Category Archives: Transportation

Breaking the Cycle of Debt and Suspended Licenses

Joe Herbin, driving worry-free and working as a forklift operator at Frito-Lay.

Joe Herbin, driving legally and working as a forklift operator at Frito-Lay.

by James A. Bacon

Joe Herbin has always been a hard worker. When he was 15 years old, he’d accumulated the $1,200 it took to buy an old Cadillac. The fact that he didn’t have a driver’s license — or was too young even to get one — wasn’t a deterrent. He installed a bad-ass sound system and drove around town like the king of the world for about a week, then had an accident in a gas station. The policeman gave him tickets for about four different violations — the first of many to come.

Herbin kept driving, though, and he kept racking up tickets in and around the City of Richmond, often while driving to or from work at Wal-Mart, Target or his cousin’s music CD shop. He prayed every day that he wouldn’t get stopped and slapped with another fine, penalty or gig in jail. He was around 22 years old when he was driving his pregnant girl friend to the hospital, when he got stopped again. This time someone finally told him about the Drive to Work program, a not-for-profit group dedicated to helping people with suspended licenses restore their driving privileges so they can function as productive members of society.

When Drive to Work staff tallied up all the fines, penalties and back interest, they found that Herbin owed a total of $7,500 to courts in five jurisdictions, each with its own set of procedures for collecting the money. By his own admission, Herbin is a “careless person,” lacking the temperament to make payments to so many court clerks on a regular basis. Drive to Work created a plan whereby he made a single monthly payment of $357 to the non-profit, and staff made sure each court clerk received the money on time. Drive to Work also negotiated a deal allowing Herbin to receive a restricted driver’s license allowing him to drive between home and work, home and church, and home and daycare.

Today, Herbin has worked his fines down to under $1,000 and his monthly payments to less than $50. He now drives a forklift for Frito-Lay making $17 an hour, as well as a part-time job for extra cash, and he lives in a committed relationship with the mother of his three children.

Herbin’s story is surprisingly common in Virginia. A recent study conducted of 606 of Drive to Work’s clients found that fines, penalties and interest ranged as high as $33,000, with average debt about $4,800. Clients owned money to an average of 3.6 different courts.

At an awards and recognition banquet Monday, Drive to Work President O. Randolph Rollins described the predicament of another client. Of the $8,000 in obligations he’d amassed, 35% consisted of unpaid fines, 45% of court penalties relating to hearing his case, and 20% interest.

The system creates a vicious cycle for poor and working class people who build up fines they cannot hope to repay, Rollins said. Many continue driving because they can’t get to work any other way, lose their license and lose their jobs. The situation is a Catch 22: Without work, they have no hope of generating earnings to repay the fines. Indeed, the inability to repay fines accounts for 37% of all suspended licenses in Virginia, Rollins said  — affecting nearly 200,000 people across the state.

Recognition of the need to restore drivers licenses became a political issue during the McDonnell administration and with bipartisan support has continued during the McAuliffe administration. The Department of Corrections has implemented a program to help felons prepare while still in prison to get their licenses when they re-enter society. And Del. Manoli Loupassi, R-Richmond, submitted a bill in the 2015 session to study the use of drivers license suspensions as a collection method for unpaid court costs. Although that bill failed because of a technicality, said Rollins, there strong support for passing it next year.

The initiative to restore driving privileges is part of a larger movement to reintegrate felons into society upon their release. The days of giving an offender $20 and bus ticket home are long over. Virginia has one of the best track records in the country for recidivism, said Harold W. Clark, director of the Department of Corrections. Second only to the state of Oklahoma, the recidivism rate is just under 23%. The rate ranges as high as 60% in other states.

While the biggest risk factors for recidivism include antisocial personality, antisocial associations and dysfunctional family, the ability to find employment is one of the “top eight,” Clark said. “Not having a driver’s license is a serious problem. People without driving privileges are effectively excluded from many jobs.”

Many offenders don’t know why their license was suspended or how to get it back, said Clark. A program like Drive to Work helps them navigate the bureaucratic maze, create plans for repaying fines and get offenders a license, even if just a restricted one, that allows them to seek employment.

