Category Archives: Transportation

Tim Kaine Versus the Mole People

mole peopleThe Silver Line extending the Washington Metro to Tysons is scheduled to open Saturday, and people are getting excited about the impending event. Mass transit supporters are hailing the momentous achievement, which provides the impetus to transform Virginia’s largest business district into a more balanced, livable and walkable community. Indeed, there is much to celebrate.

But others are lamenting the plundering of Dulles Toll Road commuters to pay for much of the project, especially the soon-to-start second phase to Washington Dulles International Airport and beyond. Critics have ample grounds for their bitterness. The Silver Line constitutes a massive wealth-redistribution scheme. Riders and property owners enjoying windfalls in property values will pay for only a fraction of the cost of building and operating the system.

Some day, someone will write a book about the Silver Line project and the extraordinary political maneuvering it took to make it happen. When he (or she) does, they’ll find a treasure trove of source material in the Library of Virginia. The state library is archiving 1.3 million emails generated by Governor Tim Kaine and members of his administration. The Kaine Email Project is making those emails searchable and accessible online.

Out of the Box, the Library of Virginia blog, is highlighting correspondence regarding selected topics, including the furor over whether to build the Silver Line under ground or above ground where it ran through Tysons. The controversy was covered heavily by the press but the Kaine Email Project gives a closer look at Kaine’s decision-making process. In a quick and superficial perusal, I didn’t find any great surprises here — Kaine was a pretty straightforward guy — but the emails do show whom he communicated with as he worked his way through the controversy.

This email dated Dec. 12, 2006, and addressed to Chief of Staff Bill Leighty, Transportation Secretary Pierce Homer, Communications Director Delacey Skinner and Counselor to the Governor Larry Roberts, provides some color.

Yesterday in our leadership meeting, we talked about the rumor that the [Federal Transit Administration] would send me a letter saying “the choice not to pursue the tunnel was yours alone and we had nothing to do with it.” Last night, Lin Holton gave me a letter circulating in Northern Virginia. The Tysons Tunnel group asked William Coleman — former Secretary of Transportation under Nixon and Ford — to write a letter that seems to suggest that the tunnel or no tunnel decision was not the FTA’s but the Governor’s. This may be the rumored letter — or it may give a hint of what a forthcoming FTA letter would say. I will give the letter to Delacey — she can provide copies to you.

At some point, we will be asked for some statement on the whole thing. Just to have a statement ready if and when we need it — for a press response or for a letter to the Mole People or someone else — I thought I would put into my own words a quick narrative of the process up to this point, trying to be diplomatic and not heedlessly hack anyone off (i.e., Congress people, Fairfax, FTA, etc.)

It’s fascinating to see Kaine grappling with rumors, responding to the circulation of letters by advocacy groups and referring to “Mole People.” Is that what he called the tunnel zealots? Pretty funny.

– JAB

How to Convince Your Mom that Congestion Pricing Is Good

by Michael Brown

Odds are if you show up at a family reunion and try to convince your parents and siblings that congestion pricing is good, you’ll be lonely pretty quickly. People want the freeways to work but they hate paying tolls! If you are reading this, then you’re probably part of the choir. My goal isn’t to convert the converted as much as to provide new arguments and sound bites when talking to others.

So, how do we reach others? Millions must be convinced to put down their pitchforks long enough to test the theory and decide for themselves if congestion pricing is worthwhile. Elected officials are afraid to take a position contrary to polls, and polls are overwhelmingly dominated by uninformed opinions.

Too many citizens “learn” the issues of the day in 30-second television spots. Even those who make an effort to stay well informed are not the best ones to ask.  There are many fine teachers, dentists, and doctors with intelligent opinions but if you ask them about Congestion Pricing, most would focus on a single point – “double taxation.” Because no one listens long enough for a good explanation, politicians conform to polls of the uninformed rather than risk trying to change public opinion.

congestion_pricing1

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This is the fourth part of a four-part series.

Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4
=================

Geeks and used car salesmen

Congestion Pricing’s true believers are insiders who spend years exploring how market mechanisms can solve our transportation headaches. Typically, they are “nerdy engineer” types and Ph.D.’s at universities. They come up with great ideas but their main focus is convincing other geeks. Peer-reviewed articles loaded with incomprehensible equations and data may be good stuff and true, but the world will never move out of the congestion morass until the world “gets it” at the lowest-common- denominator level of things that matter to them.

Many geeks know Congestion Pricing is worth billions but they’re poor at delivering the message personally. So they set aside “public awareness budgets” that are embarrassingly tiny relative to the potential payoff. That’s like hiring a used car salesman to deliver the message. That approach may persuade a few but it won’t convince your mom – it won’t even reach your mom. Great ideas need great enlightenment efforts.

congestion_pricing2Evangelists and professional marketers

When the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, they actually had a hard time selling it. Everyone was intrigued, of course, but few understood how it could help them in a way that was worth the price. The airplane seemed like an exciting new toy that could kill you! So the Wrights became evangelists. They met with government officials and anyone else with the means and potential motive to buy, and sold them hard on dozens of potential uses. Now we could scarcely imagine the world without planes.

Think of the Bible. Many find it very difficult to read and hard to get excited about. But some people are very passionate about the bible, and very gifted at translating its meaning to large crowds. Congestion Pricing and Freeway Optimization have been peddled mainly by geeks and insufficient public awareness efforts. Are we really surprised that people are skeptical?

Gifted evangelists are essential but so is “Hollywood.” By that, I mean it takes people who have figured out how to sell stuff to people. We need marketing artists who can place an object in the hands of a big star, then watch that object fly off the shelf in the following month. For ideas worth billions, we should spend millions to attract the top-notch marketers, and give them a budget to craft emotionally persuasive visuals and sound bites. Continue reading

The Top Ten Positive, Sustainable Effects of Congestion Pricing

Congestion pricing on the Capital Beltway Express

Congestion pricing on the Capital Beltway Express

by Michael Brown

This is the third part of a four-part series.
Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4

“Free” freeways aren’t as free as they used to be. Adding new capacity costs billions of dollars and mires communities in unaffordable debt. We can’t continue borrowing, taxing and building like we did a generation ago. In Parts I and II of this series, I outlined a  strategy for using tolls to limit access during periods of peak demand in order to avoid the roughly 30% capacity loss caused by overloading a freeway. Not only will this Freeway Optimization strategy help preserve the environment and reduce the fiscal burden on the next generation, it will provide tangible benefits today!  Here are the Top 10 Benefits of Freeway Optimization.

#10. Use more off-peak capacity

Freeways have a lot more capacity than we think. It’s just that much of the time it isn’t being used. If there are incentives to avoid peak travel, some people will shift some of their trips to off-peak periods — in effect utilizing some of that unused capacity.

Utah's FrontRunner

Utah’s FrontRunner

#9. Triple transit ridership

Salt Lake City recently opened FrontRunner, an 80-mile commuter rail line from Ogden to Salt Lake to Provo, that competes directly with Interstate 15. The price for a monthly pass is nearly $200, which, of course, drives off some would-be riders. But how many? In the 1980s Austin, Texas, tested “free fare transit” for over a year. Ridership system-wide nearly doubled. (Hasselt, Belgium, went fare-free in 1996 and by 2006 had increased ridership 13-fold.) Austin discontinued the program in part due to complaints of vagrants and in part to insufficient capacity to handle the volume. Today, smart cards can handle the vagrancy problem. Taking the Austin experiment as a benchmark of what free transit can do, Salt Lake could use revenue from congestion pricing to reduce or eliminate the fare on FrontRunner. Austin doubled ridership in an environment where driving was free and far less congested.  Imagine what could happen to ridership on Salt Lake’s FrontRunner if premium slots on I-15 at 5 pm were sold at fair market value, and proceeds were used to make FrontRunner free or very low cost! Judging from Austin, ridership could at least double if not triple!

#8. Recover lost 30% of capacity

As noted in Part 2, when the system fails, it is like having a V-8 motor that only fires on 5 cylinders — the freeway loses 30% of its capacity. Preventing failure ensures maximum value from your freeway infrastructure.

