlined the importance of Donohue’s academic-sounding digressions into the flaws of the “Travel Time Index” and the impact of mass transit on property values. “How we look at projects and analyze them will change substantially,” he said. “The intent is to make decisions less political. … This is the beginning of a really significant change in how we allocate monies in the commonwealth.”

Donohue is the policy wonk who exercises influence behind the scenes. A Virginia Commonwealth University graduate in urban studies, he served as assistant secretary of transportation under Governor Tim Kaine. During the Republican interregnum, he joined Transportation for America in Washington, D.C., an advocacy organization closely affiliated with Smart Growth America. In 2011, he co-wrote an op-ed piece published by the Reason Foundation advocating tolled HOT lanes, Bus Rapid Transit, smart transportation systems, private inter-city bus service and improved connectivity for secondary roads.

Yesterday, Donohue calmly dismantled core assumptions that have long underpinned transportation planning in Virginia. Under the aegis of VTrans, previous governors have forecast long-term travel demand and estimated the transportation funding needs based on that forecast. Traditionally, the VTrans product has emphasized vast funding shortfalls, in the tens of billions of dollars, over the following 20 years. One thing the McAuliffe administration wants to do, said Donohue, is to ask, “What did we say before, and did it happen?”

As it turns out, federal forecasts were pretty bad, he said, showing the following chart showing how they consistently overshot the mark:

actual_projected

Virginia’s forecasts suffered from similar biases in the past, he said. Now VTrans will begin considering non-traditional indicators of travel demand. For example, Donohue said, the number of 20- to 34-year-olds not getting their licenses has edged up from about 10% in 2000 to 15% today. A National Association of Realtors (NAR) survey found that a majority of respondents indicated a preference to live in walkable communities with mixed-use development. More families are moving into multifamily housing. And a NAR analysis found that the sales prices of houses located near transit out-performed other housing by 41% over the last five years.

Once the state has a more realistic view of transportation demand, the next step is identifying the most cost-effective projects. Federal law requires states to adopt performance-based planning. “Under performance-based programming,” he explained, “you have to say what you think is going to happen, and then you compare back, so you can see if you get the results you thought you were going to get.”

“The [performance] measures we pick are really, really important,” he said. “Sometimes, measures we thought got to the issue may not fully capture it.”

Donohue took exception to the “Travel Time Index” metric, devised by the Texas Transportation Institute, commonly used in transportation analysis. That metric measures how long it takes, on average, for someone to drive to work during peak congestion compared to how long it takes during normal hours. Thus, in Chicago, if it takes 35.6 minutes to get to work during rush hour compared to 24.9 minutes to take the same trip in off hours, the trip takes 43% longer, giving Chicago a Travel Time Index of 1.43. By that measure, he explained, Chicago has worse congestion than Atlanta with a Travel Time Index of 1.35.

That metric has its uses but it can also be deceptive, Donohue argued. Atlantans may experience less rush-hour delay but they tend to live so far from their workplaces that they still spend more time commuting than their counterparts in Chicago: 57.4 minutes compared to 35.6 minutes. Congestion may be worse in Chicago but the commute is 20 minutes shorter. Who is better off? Continue reading

Mark Warner: Let’s Out-Gas Putin

 mark warnerBy Peter Galuszka

One way to clip the wings of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his aggressive land grabs, says U.S. Sen. Mark Warner who is running for reelection, is to expedite permitting of the 20 or so proposals to export liquefied natural gas, including one by Richmond-based Dominion Resources.

“Most of Europe and Ukraine are heavily dependent on Russian gas in particular for their energy use,” Warner told reporters. Europe depends on Russia for 30 percent of its gas.

It is true that hydraulic fracking has turned the oil and gas business in the U.S. upside down by creating such a flood of products that the U.S. may not only become energy independent but in a position to export. Environmentalists point out that fracking has its dangers but the remarkable change in energy dynamics plays to the producers’ hands.

The big problems with Warner’s proposal are that exporting LNG to Europe will be more time-consuming and costly than he might imagine. It also does nothing to address the climate change issues that gas contributes to, albeit not as much as coal.

One reason why Warner may be so interested in the issue — House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, is making exactly the same proposal — is because of Dominion. The utility plans a $3.8 billion expansion of its Cove Point, Md. LNG import facility on Chesapeake Bay so that it can export LNG as well. Some of that gas could very well come from fracking operations in the Marcellus Shale fields of Pennsylvania and West Virginia along with the Gulf Coast.

Dominion is in the permitting process – perhaps No. 3 or 4 in line – for Cove Point. It has the gear to take super cold gas pf about minus 265 degrees and warm it up to a gaseous state so it can be sent through pipelines. Now it wants equipment to reverse the process – take gas and chill it into shippable LNG. Dominion has everything else it needs – a water terminal, tanks, and so on.

Warner, of course, gets lots of campaign money from Dominion and has just brought on as his campaign manager Eva Teig Hardy, who retired as one of Dominion’s top lobbyists and public affairs executives. I have known Eva since the 1970s and can attest that she is supremely competent.

There’s nothing wrong with Warner’s ties to Dominion although they should be known. What is troublesome is that his plan may not work.

Take Dominion. If Dominion gets its permits, it won’t be able to export LNG for maybe three years. By that time Putin will either have calmed down or gone beyond Crimea to conquer Europe as far as the Czech Republic or maybe France.

Dominion already has customers lined up for its LNG and they aren’t in Europe. They are utilities in India and Japan – which are the markets of choice for many of the American export hopefuls.

And as Steve Mufson of The Washington Post points out, while Russia exports gas via pipelines to Europe, it still isn’t as big a supplier as Norway. In fact, Cove Point used to see the odd tanker full of Norwegian LNG pull up at its bay terminal. Why can’t Norway increase its sales on the Continent?

Europe would have to build more LNG import facilities and that may take a few years. Meanwhile, the global money seems to be on sending LNG to Asia. Continue reading