The Slow, Inevitable Demise of Traditional Mass Transit?

WMATA's problem in a nutshell: Expenses, particularly labor expenses, are out of control. Source: WMATA

WMATA’s financial problem in a nutshell: Expenses, particularly labor expenses, are out of control. Source: WMATA

by James A. Bacon

The 2010s were supposed to be the era of mass transit in the Washington metropolitan region. Millenials were jettisoning their automobiles in favor of walking, biking, buses and rail. Localities were zoning for denser development around transit stops and Metro stations. State and federal governments were channeling more money into new rail projects. Real estate developers were plowing billions of dollars into transit-oriented development. But something unexpected happened along the way.

Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority ridership actually declined by 17 million between fiscal 2013 and 2015, to 362 million trips, despite the Silver Line expansion of Metro rail. Given the deteriorating fiscal condition of the rail and bus network, which has a $3 billion capital and operating budget this year, that number does not seem likely to improve. In a system dogged by safety incidents, poor on-time performance and broken escalators, customer satisfaction is declining. Meanwhile, capital spending can’t keep up with depreciation, suggesting that service is likely to get worse, not better.

WMATA projects 1% revenue growth over the next five years but 6%  growth in expenses, requiring a relentless increase in state and local subsidies. To balance the current budget, eight county and city jurisdictions jacked up subsidies from $780 million to $877 million. Not only does WMATA propose to lock in those higher subsidies, it proposes increasing them at the rate of 3% annually over five years.

In a FY 2017 budget guidance document, WMATA management acknowledges that local governments will be hard pressed to deliver. “Some jurisdictional representatives have made it clear that they cannot sustain such high levels of subsidy growth year over year given their own revenue growth and competing needs for investment in tools, public safety and other priorities.”

So, what can be done? As Martin Di Caro writes for, rising personnel costs account for 70% of the cost growth in the 10-year outlook. The current contract with the Amalgamated Transit Union expires June 30. Given the potential for disruptive strikes, however, it’s not clear that management has the stomach to extract significant concessions from the union, either in reduced compensation or reform of productivity-sapping work rules.

Another option is raising fares — charging riders a higher percentage of what it costs to provide a ride. Di Caro considers a fare increase “likely,” although higher fares are likely to depress ridership, undermining the goal of raising revenue. Yet another alternative is pruning money-losing bus lines, although cutting service would not endear WMATA to the localities it is asking to pay bigger subsidies.

As WMATA rightly observes, a system failure is unthinkable. WMATA provides a critical service; the Washington-area transportation system cannot function without it. But it’s clear the system is in a slow-motion train wreck.

Bacon’s bottom line: WMATA should be a warning to every Virginia jurisdiction about what can go wrong with mass transit. The blue-state mass transit model is broken. By “blue state,” I refer to a set of attitudes that are most prevalent in blue states: a sympathy for transit unions, which means high compensation costs and low productivity; a reluctance to charge riders the full costs of providing their service, which depresses revenues; and a proclivity to seek federal aid, which comes with expensive regulatory strings attached.

The only good news in this picture is that transportation is undergoing a shared-ridership revolution, in which private companies use smart phone apps, savvy algorithms and flexible routes to provide bus and van service at a competitive price. Instead of increasing subsidies for a failing business model, Virginia’s Department of Rail and Public Transportation and local governments should be asking themselves how they can foster the rise of the new mass transit paradigm.

(Hat tip: Tim Wise.)

Virginia’s Maritime Future Is Now

The Northern Javelin, one of the new-generation container ships visiting the ports of Virginia. Photo credit: Virginia Business.

The Northern Javelin, one of the new-generation container ships visiting the ports of Virginia. Photo credit: Virginia Business.

by James A. Bacon

Virginia’s maritime industry has long anticipated the arrival of the new giant, post-Panamax ships, and now they’re here — a couple of years before they were anticipated, and well before the completion of the Panama Canal expansion that is expected to release the floodgates. As the East Coast port with the deepest channels, Hampton Roads is attracting more than its share. The leviathans pose special logistical problems but the maritime industry is working through them. Virginia Business has the story here.

