Category Archives: Transportation

Storm Water Regs? What Storm Water Regs?

silver_line_construction

Silver Line construction

Officials at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) have revealed that they will have to redesign portions of Phase II of the Rail-to-Dulles project to accommodate new storm-water regulations. MWAA offered no estimate as to how much the changes would add to the estimated $5.6 billion total price tag for both phases of the project.

According to the Washington Post, MWAA has already dipped into a $551 million contingency fund for $700,000 to cover a change in storm-water treatment required by the state. That’s a trivial amount of money for a project this size. The question is, how pervasive are the problems and how much more could the remedies cost?

The distressing part of this is that it’s not as if the state popped these storm water regs on MWAA by surprise. There has been a literally decade-long build-up to the new requirements, which went into effect in July. Hopefully, the problem announced by MWAA reflects an anecdotal oversight, not a systemwide goof-up. But that anything of this nature happened at all does not exactly inspire confidence.

– JAB

BRT to Nowhere?

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

West Broad Street: not exactly pedestrian friendly

by James A. Bacon

There’s a whole lot of fuzzy thinking going on. People in the Richmond area are so enamored with the prospect of building a Bus Rapid Transit route through the city that they are saying the most astonishing things.

Bus Rapid Transit can be a great idea if done correctly. But it must be done correctly, or it will create a long-term drain on public resources in the City of Richmond and, to a lesser extent, in Henrico County that neither locality can afford.

In the company of Governor Terry McAuliffe, Mayor Dwight Jones and other local luminaries, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx announced Saturday that Uncle Sam will provide a $24.9 million grant toward the cost of the $54 million project, which would run along Broad Street from Rocketts Landing to Willow Lawn. (See the Times-Dispatch story here.) Virginia, flush with transportation tax revenue from former Governor Bob McDonnell’s tax increase, will kick in $16.8 million toward the project, while Richmond and Henrico will contribute a total of $8 million. (If that adds up to $49.7 million on your calculator like it does on mine, that leaves more than $4 million unaccounted for.)

Local officials touted BRT as a jobs project. “We’re going to make jobs available to people,” said Jones. The bus would shave a quarter hour travel time along the 7.6-mile route, said Foxx. For a person in poverty or without a car, that could mean “the difference between getting a job or not.” Then came this from Rep. Bobby Scott, D-3rd: “BRT will allow thousands of people in the East End of Richmond to apply for jobs in the West End they wouldn’t even think about applying for before.”

Really? At the eastern terminus, the BRT system will be anchored in Rocketts Landing, an upscale, New Urbanist development along the James River — across the railroad tracks from Fulton Hill, home to thousands of poor and working-class African-Americans. Is this some kind of cruel joke? The lawyers, investment bankers and advertising executives living in Rocketts Landing are not the ones who need access to minimum-wage retail jobs in the Broad Street corridor west of town. For the people who need the jobs, it will be a long, long walk to the BRT station.

Moving west along the proposed route, there aren’t many poor people living in Shockoe Bottom, a commercial area lined by the upscale Tobacco Row condos and apartments on the one side and yuppified apartments for the creative class on the other. As the bus route proceeds through downtown, it does pass through the traditional African-American Jackson Ward neighborhood, but that is rapidly gentrifying as more affluent Richmonders seek proximity to the jobs and amenities of downtown. Further west, the route passes through VCU, but college students hardly constitute a downtrodden class (until they have to start paying back their student loans).

West of downtown, the BRT route skirts past the Carver neighborhood with a couple thousand African-Americans. BRT could provide them better access. But the route then passes Scott’s Addition, an old industrial park that traditionally has had little residential, although it is gentrifying now with the addition of apartments and condos designed for middle-class tastes. Near the western terminus at Willow Lawn, the neighborhoods are middle-class.

For the most part, the only working poor of Richmond’s East End whom the BRT will benefit are those who take a local bus downtown and then change routes. That shaving 15 minutes off their travel time makes the difference between those people having jobs and not having jobs, however, is not a proposition that BRT backers have proved.