#7. Reduce spillover to side streets

A common objection to congestion pricing is that motivating drivers to leave the freeway will push them onto parallel arterials, displacing congestion from the freeways to the arterials. Seems logical, but it isn’t true. When freeways go into failure and lose 30% of their throughput, many of those drivers are already seeking other routes. With freeway optimization, the system intentionally hovers at about 5% under maximum throughput in order to avoid losing 30%. The net effect is that arterials could carry less traffic because freeways will carry more.

#6. Bring A Closer to B

When we had Free and Fast, we adopted far-flung lifestyles. There are benefits to sprawling cities but there are also many costs and side-effects. Congestion (Free But Not Fast) sets in , which forces us to shorten our overall driving – a good thing for reducing sprawl. But accepting congestion also means we’re not solving the problem, which is inefficient, frustrating and politically unacceptable. One last shot at Fast And Free requires adding capacity, which is becoming too expensive now and causes more sprawl. But a third way — Fast But Not Free using congestion pricing – can give us reliably high speeds while also discouraging excessive freeway usage.  To some, that may sound like social engineering. In reality it is just free market allocation of a limited resource.

#5. Make freeways more environmentally sustainable

With pricing, you don’t need to widen freeways. Just sell premium slots to those willing to pay. Those unable or unwilling to pay for any given trip will opt instead for transit, try parallel free roads, or travel during off-peak times.  The overall effect is to reduce congestion, dependence on foreign oil and the emission of Greenhouse gases – common ground for conservatives and liberals. Continue reading

Maps of the Day: Condition of Virginia Roads and Bridges

Citing data provided by the White House as President Barack Obama makes the case for more federal transportation funding, the Wall Street Journal has produced these interactive maps showing how the condition of roads and bridges varies widely by state. Virginia’s roads are in relatively good shape (only 12% rated poor) but its bridges are dicey (26% rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete).

Hat tip: Tim Wise

Who Wants to Be a Billionaire? Embrace Congestion Pricing

competitive_advantageby Michael Brown

This is the second part of a four-part series.
Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4

As I contended in my last post, Americans can do mountains of good for sustainability by using free-market pricing tools to solve traffic congestion. In this piece, I will argue that the first state to get serious about Freeway Optimization will enjoy a competitive advantage over all others.

The argument for how your community can become a billionaire has two parts. First, if your neighbors commit to Big Digs but your state solves the problem without construction, then you’ll save those construction costs while others mire themselves in debt. Second, Big Digs temporarily reduce congestion locally while Freeway Optimization solve congestion regionally. The resultant reliability and time savings will translate into financial and societal benefits worth billions of dollars.

Building our way out of congestion

In the 1950s, it was hard to go very far by auto, so transportation planners invented freeways.  Those worked great for 20 years or so, but they motivated people to adopt far-flung lifestyles. It was cheap and easy to add capacity by filling the medians, but then the freeways bogged down again. Next, transportation departments paved the shoulders. Now we have freeways with five to eight lanes each direction, and the latest talk is how to “solve” the worst sections with double-decker freeways! That strategy may work a while, just as previous palliatives did. But the cost of these Big Digs and Double Deckers will be so high that our children will be in debt forever. Has anyone looked at the national debt clock lately?

BuildingCycle
Adding capacity without adding lanes

Freeways can carry 2,200 vehicles per hour per lane, but only for about 10 to 15 minutes before they gum up. The next several hours are not merely slow but they move  only about 60% to 70% of what they are designed to carry. It’s like having a V-8 engine that can do zero to 60 in five seconds but sputters because three cylinders stop firing when you need them most! Years ago our freeways were like modest V-4s. When those sputtered and gave us three-cylinder performance, we installed V-6s, which also sputtered and gave us only V-4 performance. Then we installed V-8s and got only five to six cylinders of performance. Now we’re visiting the mechanic again, asking what it takes to install a V-12 into our Honda Civic right-of-way.  The engineers tell us they can double-deck two V-6s for a few billion.

