Category Archives: Transportation

Virginia in No Rush to Address Impending Metro Meltdown

metroby James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration seems to be in no hurry to bail out the ailing Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) commuter rail system crippled by declining ridership and an $18  billion capital spending shorttfall over the next ten years. Bolstering state support for the transit authority, which has been plagued for decades by union featherbedding and short-sighted, politically driven decision-making, would divert billions from other projects around Virginia.

At a recent discussion of Virginia’s rail and transportation budget Tuesday, Virginia Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said there are no immediate plans to send more money to Metro, although there could be discussions with the General Assembly in the future.

“At some point, based on the estimates that I have seen as to what the capital needs are going to be, there’s obviously going to be that discussion for additional revenues,” Layne said, as quoted by the Washington Post. “That is not contemplated in these budgets.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This discussion is unavoidable, and the sooner it starts, the better. The Washington Metro is mission-critical transportation infrastructure for Northern Virginia and the rest of the Washington region. It cannot be allowed to fail. Failure to address the system’s maintenance needs will result in more accidents, more delays, more malfunctioning escalators and other conditions that drive away ridership, which in turn will cut into operating revenues.

At the same time, Virginia taxpayers are understandably reluctant to pour billions of dollars down a rat-hole, diverting funding from their own much-needed transportation projects, without some assurances that the commuter rail system can be made to run efficiently. Among major concessions that I would push for are higher fares, revisions to union contracts, prioritization of maintenance funding over expansions of the system, and an overhaul of the governance system.

Working out an agreement that satisfies constituencies in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. will be incredibly difficult, given the different ideological and geographic interests involved — not to mention the inevitable turnovers in political leadership. Negotiations could take years. Metro doesn’t have years. Discussions need to start immediately. McAuliffe could show leadership by convening a high-level confab to bring together major stakeholders from across the Washington region and surfacing the major issues that must be resolved.

Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure” Initiative Progresses

Virginia Tech's Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall: traditional hokie stone on the outside, braniac smart building on the inside

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Tech has been re-thinking for a several years now how to invigorate traditional engineering disciplines by integrating civil engineering and computer engineering to create “smart infrastructure.” The $100 million initiative received a $5 million boost yesterday from the Hitt family, owners of Falls Church-based Hitt Contraction, a company that typically recruits eight to ten Virginia Tech graduates every year, according to the Washington Business Journal.

The Tech initiative is incredibly timely. In arguably the biggest revolution since the invention of structural steel that made possible the construction of new classes of bridges and skyscrapers in the 1930s, the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) is introducing radical change to the construction industry. The IoT is a catch phrase for the integration of ubiquitous sensors into buildings and structures that generate data that can be used to improve performance.

An in-house Virginia Tech article made note last year of Virginia Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure Laboratory,” which includes smart building technology that, among other things, can guide occupants to safety during disasters, and its Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team, which works at the intersection of engineering materials and systems to advance structural safety, resiliency and durability.

Virginia Tech’s Goodwin Hall … is known as the world’s most-instrumented building for measurement of vibrations. Measuring motion and vibration inside and outside the walls, 212 accelerometers can detect even the slightest movement. The sensors feed data into data acquisition boxes via 65,000 feet of cable interconnecting the entire system. Data can be used to save energy costs, guide maintenance crews, or deploy first responders in an emergency.

The Structural Systems and Lifecycle Reliability Team has a measurement and visualization system that can generate 3-D representations of any object or environment over time. These models can identify gradual changes such as a gusset plate buckling in a bridge or cracks in a building after an earthquake. The system has been used to measure deformations in a steel plate wall and in the field to identify cracks in a concrete bridge over the James River.

Virginia Tech will start work in January on “Hitt Hall” for smart construction and another unnamed building for intelligent design. Meanwhile, Tech is expanding and linking its smart road partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), its smart city partnership with Arlington County, and a 300-acre “smart neighborhood” to serve as a proving ground for new technologies.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Internet of Things is revolutionizing the built environment — everything from buildings to roads and bridges, from waste water systems to electric grids. The cost of sensors is plummeting, and so is the cost of transmitting data to the Cloud. The idea of “smart” bridges and “smart” buildings is not hype — it’s real. It’s here. And leading construction companies like Hitt are building teams that can pull all the pieces together. Tech is wisely making the program multidisciplinary, opening it up to engineers, business majors and students in other study areas, reports the WBJ, “as the lines between technology, infrastructure and business continue to blur.”

