Category Archives: Transportation

Increased Density, Increased Costs

Does Virginia really want roads like New Jersey's? Pictured: Hudson County, New Jersey's most populated area.

Does Virginia really want roads like New Jersey’s? Pictured: Hudson County, New Jersey’s most populated area.

By Carol J. Bova

Jim Bacon’s post on November 12th, “Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface,” concludes that if local zoning policies encouraged higher density population areas, there’d be fewer roads, resulting in lower road maintenance costs. This is urban-centered thinking that assumes only nearby residents use the roads and that none are privately maintained. The idea also overlooks the need to transport locally grown agricultural products, timber and seafood over rural roads to more densely occupied areas. But in addition, we need to examine the study that led to that conclusion.

The Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future road study of New Jersey cited in the Bacon post suggests great savings in road maintenance if there were a minimum of 10 people on each acre. At first glance, that doesn’t seem very dense, but population density is usually referred to in square miles. With 640 acres per square mile, we’re talking about 6,400 people, more than any locality in Virginia except Alexandria.

This must not have seemed extreme for a place like New Jersey, where a 2006 study noted every New Jersey “county in the state is classified by the Census Bureau as ‘metropolitan.’” (Robert E. Wood, Farmland Preservation and Agritourism in South Jersey: An Exploratory Study. ) The Census Bureau uses metropolitan to describe “a core urban area of 50,000 or more population … as well as any adjacent counties that have a high degree of social and economic integration (as measured by commuting to work) with the urban core.”

So how did Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future come up with their numbers? They used different approaches, but in both cases, added the population of a given area to its employment numbers. Smart Growth America eliminated protected land like state parks or wetlands, and computed the amount of road surface per person. New Jersey Future took the population plus employment number and divided by developed square miles to get activity density– after eliminating undeveloped land and excluding roads maintained by the state.

Even without the exclusions, Hudson County, N.J., has a population of 13,731 per square mile. No surprise that Hudson County has the highest activity density in the Smart Growth America report and the lowest per capita road maintenance cost. But per capita cost doesn’t tell the whole story. There is an underlying assumption the New Jersey road maintenance level is adequate. Not true.

Endnote 8 in the Smart Growth America report states that the Reason Foundation said, “…the State of New Jersey spent $42,317 per lane mile on maintenance in 2012.” But the Reason Foundation also said:

• New Jersey ranks 48th in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, down from 46th in 2009.
• New Jersey ranks 50th in maintenance disbursements per mile and 50th in capital bridge disbursements per mile. in ”New Jersey Transportation by the Numbers” said, “Driving on deficient roads costs New Jersey motorists a total of $11.8 billion annually in the form of additional vehicle operating costs, congestion-related delays and traffic crashes.”

How did lower density Virginia do in Reason Foundation’s 21st Annual Highway Report?

• Virginia ranks 25th in the nation in highway performance and cost-effectiveness, down from 15th in 2009.
• Virginia ranks 32nd in maintenance disbursements per mile and 1st in capital-bridge disbursements per mile. Continue reading

Too Little Density, Too Much Road Surface

Millions of square feet of underutilized pavement cost millions of dollars per year to maintain.

Millions of square feet of underutilized pavement cost millions of dollars per year to maintain.

by James A. Bacon

It goes without saying that New Jersey is dissimilar from Virginia in many ways, so it’s hazardous extrapolating conclusions from one state to the other. But a new study about New Jersey roads co-authored by Smart Growth America and New Jersey Future implies that the Old Dominion could have saved hundreds of millions of dollars yearly in road maintenance expenses had higher-density development been allowed to occur instead of the scattered, low-density sprawl that characterized so much of the state’s growth after World War II.

Using a novel technique for estimating the surface area of road pavement per capita, researchers found that the most densely developed areas of New Jersey maintain about one-third the pavement surface per capita — about 130 square feet of road surface compared to 423 square feet — as the least densely developed parts of the state.

The conclusion is counter-intuitive. Cities seem to be chock-a-block with streets in a way that rural and suburban areas are not. The key is to look at the space devoted to roads on a per capita basis.

States the study, “The Fiscal Implications of Development Patterns: Roads in New Jersey“:

If for the same population and employment levels, New Jersey had directed development into a smaller land area with at minimum 10 people or jobs per acre (still not very dense — single-family homes on quarter-acres lots would meet the criteria), we estimate that the total area of road New Jersey and its municipalities need to maintain would have been reduced by 36 percent, or approximately 1.9 billion square feet. And assuming an average cost of $0.25 per square foot to maintain the roads, the result would have been a $470 million savings statewide every year.