As an engineer I talk to many other engineers. Many are accustomed to adding lanes as the way to boost capacity. But, like the maxim that “a penny saved is a penny earned,” improving efficiency of existing lanes adds as much capacity as building new lanes. Don’t double-deck two V-6s. Your wife will be embarrassed by your soon-to-sputter monstrosity, and you’ll never have the money to take her to Hawaii. Try a cheaper, more sustainable “tune-up” so you can get the V-8 performance you are already in debt for. Then let the next generation decide if it makes sense to go with the V-12.

more_power
Freeway optimization strengthens the economy

What if you could make $2 back for every $1 you spend? Would you call that $1 a loss or an essential part of your success? It happens all the time in America – we call it the free market. Citizens worry that pricing is a tax that just drains the economy and gives little back. Yet money for infrastructure, which is essential to economic success, has to come from somewhere! Creating a targeted user fee need not increase overall taxes – it just changes the collection strategy for the purpose of giving people an incentive to avoid the fee, which in turn optimizes freeways and establishes a sustainable system where the city can grow indefinitely without resorting to double-decker freeways. Continue reading

Waiting for Uber

Jonathan Trainum. Photo credit: Style Weekly.

Jonathan Trainum. Photo credit: Style Weekly.

by James A. Bacon

The Richmond metropolitan area has a modest but growing taxi fleet. The Henrico County Police Division, which manages the bulk of taxi regulation in the region, issued 834 tax permits last year. Unlike some cities, which restrict the issuance of taxi permits — in New York City, taxi medallions can cost upwards of $1 million — all it takes to operate a taxi in the Richmond region is a background check, an easily obtainable certificate of need and a vehicle that meets code — a process that costs about $40.

Richmond’s taxi business is about as laissez-faire as you can find anywhere in the country. So, it’s not a surprise that the industry has seen the rise of a company like Napoleon Taxi. Starting six years ago as a one-man taxi company, Jonathan Trainum has expanded his enterprise to a 32-car fleet and 90 drivers. As Style Weekly tells the story, he’s investing in technology and he’s bracing to do battle with Silicon Valley ride-sharing company Uber, which has begun sniffing around the Richmond market.

Trainum started his taxicab career working for a Southside taxi company but chafed at the dispatchers’ blatant favoritism toward certain drivers and the reprimands he received for making sure customers made it into their homes after a ride. He also disapproved of the way dispatchers routinely ignored calls from public housing projects. Trainum thought he could do better. Fortunately, local taxi regulations posed few barriers to entry.

The business generates about $2 million a year today. Profit margins are tight but Trainum is investing in technology. Style describes his dispatch center this way:

Seven screens display a map of the city, showing where calls are coming in, and where 32 cabs are at any given moment. The origin and destination of every trip from every caller has been stored to help speed things up.

On Friday, [taxicab driver Tom] Berck never needs to scan the sidewalks hoping to find a fare. Instead, a tablet hooked to his dash has him moving constantly between 7 p.m. and 3 a.m., crossing the city again and again while he accepted fares as far out as Midlothian and as close as the two-minute drive between Mosaic off River Road and the University of Richmond.

Trainum also has been building an Uber-like app that hopes to roll out this fall. He knows Uber is coming, and he’s determined to beat the company at its own game. He hopes the combination of real-time tracking and a willingness to take cash, which Uber doesn’t, will deflect the threat.

“You’re telling people the only way you can get a cab is through a smartphone app with a credit card,” Trainum says. “[Uber's] customers fit that niche. We want to take the technology they’re using [and] open it up where we can provide service for everybody.” Trainum says he’ll make his technology available to any Richmond can company willing to use it.

“The next five years for Napoleon is us trying to counteract complacency in our industry,” Trainum says, “which has been exposed by Uber and Lyft.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This is the way the taxicab industry should work. Low barriers to entry make it easier for hard-chargers like Jonathan Trainum to break into the industry with a better business model. Minimalist regulations also make it difficult for local taxicab companies to block Uber from of the market. The only way to survive is to innovate, and that’s exactly what Trainum is doing. At the end of the day, Richmonders will have a superior taxi (or taxi-like) service than they had before.