As author Jessica Sabbath writes, the world’s largest ships can carry twice the number of containers that the big ships of 10 years ago could. These bad boys represent almost 60% of the shipping world’s total cargo capacity. Any port with growth ambitions will have to accommodate them.

The Ports of Virginia planned for the arrival of the big ships by digging 50-foot channels, the deepest on the East Coast, and erecting modern cranes that can reach across the wide-girthed vessels. But by virtue of their enormous size, the post-Panamax ships require more precision in their handling and scheduling. If Virginia’s ports can climb the learning curve faster than other ports, they can create an important competitive advantage even as rivals seek to deepen their own shipping channels.

The big ships must move more slowly to avoid damaging wake. They require especially high-powered tugboats to maneuver in tight quarters. Because the big ships take longer to unload, longshoremen work longer shifts. Even with longer shifts, the maritime industry has added more than 200 longshoremen to handle the increased cargo volume — which increased 8.8 percent to a record 2.5 million TEUs (equivalent to 5 million containers) in Fiscal Year 2015.

The movement of these giants through the ports and their containers through the supply chain creates issues of vessel bunching and equipment imbalance. Shippers often scramble to find available motor carriers. When bunching occurs — it can take more than 24 hours to transfer a container from the ship to a Norfolk Southern railroad train — shippers and motor carriers experience larger demurrage fees. These are the kinds of problems would expect anywhere in similar circumstances, and they take time to sort out. If the maritime community does so successfully, Hampton Roads could well enjoy years of growth and job creation.

Interestingly, one issue that Sabbath did not mention: roads. The McDonnell administration had feared that clogged roads would make it more difficult to ship containers out of Norfolk and Portsmouth. Adding capacity to the Midtown and Downtown tunnels should alleviate localized congestion. But plans for upgrading the U.S. 460 highway connection between Suffolk and Petersburg were sharply curtailed after a funding debacle. Norfolk Southern is accommodating some of the surge in freight traffic with its double-stacked trains destined for Midwest markets. Judging by the article’s silence on the subject, highway congestion has not yet emerged as a bottleneck for the maritime industry’s growth. But if freight traffic continues growing at last year’s pace, congestion could become an issue.

Tough on Bad Drivers

wrecked_carThe latest from WalletHub… Virginia is the third strictest state in the country when dealing with high-risk drivers. The Old Dominion is consistently among the tougher states for Driving Under the Influence penalties and prevention, speeding enforcement and reckless driving enforcement.

For what it’s worth: Red states are slightly tougher on at-risk drivers than blue states.

More Sequestration Pain for Virginia


Pentagon burning

by James A. Bacon

The pain of federal budget sequestration cuts in Virginia is not yet over. Look what The Washington Post reports today:

According to the Defense Department research, things are likely to worsen over the next four years. From 2010 to 2012, Virginia experienced $9.8 billion in defense cuts, with the vast majority of losses in Northern Virginia. Direct defense spending in the state is projected to drop from $64 billion this year to under $62 billion in 2019.

That’s only $2 billion in cuts compared to $9.8 billion previously. That sounds bad but not that bad. Actually, it is, says Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia: “If we have the return of sequestration, it’s going to be even worse than it was a couple of years ago, because every agency, particularly the Defense Department, has cleared out most of their coffers.”

I’m not sure exactly what “cleared out their coffers” means, but I’m guessing it means that defense agencies have burned through their budget gimmicks and are planning real cuts.

Adding to the woes, the impact of federal budget cuts will percolate through the rest of the economy. As government contractors consolidate, they’ll need less office space. That puts pressure on lease rates region-wide, there will be less construction work, and the necessary process of restructuring from inefficient and expensive land-use patterns to more cost-effective patterns will drag out. Meanwhile, transportation planning assumptions, predicated on wildly out-of-date assumptions about growth and development, will veer farther and farther from reality.

The rule is so simple: Things that can’t go on forever… won’t. The defense spending boom of the post 9/11 era could not continue forever… and it didn’t. The downturn and all the ugly consequences stemming from it were utterly foreseeable — I’ve been ranting about them for years.