The other question that no one seems willing to address — at least not in public speeches — is what happens when the poor East Enders get off the bus on the West side of town. On the plus side, they can walk to their destination on sidewalks — yes, there are sidewalks on this part of Broad Street, unlike farther west. On the downside, the sidewalks are not the kind that actually invite people to walk on them, as can be see in the Google Street View atop this post. The Broad Street stroad is designed for cars, not walking. The sidewalks abut right up to streets with cars traveling 35 miles per hour or faster. Crossing the street can be challenging. Visually, the landscape is barren and inhospitable.

Even more grievous is the fact that Richmond and Henrico need to zone for higher-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly development along the corridor. Zoning for greater density is the easy part. The hard part is coaxing property owners not to build a new generation of the same old low-rise schlock that aligns the corridor. Another issue that neither jurisdiction has answered — not in public statements, at least — how much it will cost to build “complete street” streetscapes that accommodate people and bicycles as well as cars and BRT buses.

I hope I’m wrong, but I can’t escape the feeling that the state, the feds and the localities have gotten ahead of themselves. They’ve got the money, so they’re going to build the project, regardless of whether they have put other elements of a corridor-revitalization plan in place. Current estimates say the BRT will cost $2.7 million a year in ongoing subsidies to operate. That could be a modest price to pay if the project stimulates a transformation of the Broad Street Corridor along the lines of Cleveland’s Healthline Bus Rapid Transit system, which has been cited as an example of what Richmond can accomplish. But that transformation will not occur in a vacuum. The job does not end with construction of the BRT line. It will take decades of follow-up to the community that arises along it.

A Better Route

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren't pursuing disruptive innovation.

Yeah, GRTC buses have bicycle racks now. But bus companies aren’t pursuing disruptive innovation.

by James A. Bacon

The GRTC Transit System, like most municipal bus systems, provides a one-size-fits-all transportation service. Whatever the route, time of day and level of demand, GRTC runs a standard city bus capable of carrying nearly 60 seated and standing passengers along fixed routes. Everyone pays the same fare ($1.50 on local routes), regardless of time or distance traveled. We’ve all seen the big GRTC buses driving around with two or three passengers. We all know that, given the cost of paying a driver and operating a vehicle, many if not most bus routes operate at a loss. It would surprise few to hear that GRTC costs U.S., state and local taxpayers $33 million in subsidies to operate in fiscal year 2014.

Many people justify this significant subsidy on the grounds that buses provide a way for car-less poor people to get to their jobs. What the Richmond metropolitan region needs, they say, is more bus service so poor people can reach a broader range of job opportunities. Environmentalists also favor buses on the ground that they generate less pollution and carbon dioxide emissions than automobiles do. Local government officials in Henrico and Chesterfield counties tend to oppose the expansion of bus routes not on grounds of principle but on grounds of economy. Their argument: We just can’t afford it.

If we count on fiscally strapped local governments to loosen up the purse strings to pay GRTC to open new routes, we’ll be waiting a very long time. Maybe it’s time to start thinking differently: how to expand mass transit without GRTC. A free market in transportation services, I contend, would provide superior service to poor people. It would increase shared ridership and reduce pollution emissions. As a bonus, it would save taxpayers millions of dollars in subsidies.

Yes, mass transit in the United States is that bad. GRTC is reasonably well run by the standards of other government-owned monopoly transit systems. Government-owned monopolies worked adequately for decades when innovation in cars and buses was incremental in nature – installing seatbelts or switching from diesel to natural gas. But the traditional model is hopelessly inadequate when the transportation industry stands on the edge of the most momentous transformation since Henry Ford’s invention of the assembly line.

The information technology-communications revolution is sweeping through transportation, just as it is through consumer electronics, building automation, health care, manufacturing and every other sector of the economy. Thanks to smartphones, it is easier than ever for drivers and passengers to locate one another. Thanks to Big Data analytics, it is easier for transportation-service companies to predict where and when transportation demand will occur and to mobilize assets accordingly. New technology is inspiring new business models that literally no one was thinking about 10 years ago.

The heralds of this new wave are Uber and Lyft, Silicon Valley-funded companies that have started competing with taxicab services in many metropolitan regions across the country. These companies are targeting the high end of the transportation services market, charging premium rates for customers willing to pay for a limousine-like ride at a moment’s notice. Predictably, they are getting pushback here in Virginia from taxicab companies. The regulatory future is uncertain. But whatever happens to Uber and Lyft, the new technology is here to stay. Taxi companies are already adopting it themselves.