I can’t believe that Virginia Tech is the only university exploiting this opportunity — I don’t track what other institutions are doing — but at the very least it deserves kudos for being an early mover. Hopefully, Virginia-based companies like Hitt Construction will tap graduates with the new skill sets to gain a competitive economic advantage in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Virginia political and government leaders would do well to acquaint themselves with the state-of-the-art work at Virginia Tech and start thinking creatively how to apply the Internet of Things to Virginia’s own infrastructure. The potential maintenance savings from the application of smart technologies to government-owned buildings, utilities and transportation infrastructure is immense. The potential to optimize transportation systems, conserve energy and reduce man’s impact on the environment is transformative. VDOT and Arlington County are ahead of the curve. Everyone else needs to get with the program.

Pulse Has a Pulse after All

Click for larger image.

Click for larger image.

by James A. Bacon

When last I blogged about Richmond Pulse, the Bus Rapid Transit plan for the city’s Broad Street corridor, the projected cost had leaped $11.5 million over its original $50 million estimate. While I support mass transit in the right circumstances, I saw little good coming from this project, in which state and federal authorities had helicoptered dollars upon the Greater Richmond Transit Company (GRTC) and the city had done little to create the conditions — zoning for appropriate land use, funding streetscaping and planning for intermodal connectivity — needed to make the project a success.

I was worried that I might have offended my old buddies in the local Smart Growth community by my unsparing criticism of the transit project. As it turns out, I need not have worried. They shared the same concerns. Indeed, they have been working feverishly through the planning process to correct the obvious deficiencies.

“Typically plans for transit projects sit on the shelf for years while agencies try to find funding,”  says Trip Pollard, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, “but in this case, while some planning certainly had been done, the funding got ahead of the planning.”

The project, which runs 7.6 miles from Rocketts Landing at the east end of the city to the Willow Lawn mall at the west end, is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2017. Planners have moved into high gear trying to catch up. Two important studies should be complete this fall.

The Richmond Regional Transit Vision Plan will create a regional transit vision plan to stakeholders and the public that will guide transit development in the region through 2040. The idea is for Pulse to be part of a more comprehensive regional transit system.

The Broad and East Main Street Corridor Plan will focus on the Pulse corridor, identifying where development should occur, what development should look like and how it should happen.

Meanwhile, the Richmond Transit Network Plan will rethink the design of the city’s bus network in the context of Pulse. For example, will Pulse free up GRTC resources to improve service on other routes? How can regular bus routes interface with Pulse? Can GRTC optimize its bus service in other ways? Jarrett Walker + Associates, renowned for its re-engineering of the Houston bus system, will conduct the study. That should be complete next year.

As a bonus, the U.S Department of Transportation is providing technical assistance in the Ladders of Opportunity Transportation Empowerment Pilot Initiative to promote Transit-Oriented Development in the low-income Fulton community, whose residents are expected to use the BRT to reach jobs in the West End.

While implementation of the Pulse project has not exactly risen to a top-of-mind issue in Richmond’s highly competitive mayoral race, “there is a mobilized civic community,” says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. Civic leaders are determined to make sure the project is done right.

The Smart Growth community has a lot riding on this project. If Pulse crashes and burns, it will undermine political support for more mass transit funding in the Richmond region. Conversely, if the project is successful, it could pave the way for a regional system.

In Metro’s Disruption, a New Opportunity

metroThe good news is that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority is making the tough but desperately needed measures to maintain the commuter rail system serving the Washington region. The authority has announced a “massive” maintenance surge to address chronic infrastructure issues that have created safety issues and hindered trains from staying on schedule.

The bad news is that the surge will require closing portions of the system for weeks at a time, requiring thousands of commuters to find other ways to get to work. The inevitable result: more congestion on already-overloaded streets, roads and highways.

Jim Dinegar, president of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, is calling upon businesses to prepare for the disruption by creating flexible work schedules, encouraging telework, and promoting van books. Uber will be in heavy demand, he predicts. Parking may be in short supply.

Bacon’s bottom line: Here’s my hope: that entrepreneurs take advantage of the opportunity to Uber-ize shared ridership across the full spectrum of price points from luxury rides to Third World-jitney like travel. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out.