More Defense Cuts Plague Virginia

Special deliveryBy Peter Galuszka

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are interesting, but very difficult choices.

For Sustainability, Convert Freeways to Fastways

tolls

by Michael Brown

This is the first part of a four-part series.
Part 1        ◊       Part 2
Part 3   
     ◊       Part 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

Big tunnel proposed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Seriously?

Big tunnel proposed for Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  Seriously?

Fast But Not Free — paying with money

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

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

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

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

falling_speeds

Continue reading

The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

swamp

VDOT had loads of warning that wetlands could kill the U.S. 460 project but the state charged ahead with a design-build contract that everyone knew could explode. The state has spent $300 million it may never recoup.

by James A. Bacon

Weeks after the release of the “Special Review of the U.S. Route 460 Corridor Improvements Project,” submitted last month to Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne, important questions remain about how the Commonwealth could have paid $250 million to US Mobility Partners, the design-build contractor on the $1.4 billion project, and run up another $50 million in expenses without turning a single spade of dirt. The Special Review is a dense and tangled document but one important theme comes through loud and clear: The wetlands controversy that caused the McAuliffe administration to suspend the project this March was bubbling on the front burner when the McDonnell administration put the project into overdrive two years ago. VDOT and the McDonnell transportation team had ample warning of the project’s problems and took no effective action to defuse them.

The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had been expressing reservations for years about the route preferred by the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) for the 55-mile highway project, and it reiterated those warnings repeatedly as McDonnell’s transportation team lined up funding for the project and signed a contract with US Mobility Partners to design and build the highway. The inability of VDOT to obtain a USACE wetlands permit on a timely basis prompted the McAuliffe administration to put the project on ice in March until the differences could be resolved.

The question before the public is how did VDOT find itself paying tens of millions of dollars monthly to US Mobility Partners to mobilize for a massive construction project while knowing that the USACE was unlikely to issue the necessary wetlands permits — indeed, without even having submitted the documentation to begin a formal USACE review! Unless we know what went wrong and take appropriate corrective measures, citizens and taxpayers have no assurance that comparable fiascos will not occur again in future mega-projects.

The Special Review, prepared by VDOT and the State Inspector General’s Office, is extremely cautious in drawing conclusions. But the report does provide a wealth of documentation, primarily in the form of emails involving senior VDOT employees and members of the Office of Transportation Public Private Partnership (OTP3) staff who structured the public-private partnership and negotiated the contract. As I noted in a past post, deciphering what transpired is like peeling back the layers of an onion. For now, I am focusing upon the onion peel documenting the wetlands controversy between VDOT and the Army Corps of Engineers.

A long running disagreement. The origins of the wetlands controversy predate the McDonnell administration. VDOT had been noodling the proposed Interstate-grade highway for years, and it had identified a preferred route, one that would swing north of the existing U.S. 460 highway, a four-lane highway with top speeds of 55 miles per hour interrupted by numerous stoplights and plagued with local traffic. VDOT argued that only a limited access highway could provide the mobility that was needed for trucks serving the Virginia ports and in the event of a hurricane evacuation, and that the existing route would be impractical to upgrade. But that was not a decision it could render on its own. VDOT’s appraisal had to pass muster with the USACE, which is tasked with ensuring that any route chosen is the “Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative.” The USACE preferred a route with a lower environmental impact, preferably one grafted onto the existing U.S. 460 with bypasses around the hamlets along the highway.

The Special Review correspondence between VDOT and USACE details the disagreement as far back as 2003. As the authors conclude from their review of the documentation:

The correspondence … indicates an ongoing, decade long, discussion between VDOT and the Corps over whether CBA-1 (VDOT’s preferred alternative) or CBA-2 (the Corps’ preference) was the best location for the 460 project. Although VDOT employees have indicated nothing unusual about this discussion, the length of the ongoing discussion seems unusual to us, particularly since no resolution as to an accepted route was reached.