The analysis draws two broad conclusions: (1) local road maintenance costs per capita decrease as activity density increases, and (2) low-density communities have the most to gain by permitting more density.

Bacon’s bottom line: To get a rough (very rough) idea of what a similar analysis would yield for Virginia, consider that the Old Dominion has about twice as many total lane miles as New Jersey (162,000 compared to 86,000) and that the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) is budgeted to spend $2 billion a year in 2015 (including city and county street payments) on maintenance.

Of course, it’s impossible to go back and tear up the development of low-density areas of Virginia, so the study is academic to some degree. On the other hand, this kind of analysis should guide future investment. Just as Virginians today are paying for poor policy decisions made over the past five decades, future Virginians will pay for our decisions.

I do quibble with the way the authors state their case: It says these savings could have been achieved had New Jersey “directed” development into denser development patterns. I don’t like the idea of government directing how and where people should live. But that doesn’t change the larger point that denser communities cost less per capita on road maintenance than low-density communities. The way to frame the issue in Virginia is this: Had local zoning policies not directed growth into low density areas, average population densities would be higher, less road would have been required, and maintenance costs would be lower.

P3 Mirage

tollsby Randy Salzman

With recent reporting about Norfolk’s ERC (Elizabeth River Crossings) public private partnership (P3) on top of extensive coverage of the 460 Toll Road debacle, Virginians should begin questioning “privatization” of public infrastructure.

The data is clear. The privatization of highways has not been “capitalists’ gifts to taxpayers,” as press releases have implied. Instead, the privates — or “privateers” as some call them — have negotiated contracts with, at best, clueless public officials and lawyers content to increase private profits to the tune of millions, and perhaps billions, in lost taxpayer dollars.  In general, the privates have accepted little risk and tacked on consulting, advising and debt-service charges to the point that even CPAs can’t decipher complex financing arrangements in 700+ page P3 contracts.

Around the world, citizens are grasping the prospect that, as the Royal Scottish Accountants put it in 2008, P3 toll concessions are “financial black holes” or as an Australian law professor put it last month, “legalized corruption.” Here, our present state administration, backed by new reforms, is trying to restrain future P3s with the secretary of transportation reporting the likely benefit of Virginia building and operating an I-66 toll road west of D.C. is $1 billion over leasing that concession.

That’s “billion” with a “B.” And that’s on a total project cost of under $3 billion. Secretary Aubrey Layne’s analysis indicates, in short, if I-66 becomes a P3 toll concession it will cost taxpayers one-third more.

Meanwhile, Virginia taxpayers are already out some $400 million from the 460 and ERC projects. That’s a lot of pavement or transit we will never see.

As a transportation writer, I’ve been trying to understand P3 toll concessions for three years, ever since discovering the private money – and there is relatively little of it – is primarily foreign.  Why, I’ve wondered, are Ferrovial and Cintra, from Spain, and Transurban and Macquarie, from Australia, behind so many American P3 concessions?

In general, I’ve learned that in any American toll concession, the private money is rarely as much as 15 percent of total project costs, but that tiny up-front percentage hooks the public sector before the ink is dry on contracts, which, most likely, no state official has ever even read.  The mass of the so-called private money is in the form of TIFIA (Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act) loans from Uncle Sam and private activity bonds backed by the state.  When – and “when” is the rule; “if” the exception – the concessionaire goes bankrupt after collecting a few years of toll income, the multinationals rarely pay back the loans or bonds.

As a Canadian auditor-general’s analysis  finds private financing cost taxpayers 14 times public financing and the White House is projecting that four in 10 P3 transportation concessions will eventually go belly-up, Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development studies illustrate “procuring infrastructure services through PPP is generally far more expensive than public finance.”

Canadian taxpayers, for example, shelled out $8 billion more than if they’d have built 74 projects themselves and three University of Manchester business professors studied British P3s to conclude:

“At best, partnerships have turned out to be very expensive with the inevitable consequences for future service provision, taxes, and user charges. Not just for today but for a long time to come. These projects may burden government with hidden subsidies, diversion of income streams and revenue guarantees whose impact on public finance may not become apparent for many years and may all be triggered at the same time, precipitating a major fiscal crisis.”