— JAB

Even the Washington Post Has Noticed that Metro Is Failing

redlinecrashby James A. Bacon

How bad is the Washington Metro rail system? So bad that only 84% of its trains ran on time, mainly due to poor maintenance. So bad that ridership declined 5% since 2010, even as transit ridership nationally was up. So bad that the system needs an extra $1.3 billion every year to invest in capital projects, and no one knows where the money will come from. The Metro rail system is so bad that even the Washington Post has perked up and taken notice.

The Metro rail system is arguably the most essential piece of transportation infrastructure in the Washington region, and it is engaged in a slow-motion train wreck. If the metro fails, the metropolitan transportation system seizes up and fails.

The Washington Post has detailed the Metro’s failings in a lengthy, front-page article, which shows that shows how deep-rooted the problems are. The original design flaw, write Robert McCartney and Paul Duggan, was the dysfunctional governance system that shares board appointments between Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland and the federal government. Responsibility is so divided that no one is held accountable, and nothing important gets done unless the District’s mayor and the governors in Annapolis an Richmond reach a consensus and push an issue forward.

Add to that the political bias toward expanding the Metro over properly maintaining it.

Board members … kept pushing for Metro to grow. The politicians who held the purse strings seemed happy to invest in laying new tracks and opening new stations, where they could tout development at opening ceremonies. But they cared less about spending for maintenance to prevent breakdowns years later, when they might no longer be in office.

In 2006 then-interim general manager Dan Tangherlini urged cost-reduction measures such as replacing short escalators with stairs, selling Metro’s headquarters building, and buying rail cars made from older designs. The board wasn’t interested. After nine months as a fill-in, Tangherlini did not get the top spot, the article says, “because Virginia representatives on the Metro board were worried that his interest in revitalizing existing subway lines would threaten the agency’s commitment to building the Silver Line.”

So, Virginia got its Silver Line to Tysons, but the quality of service is held captive to a dysfunctional organization. Astonishingly, the Silver Line, the newest in the system, is showing the second worst on-time performance of the six lines. According to data cited by the Post, Silver Line on-time performance in 2015 ran under 75%, dropping below 60% in October 2015.

Another original design flaw was a decision to build lines with two tracks, not four as in New York, with the result that crews sometimes must shut down lines to perform routine maintenance. Also consider the dysfunctional unionized workforce which adds to costs. The Post authors glide past union issues with relatively little comment in this article, but the Washington Times produced a devastating series of articles on the topic several years ago.

Bacon’s bottom line: The Metro is so critical to the functioning of the Washington region, including much of Northern Virginia, that it effectively holds the economy hostage. It is the transportation analogue to “Too Big to Fail.”

But no solution is in the offing. Raising the price of Metro tickets, which don’t come close to covering the cost of the service, is not a viable revenue-raising option when riders are already hacked off and inclined to abandon the system. Asking more money from state and local governments is sure to be contentious, especially in Virginia, if bailing out the commuter-rail system means short-changing other regions of funding for their own projects. Taxpayers are not likely to approve dumping more than $500 million a year extra into Metro, especially with no guarantee that the money won’t disappear into a black hole.

Driving Down, Mass Transit Down, Telework Up

telework

Graphic credit: Transportation Planning Board

by James A. Bacon

The trend toward less driving in the Washington metropolitan area has conformed to the devout wishes of greenies and planners alike over the past decade: Average daily vehicle miles driven per capita has declined steadily since 2005 from 25.7 miles to 22.6 miles. (Driving in 2015 showed a 0.1 mile up-tick, not surprising given the plunge in gasoline prices.)

But not because people were shifting to mass transit. Weekday ridership on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also declined: from 748,000 per day in 2009 to 701,000 in 2015. More people are biking, but the numbers are so small that biking as a transportation mode can’t move the needle. Something else is going on.

The Washington Post‘s Dr. Gridlock, Robert Thomson, thinks that telecommuting might explain the difference. He cites a 2013 State of the Commute study that says more than half of commuters either can or could telework. As it turns out, the percentage of telecommuters is highest among those who also rely on rail transit, as shown in the chart above.

I find that counter intuitive. All other things being equal, I would expect commuters with the longest, most grueling ride to the office would have the greatest incentive to work at home. For whatever reason, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why not? Perhaps commuters consider mass transit even more unpleasant or unreliable than spending time behind the wheel — not implausible, given the widely publicized safety, maintenance and reliability issues plaguing WMATA.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon is worth exploring. We’re spending billions of dollars patching up Northern Virginia’s transportation infrastructure. There’s got to be a better way.