The discussions were ongoing in 2012 when the McDonnell administration was moving heaven and earth to move the project forward. As various emails cited in the review make clear, Governor McDonnell regarded the Route 460 corridor as his “number 1 transportation priority,” and Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton rode herd on the VDOT bureaucracy to meet the goal of closing the deal by the end of the year.

By mid-2012, Connaughton and VDOT were closing in on a deal structure for the public-private partnership but had not resolved the environmental issues. In a letter dated May 30, 2013, Kimberly Prisco-Baggett, chief of USACE’s Eastern Virginia regulatory section, wrote the following to VDOT’s environmental project manager:

We are concerned that the project has moved ahead with CBA 1 (VDOT’s preferred route alignment) as the alternative, and that although seven years have passed since we indicated that CBA 2 appears to be the [Least Environmentally Damaging Practical Alternative], neither FHWA (the Federal Highway Administration) nor VDOT has requested to meet with us to discuss this apparent conflict. It is not helpful to the public, or any potential private-public partners, not to address this critical matter before incurring additional expense and delays associated with pursuing a project that may not be permittable.

In an email chain between June 7 and July 13, 2o12, Morteza Farajian, program manager with OTP3 (the public-private partnership office) warned senior VDOT officials that the three construction consortia bidding for the project were getting nervous about the unresolved permitting issue:

I have received serious concerns from our Offerors in regard to the Comments from the Corps of Engineers on the Route 460 reevaluation. They would like to know where we stand today and how we will resolve the issue with the Corps of Engineers and FHWA. They emphasized that this is a huge risk to the procurement and they might stop working on this procurement if the issue between VDOT and COE is not resolved.

Continue reading

Some Answers, More Questions about the 460 Fiasco

July2014_coverby James A. Bacon

If you’re new to the U.S. 460 Connector controversy and need a primer to bring you up to speed, I’d recommend you read the new Virginia Business cover story written by Paula Squires. She provides an digestible overview of a complex story and advances public understanding with some fresh reporting. In particular, she homes in on a central question for which I have yet to see a clear, concise explanation: How did the Virginia Department of Transportation come to pay $250 million to its public-private partner in the $1.4 billion project, US Mobility Partners, before critical wetlands permits were issued by the Army Corps of Engineers?

Squires does not provide the answer but she gets us closer to the answer. She interviewed Charlie Kilpatrick, the current highway commissioner who was deputy commissioner under the McDonnell administration.

Asked why the state signed off on such a high-risk project, Kilpatrick says, “It was a high risk if a permit was not obtained. When we went to closing [in December 2012], we believed that we had a permittable project.” However, he adds, “It was recognized from the beginning that this was going to be a complex and challenging permitting process.”

As a VDOT veteran, Kilpatrick observes “I don’t know that it has ever happened in Virginia, where a project was not ultimately permitted, after it went through the regulatory steps … I do think we will get a permit.”

According to him, pressure from the McDonnell administration played a role in how the project was handled. “This project was a clear priority of Governor McDonnell,” Kilpatrick says.  “Move it as quickly as possible … Deliver the project. Get it under construction.”

Those were VDOT’s marching orders, he recalls. “VDOT’s job here was to deliver. The project — it complied with the law.”

The state agency began to balk, though, after the original route became questionable last September because of its wetlands impact. The administration wanted to begin right-of-way proceedings and public hearings.

“We said no,” says Kilpatrick. “We’re not going to go out and acquire right of way, because we don’t have a permit … I had the potential of VDOT purchasing land that would not fit with an ultimate road alignment … To have a public hearing on a roadway that may need to shift the alignment, that’s not a prudent thing to do.”

Boiling it down: In December 2012 VDOT believed that it had a “permittable project.” In other words, there were issues but VDOT believed they could be worked out, as they always had been before. What’s still not clear to me is what happened after December 2012 to disabuse VDOT of the notion that the permitting issues could be resolved within an acceptable time frame. Did some new knowledge come to light? Did the Army Corps of Engineers become more assertive in expressing its concerns? I’m sure the answer is out there, possibly buried in the McAuliffe administration’s internal review. It just hasn’t been brought forth clearly in the media.