Bridj, a Boston-area company, charges $6 per ride in comfortable, Wi-Fi- equipped coaches to travel from suburban locations to downtown Cambridge and Boston. Thousands of riders, it appears, are willing to pay a premium price for a premium service that municipal bus companies can’t match with their one-size-fits-all mind-set. As this new industry continues to innovate, it’s just a matter of time before entrepreneurs use the same technologies to serve lower price points. In a free market, there are few barriers to entry; someone will figure out how to serve poor people and do it cheaper than the transit companies can.

Eventually, someone will devise a smartphone driver-rider matching service open to all comers. Anyone with decent credit and a good driving record will be able to fork out $32,000 for a 12-seat van and start his own jitney service. In developing countries around the world – even in countries where $32,000 is a lot of money – jitney service is affordable to poor city dwellers. Surely in America, where we have some of the richest poor people in the world, someone will figure out how to convey them to major employment centers.

The transportation revolution doesn’t end there. Automobile companies are rethinking the idea that everyone needs to own his or her own car. Some think that the future is transportation-as-a-service. Outside San Diego, Calif., real estate developer Rancho Mission Viejo is partnering with Daimler AG, owner of Mercedes Benz, to roll out a service that provides subscribers access to cars, scooters, buses, shuttle vans and car-pooling, primarily for use in its Ladera and Sendero communities. The aim isn’t to persuade residents to go totally car-free, just to go car-lite. The goal is to cut the cost of mobility – $9,000 yearly to own and operate the average car – in half.

Environmentalists and anti-poverty warriors will continue to pressure Henrico and Chesterfield officials to subsidize the expansion of GRTC into the two counties. Given the paucity of walkable, higher-density neighborhoods in suburban Richmond and the lack of congestion – it’s the least congested of America’s 51 largest metros – the economics for mass transit will always be difficult. Rather than throwing money at an antiquated business model, government officials should encourage the emerging free-market alternatives. Roll out the welcome mat to Uber and Lyft. Ask Bridj to check out our market. Sweep away barriers that prevent jitneys from going into business. Beg Daimler AG to bring its transportation-as-a-service to the Richmond region.

We have a choice: Embrace the transportation past or the transportation future. I’ll take the future.

This column was published originally in Henrico Monthly and Chesterfield Monthly this month.

Overruns, Subsidies and Pollution

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

Tide Light Rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo credit: Hamptonroads.com

by James A. Bacon

Randal O’Toole, the Cato Institute’s transportation scholar, has penned a devastating take-down of Norfolk’s light rail system, the Tide. The rail line, which opened in 2011 60% over budget and 16 months late, ran operating losses of $12.5 million in 2012, about double projections. Farebox revenues covered about 5% of operating costs. Hoped-for redevelopment around the Tide’s eleven stations has yet to materialize. (The post is supposed to appear on O’Toole’s blog, The Antiplanner, but I could not find it there. I am relying upon an email version.)

Now, says O’Toole, the editorial writers at the Virginian-Pilot want to compound the folly by slashing fares from $1.50 per trip (before discounts), among the lowest in the nation, to $.50 in a desperate bid to jolt ridership and stimulate economic development. The problem with that idea, he says, is that it cannot generate sufficient ridership to encourage developers to build around the train stops. The idea would expand the operating deficit while doing nothing to build the property tax base.

Ironically, light rail, much beloved by environmentalists for taking CO2-emitting cars off the road, is more energy-intensive at low levels of ridership than automobiles. Writes O’Toole: “Norfolk’s rail line uses far more energy than cars: 5,400 BTUs per passenger mile in 2012 compared with an average of less than 3,400 for cars and 4,100 for light trucks (and 3,7000 for Hampton Roads buses).”

O’Toole continues:

Rail transit is supposed to be about bringing large numbers of people into major job centers. But there are no major job centers in the region, or at least none served by the Tide rail line: Norfolk has only about 24,000 downtown jobs, less than 3 percent of the metropolitan area. Transit subsidies are also supposed to help low-income people who don’t have cars reach jobs, but the 2012 American Community Survey found that only 2.6 percent of workers in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach urban area lack cars, and half of them travel to work by car, while only 32 percent ride transit.