I don’t lose a lot of sleep over real estate developers losing a fortune. They’re big boys and they know how to hedge their bets. (If they don’t, they shouldn’t be in the business.) I’m a lot more worried about the state and local government sinking billions of dollars on infrastructure designed for the go-go 2000s. It is astonishing to me that serious consideration is still being given to the Bi-County Parkway near Manassas, and I have serious questions about the assumptions underpinning the billions of dollars of improvements planned for Interstate 66 and the second leg of the Rail-to-Dulles project. Any project whose revenues are predicated on assumptions of increased traffic, which are based on the 2000s-era economic growth rates extended in a straight-line projection forever, will create nothing but headaches for taxpayers.

Virginia’s Spaceport: a Century-Long Commitment

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

Antares rocket blasts off at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport.

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration has settled a dispute with Orbital Science Corp. over insurance of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island. Orbital, which is in the business of launching payload into orbit, will reimburse the state for one-third of the $15 million in damages incurred by the spaceport when Orbital’s rocket exploded during lift-off in October, and it will cover the cost of insuring future launches, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Reaching a settlement is critical to the future of the spaceport, to Orbital and to Virginia’s long-term economic future. The Fairfax County-based company is Virginia’s local space champion in a business where high-flying entrepreneurs from California, Texas and Florida predominate. In 2012, when the commonwealth published a strategic plan for the spaceport, Orbital was one of the top ten  largest U.S. space system and launch vehicle manufacturers, with more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

This may sound excessively Buck Rogers, but I regard the spaceport as critical infrastructure for Virginia’s long-term future. One day, the launch facility could well be the nucleus of a massive space-based industrial complex and seen as vital to the state economy as Virginia’s rail or highway system. At least it will if we can nurture it through the embryonic phase of the space industry in the face of stiff competition — MARS was only one of eight FAA-licensed commercial space launch facilities in the country in 2012.

Building a world-class space industry in Virginia will take patience.  The forecast for commercial space launches, though steady, is not exactly booming in the near term:


2012 FAA forecast for all global commercial space transportation launches, 2012 to 2021.

Right now the market is dominated by NASA and the mission of providing logistical support to the International Space Station. But space-based activity is growing. The strategic report notes the need for:

  • Fixed satellite services: high definition television, Internet connectivity and very small aperture terminal satellites (which serve homes and businesses).
  • Direct broadcasting services
  • Broadband services
  • Hosted payloads: experimental payloads, technology demonstrations, scientific missions, remote sensing, weather and climate monitoring and national security.

An important emerging market is space tourism. Longer run, we can expect to see more defense-related applications, not just satellites but weapons systems. Futurist George Friedman envisions “battle stars” in geosynchronous orbit armed with hyper-missiles to rain down  upon our enemies. The potential exists for specialized manufacturing processes using the unique properties of space such as microgravity and perfect vacuum, as well as vast solar arrays that microbeam energy to earth. A step beyond would involve mining the Moon for He-3 isotope in the lunar regolith, a likely fuel for fusion power. All of these activities will require a supporting space-based (or Moon-based) infrastructure for support. Looking even further out, it is not far-fetched to imagine commercial and religious colonies establishing themselves on the Moon to emancipate themselves from oppressive earth-bound political systems, much as 17th-century colonists sought refuge in the New World.

Earth-based spaceports will emerge as critical entrepots for all of this activity. Those that establish themselves early will enjoy a major competitive advantage by attracting corporate investment, evolving business ecosystems and building economies of scale for supporting infrastructure.

It may take another century for the full potential to emerge. But our children’s children will thank us for staying the course.

Does Uber Save Lives?

Should have called Uber.

Should have called Uber.

Speaking of safer roads… Consider the impact of Uber on peoples’ driving habits. Richmond Biz Sense reports that more than 1,200 vehicles in the City of Richmond, Chesterfield County and Henrico County have signed up with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to pick up passengers for hire under the Uber banner. That’s more than double the number of traditional taxi vehicles registered to provide service.