Reader Alert: Another Jeremiad about Debt and Risk

Richmond Fed "Bailout Barometer" -- federal backing of total U.S. debt   increased another 0.7% in 2015 to reach almost 61%.

Richmond Fed “Bailout Barometer” — federal backing of total U.S. debt increased another 0.7% in 2015 to reach almost 61%.

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., at the Wall Street Journal reminds us how countries around the world, including the United States, are doubling down on debt to stave off recession:

The Richmond Fed’s “bailout barometer” shows that, since the 2008 crisis, 61% of all liabilities in the U.S. financial system are now implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by government, up from 45% in 1999.

Citigroup estimates that the top 20 advanced industrial economies, in addition to their enormous, recognized public debts, also face unrecorded additional debts of $78 trillion for their unfunded pension systems.

Six years after a crisis caused by excessive borrowing, McKinsey estimates that even visible global debt has increased by $57 trillion, while in the U.S., Europe, Japan and China growth to pay back these liabilities has been slowing or absent.

No one likes recessions but they serve a useful purpose — they wring bad investments out of the economy and reallocate resources to more productive uses. But that’s not much consolation to a laid off Intel employee in the U.S. or a laid off cement-plant worker in China. So, politicians and central bankers around the world are doubling down on variations of the same strategy of spending, borrowing and financial repression (driving down interest rates to transfer wealth from savers to debtors) to perpetuate economic growth. When countries start experimenting with negative interest rates, the consequences of which no one can predict, you know that policy makers are desperate.

The global economy is entering a new phase: the end game in which democratic welfare states struggle to maintain massive entitlements in the face of aging populations and slowing economic growth. The United States is not as far down this road as some other countries, but absent major policy changes, deficits and the national debt are heading inexorably higher. Don’t believe me — believe the Congressional Budget Office.

Meanwhile, the four leading contenders for U.S. president are advancing platforms totally disconnected from reality. The cost of Bernie Sanders’ programs, if implemented, would cost $18 trillion over ten years, estimates the Wall Street Journal. Donald Trump’s tax-cut plan would cost $9.5 trillion over 10 years, says the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, while the Ted Cruz tax plan would cost $8.5 trillion, according to the same group. The least fiscally irresponsible candidate, Hillary Clinton, would expand government spending by a mere $1 trillion over ten years, according to the McClatchy news organization

We can argue about the biases of the groups crunching these numbers, but that would miss the point. The odds are overwhelming that the next president of the United State will not be remotely serious about balancing the budget. Liberals argue that bigger spending can be paid for with taxes on the rich with little or no adverse impact on the economy, and conservatives can argue that the “dynamic” effects of tax cuts will stimulate economic growth and bring in more revenue than static models would indicate. Yeah, right.

Hither Virginia? There is little that Virginia can do to buffer its economy from these national and international trends, nor can state and local governments insulate themselves from collapsing tax revenue in the next recession. But they can protect themselves by maintaining AAA bond ratings and putting their public pensions on a sound footing so that when the crunch does come, they will be better positioned to meet long-term obligations without debilitating tax increases.

I am particularly worried about two categories of state-local debt. The first category is university debt backed by revenue from students. The higher ed bubble is unsustainable even during a period of modest economic growth. A recession will leave many institutions destitute, and a Boomergeddon-scale calamity could leave the entire industry in a shambles. A second category is debt taken on for “economic development” projects like sports stadiums, convention centers, golf courses, and other glittering objects that are best paid for by private investors trained in analyzing risk.

You can add a third category of long-term obligation: maintaining transportation services such as Washington-area metro, Virginia Beach light rail, Richmond bus rapid transit, and the like, which will require government subsidies in perpetuity. Could local governments support those services in a severe revenue downturn? Doubtful. Likewise, I am suspicious of toll-backed highway bonds assuming long-term traffic growth even as the evolution to more dense, mixed-use communities scrambles traditional commuting patterns, and as Uber, Lyft, Bridj, transportation-as-a-service enterprises, and self-driving cars seem destined to radically alter Americans’ driving habits.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about building “anti-fragile” enterprises and institutions — entities that are not merely resilient in the face of massive adversity but can thrive in adversity. Virginia can become anti-fragile if state and local governments, in the face of a global economic meltdown, can maintain the ability to provide core government services while other states and metros are falling apart. Talent and capital will migrate to the oases of stability. A handful of states will prosper. Will ours be one of them?