In fairness to the Tide, the rail line’s financial performance has improved since 2012. A mid-2014 review indicated that farebox recovery had increased to 17.7% and the operating cost had declined to $3.4 million (or $6.8 million annualized).

Still, even the updated numbers call into question the wisdom of extending the line to the Virginia Beach resort district, a project that could cost more than $1 billion. Does Virginia Beach really want to spend hundreds of millions of its own money (the state and feds would pick up much of the tab) for the privilege of creating a permanent subsidy and tax drain at a time when Americans are driving less and congestion is easing?

Bacon’s bottom line: Mass transit is a great idea… when it works. But the fact that heavy rail has done wonders in New York City and the core Washington metropolitan area does not mean that light rail will have a similarly transformative effect in a sprawling, low-density metro like Norfolk-Virginia Beach. You can’t force-feed mass transit. Commuter rail requires high-density, mixed-use pedestrian friendly development around rail stations. That land use pattern does not exist in Norfolk/Virginia Beach right now. It will take appropriate zoning, years of re-development and public investment in creating walkable streets before there is any chance of generating sufficient ridership to justify the investment.

There is a logical progression for mass transit: Serve a transportation corridor with scheduled bus service and support it with higher-density, mixed-use rezoning. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs along the corridor to support it, upgrade the service to Bus Rapid Transit. If and when sufficient redevelopment occurs to support another phase transition, upgrade the route to rail. That process could well take decades, too long a time to satisfy impatient environmentalists who want to save the world now. But it would be fiscally sustainable in an era in which Virginia local governments are increasingly hard-pressed to meet their obligations.

Meanwhile, the Uber-Lyft revolution continues to roil the transportation industry. Using smart phones to connect drivers with riders and writing algorithms that optimize the distribution of fleet vehicles serving different price points and demographics (Cadillacs for rich riders, vans for poor riders) could render much of our transportation infrastructure obsolete. I’m still waiting for a politician who says it’s time to prioritize ride-sharing over mega-road and transit projects. Surely, there’s someone out there!

Sharing Information to Gain Competitive Regional Advantage

by James A. Bacon

Very different models of regional competitiveness are emerging as people think seriously how to harness the power of smart cities. In metropolitan regions like Charlotte, Seattle and San Diego, for example, major property owners are collaborating with municipalities and power companies on communal energy-efficiency initiatives.

Tapping the potential of “smart grids” is a great idea. But that’s just a start. Udaya Shankar, a vice president with Xchanging, sees smart buildings as the foundation for smart cities. Writing in IoT World, he recommends that smart buildings pool information for mutual benefit. “When buildings operate in a silo, we gain no insight into the effects one has on the other, and if a smart city is the sum of its parts then there is something to be lost in keeping them separate.” He envisions a future in which smart buildings connect and talk to cities and to one another.

It’s an intriguing premise. Shankar provides few examples of what kind of information sharing property owners can share, but we can think of a few.

Smart grid. Almost all smart buildings draw electricity from the electric grid. They monitor their consumption carefully and have some flexibility as to how much they consume and when. Sharing this information can help the power company optimize its generation and transmission assets, benefiting everyone through lower rates.

Water. All smart buildings consume water. In many municipalities leaking water pipes is a major issue (up to 20 percent of all water is lost through leakage). Sharing of usage data can help water companies identify leaks, reduce water loss and delay the need for expensive capacity expansions.

Parking. Many smart buildings maintain parking assets for their employees: either open parking lots or parking garages. Sharing information about parking capacity and usage can help cities better match parking supply and demand. By optimizing the amount of valuable urban land dedicated to parking, cities can convert excess parking to more productive uses that yield more taxes.

Lighting. Cities operate street lights. So do many smart buildings. Sharing information can allow cities and building owners to reduce the wattage needed to light public spaces, thus conserving electricity and curbing light pollution.

Security. Smart buildings typically are equipped with security cameras to provide added security for occupants. Sharing video feeds with the city can provide law enforcement authorities with more eyes on the street, helping prevent and solve crimes.