Twelve hundred vehicles is a lot of cars, seemingly enough to inundate the Richmond market. But Uber wouldn’t be contracting with all those drivers if there weren’t a demand for the service.

People employ Uber for many reasons, but the one with which I am most acquainted is to avoid drinking and driving. Most people know that driving while intoxicated is an exceedingly bad idea. But if staying alive and not killing others isn’t incentive enough, Henrico County courts are draconian in their punishment of drunk driving.

Many people of my social acquaintance carry breathalyzers with them. If their alcohol levels exceed the legal limit, they call Uber for a ride home. Some friends don’t even bother driving to social functions at all — they call Uber for rides both ways. I don’t know the percentage of Uber riders who are intoxicated, but I’d wager that it’s a high number.

Tough laws, breathalyzers and Uber — it’s a powerful combination. I’m betting that roads in the Richmond region are a lot safer these days.


Stricter Penalties, Safer Roads

by James A. Bacon

I will concede this upfront: Bacon playing with statistics is like a toddler playing with a gun. Nothing good can come of it. With that word of warning, I ask readers to indulge me for a moment.

WalletHub, the financial advisory website, has come up with yet another listicle — a ranking of the 50 states (and Washington, D.C.) by the strictness of their speeding and reckless driving laws. This is a matter of more than passing interest to me because my son got his driver’s license just last week and my wife is a nervous wreck. Oh, no, it’s drizzling outside — the streets are dangerous. Oh, no, it’s bright and sunny outside — the glare can blind you. Readers who have had wives and teenage drivers know exactly what I’m talking about.

Back to WalletHub… It turns out that Virginia has the sixth strictest penalties in the country for speeding and reckless driving. Knowing the strictures put on teen drivers and drunk drivers, I can well believe that the traffic regimen is tough on speeders as well. But I asked myself a question that WalletHub didn’t answer: Do tough driving laws make a difference? Do they save lives, or do they just punish drivers for no reason?

In the spirit of social scientific inquiry, I compared the WalletHub ratings with data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on the incidence of fatalities per 1 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The results can be seen in the chart above. The Y axis shows the WalletHub ranking, with the strictest states at the bottom and the most lenient states at the top. The X axis shows deaths per million VMT. The red dot shows Virginia.

Assuming I am analyzing the data properly (not something to be taken for granted), Virginia does seem to get some benefit from its strict speeding and reckless driving laws — but not as much as might be expected. The R², a measure of correlation, suggests that 5.6% of the difference in highway fatalities between states is explainable by the variation in speeding and reckless-driving penalties. That’s not a dominant determinant but a non-inconsiderable one. Yet the Old Dominion has the sixth strictest laws in the land but only the 11th lowest fatality rate.

Speeding enforcement and penalties are not the only means to reduce speeding. Other options include lower speed limits, road design and traffic-calming measures, and driver education, especially for young drivers. Other factors may come into play as well. Insofar as fatalities are correlated with driving speed, states with large rural populations driving on country roads may be at greater risk of fatalities, for instance, than largely urban states where city streets have lower speed limits. It is no accident that Washington, D.C. has a lower fatality rate per miles driven than any of the 50 states.

Could Virginia do a better job? My job is to ask the questions. Keener analytical minds are needed to come up with answers.

Closing the Books on the U.S. 460 Fiasco

us460The state will recover $46 million from US 460 Mobility Partners for work never performed on a 55-mile highway between Petersburg and Suffolk, reports the Virginian-Pilot. Under the settlement negotiated with the McAuliffe administration, US 460 will keep about $210 million of the payments it received under former Governor Bob McDonnell but waive an additional $103 million it could have been owed under the contract.

The settlement allows both sides to avoid a lengthy court fight.  The payments were made under a $1.4 billion contract to build an Interstate-quality highway on U.S. 460 to improve transportation access to Hampton Roads. Construction never commenced because the state could not obtain necessary wetlands permits from the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers. The McAuliffe administration does not dispute that US 460 billed and received the money legally, but argues that the company did not spend all money it received while waiting for the permitting issues to be resolved.