Transportation. Smart cities utilize a variety of strategies — mass transit, walkable and bikeable streets, road improvements, car- and van-pooling — to manage traffic demand, many of which require cooperation with employers. Sharing information about employees and their transportation needs can help cities fight congestion.

We’re moving into a world where the sharing of information confers competitive economic advantage. Here in Virginia, we should start by encouraging state agencies and local governments to open up their data — not just to link to it from websites but to make it available so anyone, whether a business enterprise or a civic activist, to add value to it. Then we should start creating mechanisms whereby building owners can share information with local governments to tackle public challenges ranging from energy conservation to traffic congestion.

Communities that move first will gain competitive advantage. Those that are slow to adapt will fall behind.

Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt

Bob McDonnell. Photo credit: Washington Times

Bob McDonnell. Photo credit: Washington Times

OMG! Maureen and Bob McDonnell owed $75,000 on seven credit cards when Bob took office as governor in 2010. Their credit card debt peaked at $90,000 later that year. The first family managed to pay down its debt to around $31,000 the next year, apparently after Maureen inherited some money, according to the Times-Dispatch.

Think about it: They owned a McMansion in Richmond’s West End, a resort property in Wintergreen, and (co-owned) two beach properties in Virginia Beach. And had $90,000 in credit card debt. And racked up another $220,000 in debt from private individuals, including Jonnie Williams, Sr., president of Star Scientific, to keep their Virginia Beach properties afloat.

I’m wondering if this sheds light on McDonnell’s approach to government. The hallmark of his transportation policy was a willingness to borrow billions of dollars, and then to leverage that state debt through added toll-backed public-private partnership debt. Was there a connection between his views on personal debt and his views on state debt? Perhaps.

The common denominator, one could argue, was a proclivity to engage in best-case-scenario thinking and an inability or unwillingness to consider that things might go wrong. A more prudent man would not have allowed the state to get in the jam it did by rushing the U.S. 460 upgrade — a fiasco that could expose taxpayers to $300 million or more in losses.

As always, I’ll reserve final judgment until after I hear McDonnell’s defense. But I’m not feeling very charitably inclined toward the man at the moment.

– JAB

No Silver Lining for the Silver Line?

metro_map

Blue dot indicates chokepoint where the Silver, Orange and Blue lines compete for restricted capacity on the Potomac River metrorail tunnel.

by James A. Bacon

By all accounts the Silver Line extension serving Tysons, Virginia’s largest commercial district, has enjoyed a successful start. Ridership is strong and in line with expectations. But a new issue arises. How much of the Silver Line’s traffic is cannibalized from the Orange and Blue lines?

The problem is that the three Metro lines must squeeze through the same Potomac River bridge to enter Washington, D.C. That bridge has a finite capacity of 26 trains per hour.  Trains assigned to the Silver Line are trains that cannot run on the orange and blue lines.

Is this a problem? Del. James M. LeMunyon, R-Oak Hill, worries that redistributing Metro riders between different lines will do little to alleviate regional traffic congestion. He broached the issue two days ago in a letter to Richard Saarles, CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA).

The primary problem created by the Silver Line is the fact that it operates by reducing peak period service on the Orange Line by 42 percent, from 19 to 11 trains per hour. Likewise, Blue Line peak service has been reduced from seven to five trains per hour. These ten former Orange and Blue Line trains now comprise the Silver Line during peak periods, for a net increase of zero Metrorail peak period trains on those lines. … The Silver Line does not represent increased train service, but only cannibalizes previous Metrorail service.

LeMunyon worries what will happen to the thousands of commuters who drive or take the bus from points west to Vienna, where they board the Orange Line. For many commuters, he maintains, switching to stations on the Silver Line will not be a viable option. It’s conceivable that Metro rail, after the expenditure of roughly $3 billion to build the Silver Line, actually could lose passengers. Former Orange Line commuters could switch to Interstate 66, making that freeway even more congested than it already is. “For these people,” he writes, “the Silver Line has no silver lining.”

In concluding the letter, LeMunyon said he hoped that WMATA would adjust the frequency of trains on each line to match customer demand, and if it made sense to move Silver Line trains back to the Orange Line that WMATA would do so.

Bacon’s bottom line: It is inconceivable to me that transportation planners did not take all of these factors into account when calculating the benefits of the Silver Line. If Orange or Blue Line trains are under-utilized at present, shifting some to a Silver Line running at full capacity actually could increase ridership. But, hey, you never know. It will be interesting to watch traffic counts at Silver, Orange and Blue line Metro stations and along Interstate 66 to see how commuters adapt.

I have to say, if it turns out that the expenditure of nearly $3 billion does not result in significant additional Metro ridership — one of the project’s big selling points — don’t be surprised to see lynch mobs forming.

Wild Ride

uber_poolby James A. Bacon

Last week Governor Terry McAuliffe gave the Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services provisional permission to operate in Virginia as long as they comply with minimal standards for hiring drivers. Uber entered the Richmond marketplace around the same time, putting six cars on the road. Rates are competitive with those of local taxicabs but Uber offers the advantage of more timely pick-ups.

While taxicab companies are a political nuisance, using the regulatory apparatus in state after to state to block Uber from the market, the company’s toughest competitor is Lyft, according to a Wall Street Journal piece describing the relationship between the two San Francisco companies as “Tech’s Fiercest Rivalry.” Competition in the business of shared ridership, which includes other start-ups such as Sidecar, is intense. Companies are testing new innovations every day. Some ideas catch on, others fall by the wayside, but the business is evolving rapidly.

The latest permutation, rolled out by the two companies independently on the very same day, is carpooling. Lyft Line and Uber Pool let passengers ride with strangers and split the bill. While the innovation might reduce revenues temporarily, both companies are betting that they can more than offset the loss by growing the size of the shared-rider market.

This is entirely consistent with what I have long predicted: Shared ridership companies will continue to push their innovations “down market” — to less affluent customers — in order to build a larger customer base. Uber started as a company that provided luxury car rides at premium prices. Then it introduced UberX, which provides taxicab-comparable rides. Now it is moving into carpooling. A future next step — and if Uber doesn’t do it, someone else will — will be to introduce a jitney-like van service that provides rides along high-traffic transportation corridors at rates and schedules that are more than competitive with buses.

Hat’s off to the McAuliffe administration for fostering transportation innovation in Virginia rather than stifling it. Stick to your guns. If you think the taxicab companies can raise political hell, just wait until municipal transit companies start complaining that Uber or Uber-like companies are “skimming the cream” of their customer base. This ride ain’t over by a long shot.

Time for Lean Transit

San Francisco trolley

San Francisco trolley

William Lind suggests applying the principles of “lean urbanism” to rail mass transit, in effect creating a “lean transit.” Writing in the Center for Public Transportation, Lind is a rare conservative who supports mass transit. But he’s also a realist: He acknowledges that excessive government regulation drives up the cost of mass transit, especially rail, and makes it less competitive with streets and roads.

Writes Lind:

[The Americans with Disabilities Act] has proven the single most expensive, least useful mandate ever leveled on public transit.  Serving a small number of disabled people takes a large chunk of transit systems’ budgets, both capital and operating. Many of the special facilities ADA demands of transit systems are seldom if ever used.  If something intended to serve the disabled is frequently used, including by people who are not disabled but nonetheless find it helpful, I’m all for it.  But millions have been spent entirely uselessly.

ADA is only the beginning of expensive and generally useless over-regulation of transit.  One environmental revue of a proposed project makes sense, but often multiple such reviews are required.  FRA’s outdated buffer strength requirements have greatly increased the cost of rail transit equipment, with no benefit.  A single commuter train accident in California led Congress to mandate positive transit control for all railroads, at a cost in billions and with no technology yet available to do the job.  The list is endless.

We need to be able to build streetcar and light rail lines much more cheaply if cities are to afford them. … Lean rail transit, like lean urbanism, requires deregulation, and it also requires an end to fascination with complex, expensive technology that is not needed.  The goal should be streetcar lines built for not more than $10 million per mile and light rail built for not more than $20 million per mile.

Liberals love rail mass transit, and then undercut it at every turn. Their solution? Bigger subsidies. No wonder the country is going broke.