The final tally: US 460 keeps $210 million, and the state eats about $43 million spent on its own work developing the project. The total cost for a road never built: $253 million. Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne had guesstimated that the bungled project could cost the state $300 million to $400 million.

The settlement closes the books on one of biggest contracting fiascoes in recent Virginia history. Meanwhile, the Virginia Department of Transportation has developed a scaled-down plan to build a 12-mile highway between Suffolk and Windsor and make other improvements to U.S. 460. That plan is expected to cost in the realm of $400 million.


An Update on the Tysons Makeover

Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

Planned Tysons street grid. Map credit: Fairfax County Department of Transportation

by James A. Bacon

Transforming Tysons in Fairfax County from an “edge city” into a walkable, mixed-use urban district may be the biggest, most ambitious suburban makeover ever attempted. Anywhere. In the history of the human race.

The obstacles are formidable. The area grew up in such a helter skelter manner, and the layout of streets, buildings and parking lots are so thoroughly auto-centric in design, that Tysons’ built environment will have to be rebuilt from stem to stern. The cost of creating a street grid and providing transportation connections in and out of the district will run into the billions of dollars. It’s not clear where the public dollars are coming from. And it’s not clear either, given Northern Virginia’s current overbuilt office environment, whether the private dollars will be forthcoming any time soon.

But Fairfax County and Virginia are plunging ahead with the decades-long effort. In a presentation to the Tysons Citizens Coalition two weeks ago, Tom Biesiadny, director of Fairfax County’s department of tranpsportation, gave a recap of where things stand. I did not attend the meeting, so I did not hear Biesiadny’s remarks, but a long-time friend of Bacon’s Rebellion who goes by the pen name of Too Many Taxes shared the presentation with me. While the numbers come from Biesiadny, the commentary that follows is mine.

Existing development consists of 48.6 million square feet of mostly commercial office space, with some retail and a smidgen of housing thrown in. Another 2.8 million square feet is under construction, with 45 million square approved or proposed. The street grid won’t be built until landowners begin re-developing their properties and completing their links in the grid.

Tysons is caught in a Catch 22. The real estate market is moving towards walkable urbanism, but Tysons has little walkable urbanism to offer. While developers can create small islands of mixed-use walkability, the fundamental character of the district won’t change until a critical mass has been attained. Until that critical mass is attained, Tysons will suffer a competitive disadvantage with downtown Washington, Arlington, Alexandria and other locations where the walkable, mixed-use fabric is already in place.

Planners are counting upon completion of the first phase of the Silver Line spur on the Washington metro to jump start the development. However, at present, Silver Line ridership averages around 16,000 boardings per day, according to Biesiadny. After nearly a year since the Silver Line opened, ridership falls far short of the 46,000  forecast made as recently as 2013 in the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s marketing plan. (Update: I have been told that comparing 16,000 boardings to 46,000 total riders is comparing apples and oranges. Sixteen thousand boardings translates into 32,000 trips, or riders. Thus, ridership has fallen short of projections but not by as grievous a margin as implied.)

Other parts of the plan appear to be unfolding on schedule. Six major road projects are in the works. Farthest along is a Route 7 bridge over the Dulles Toll Road, for which a design-build contract has been approved. Funding has been approved for a widening of Route 7. Four other projects are in various phases of study and design.

Meanwhile, Fairfax County is working on Tysons’ bicycle and pedestrian connections. Twelve projects have been completed, nine are under design, nine are in the land-acquisition phase and five are under construction. A Virginia Department of Transportation repaving project will add eight miles of bike facilities this summer.

Also of note, the Tysons Partnership has developed a transportation demand management program that will provide services to property owners on a subscription basis. Services include trip reduction strategies, ride-matching assistance, telework support, transit incentives and monitoring of travel behaviors. So far, eight companies have signed up.

Bacon’s bottom line: My reading of this presentation is that Fairfax County is doing all the right things but the Tysons makeover still has a long, hard climb ahead of it. We may not see much visible progress until the Northern Virginia commercial real estate market rebounds strongly, vacancies fall and developers have an incentive to start building again. But I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not close to the situation and my interpretation could be all wrong.