– JAB

Union Presbyterian and the Parable of the Buried Talent

union_presby James A. Bacon

Union Presbyterian Seminary settled into its current location off Brook Road in northside Richmond in 1898, when industrialist Lewis Ginter donated land to the educational institution from the streetcar suburb he was developing. The seminary has been a good neighbor ever since, leaving a large tract of the land vacant as a park open to the public. Now the seminary needs some of that land to build new housing for seminary students and their families in place of antiquated housing that it provides at present.

The neighbors are up in arms. Many people who live nearby, it appears, are worried about the loss of open space, traffic and the impact on property values, according to the Times-Dispatch. A “crowd of hundreds” packed a meeting in the seminary auditorium when the institution unveiled a proposal to build 349 housing units. At one point, some in the crowd erupted in loud boos.

I find this extraordinary. Who do these people think they are? It’s one thing if the City of Richmond decided to sell a public park to a developer. It’s quite another when a private institution, which has been a foundation of the community for more than a century, wants to sell the land in order to preserve the viability of that institution. The seminary owns the land — not the neighbors!

The Presbyterian denomination has fallen upon hard times. The number of adherents is shrinking. Between 2008 and 2011, the denomination closed churches at the rate of 75 to 80 per year. Under the 2009-2014 strategic plan, Union Presbyterian slashed its budget by $3 million, reduced the number of students to 180 FTEs, and cut its faculty from 32 to 22.5 FTEs to align with the smaller student body.

Now the seminary is seeking to raise $75 million to reinvent itself — in effect, to stay relevant in a changing world. According to the 2014-2019 strategic plan, the campaign has raised $27.2 million, but achieving its goals also requires maximizing the value of its real estate holdings that have long laid dormant.

Here’s the killer. According to the T-D, the seminary could extract even greater profit from the property by building at greater density, as allowed under existing zoning, or by selling the land on the open market. It is not pursuing those options. The seminary wants to be a good neighbor. “We’re trying to do what’s right by the community and what’s right by the seminary,” said Andrew M. Condlin, a local land-use attorney.

Apparently, that’s not good enough. Some attendees took exception to the idea of the seminary erecting a four-story building at the corner of Brook and Westwood — as if a four-story building would be out of character for a higher ed setting!

They’re worried about traffic, too. Have these people been possessed by Beelzebub? The housing would be occupied by seminary students who would walk to the campus across the street! OK, some students might be married and have kids. Gee, spouses might drive to their jobs or run errands. I’ve driven on those Northside Streets and they are way under-utilized. Traffic fears are utter nonsense.

As for property values, adding quality density development will increase the value of property along the Brook Street corridor, not diminish it. More to the point, maybe the neighbors had better focus on what would happen to property values if Union Presbyterian closed its doors! Imagine the impact if the buildings were vacant and the landscaping was going to pot?

The incident brings to mind the parable of Jesus and the talents:

For it is like a man going on a journey, who summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them.  To one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one, each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey.  The one who had received five talents went off right away and put his money to work and gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two gained two more. But the one who had received one talent went out and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money in it. After a long time, the master of those slaves came and settled his accounts with them. The one who had received the five talents came and brought five more, saying, ‘Sir, you entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful in a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ The one with the two talents also came and said, ‘Sir, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more.’ His master answered, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave! You have been faithful with a few things. I will put you in charge of many things. Enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent came and said, ‘Sir, I knew that you were a hard man, harvesting where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered, ‘Evil and lazy slave! … You should have deposited my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received my money back with interest! Therefore take the talent from him and give it to the one who has ten.

For years, Union Presbyterian had done the functional equivalent of burying its talent in the ground — to the benefit of its neighbors. It can no longer afford that luxury. It’s time to put that asset to work. Jesus understood how capitalism functioned and cited approvingly the investment of money to make more money. (He also thought that the kingdom of God was at hand and urged his followers to give their money away, but that’s a different issue.) The seminary is acting entirely within its rights. The neighbors ought to be darned grateful their input was solicited at all.

The people at Union Presbyterian are far too nice to say this but I will: It’s time for the neighbors to stop bellyaching over trivial inconveniences and time to help make sure the seminary is still around another century from now.