Bloomberg reports that only one in five completed American P3 tollways has even begun paying interest on its TIFIA loan as most payback schemes start 10-plus years after highway completion.  However, from Virginia’s Pocahontas Parkway to San Diego’s South Bay Expressway, Detroit’s Windsor Tunnel and South Carolina’s Connector 2000, as well as The Indiana Toll Road and Texas SH 130, at least a dozen American toll roads have already arrived in bankruptcy court or announced “restructuring” of their debt – including Capital Beltway Express. Continue reading

Virginia’s Commitment to Smart Cars and Smart Roads

Virginia Tech smart car

Virginia Tech smart car

by James A. Bacon

Tom Dingus has done as much as anyone to advance vehicle automation and the advent of self-driving cars. Many of the automated features found in automobiles today — automated braking, active cruise control, rear-view cameras — were tested at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, where he serves as director. But Dingus is cautious about predicting the imminent arrival of self-driving cars.

Estimates range from three years to thirty for how long it will take before self-driving cars dominate the road, he told the Governor’s Transportation Conference yesterday. He would lean toward the thirty-year estimate, he said.

Automated cars are excellent at dealing with routine situations. If the car ahead jams on its brakes, the automated car will respond more quickly than the typical human could. But most traffic fatalities don’t occur in routine situations, Dingus said. They occur in “anomalous,” or unusual, situations for which cars have not been programmed to respond. “You have to solve real-world problems.” And that takes time.

Despite the challenges, Dingus said, connected vehicles — vehicles that communicate data with each other and the road infrastructure — potentially could eliminate 70% of all crashes.

Virginia is in the vanguard of research on vehicle automation and connected vehicles. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute is recognized as a national leader, having forged partnerships with leading technology and automotive companies, that generates millions of dollars in research contracts annually. The state’s Transportation Research Council, which does work on smart infrastructure, also is highly regarded nationally. Virginia Automated Corridors on Interstate 66 and Interstate 495 provide real-world “test beds” for both connected vehicles and smart infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) personnel are taking active part in an American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) coalition that is studying connected vehicles, and VDOT is the lead funder in a pool-funded research initiative geared to move connected-vehicles from research to pilot projects and testing.

The emphasis on smart technology, said Virginia Highway Commissioner Charlie Kilpatrick is part of a larger shift in thinking at VDOT. For decades the department had a civil engineering mindset that its  jobs was to build bridges and roads. “Our job is not about building bridges and roads,” he said. “It’s about moving people.”

VDOT sees the potential to use technology to improve system performance — reducing accidents, improving safety and increasing reliability, said Dean Gufstafson, state operations engineer. And the department is asking lots of new questions: What will the future of transportation look like? What investments does VDOT have to make? What is the role of government?

Catherine McGhee, VDOT’s safety chief, described how connected vehicles could work with connected infrastructure to make roads safer for public servants who work in and near the roads — construction workers, state police, emergency service personnel. A state trooper can carry a device that alerts cars when he’s on the side of the road so that cars will switch lanes. Similarly, a road worker can wear a vest that informs cars when he steps beyond the traffic cones.

Virginia had 700 traffic fatalities last year, said McGhee. That’s too many. And the new technologies can make a big difference.

McAuliffe Adminstration Gives P3s a Second Chance

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. Photo credit: Daily News.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne. Photo credit: Daily News.

by James A. Bacon

The McAuliffe administration has spent much of its first two years unwinding the legacy of botched and controversial public private partnerships inked by the McDonnell administration: radically truncating the plan to to build a U.S. connector between Petersburg and Suffolk, and revising significantly the tolling for Norfolk’s Midtown-Downtown tunnel project. Now, after the enactment of significant legislative reforms, the McAuliffe transportation team is turning to the P3 tool to help fund and/or operate its ambitious plans for Interstate 66 in Northern Virginia.

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne is confident that he can avoid the pitfalls of the previous administration, and that a public-private partnership can make a major contribution to improving mobility along a transportation artery that Governor Terry McAuliffe variously described Thursday as a “parking lot” and “the most congested road in America” at the 2015 Governor’s Transportation Conference in Virginia Beach.

“We’ll be a big supporter of P3s,” elaborated Layne in his own remarks to the conference. “We need to share risk with the private sector. [Virginia] will very much continue to be a leader.”

The I-66 initiative essentially consists of two separate plans: one for inside the Beltway and one for outside the Beltway. The outside-the-Beltway plan entails widening the Interstate, installing HOT lane tolls and ramping up commitment to mass transit. The Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) has generated 13 responses from private-sector players on how to structure the P3.

Where Sean Connaughton, Layne’s predecessor as transportation secretary, regarded P3s as a way to leverage finite public dollars with private investment, thus maximizing total dollars invested, Layne emphasizes the role of P3s in allocating risk. That feedback has been invaluable in surfacing cost and risk issues that VDOT had not considered. “Transparency is the way you have price discovery and risk discovery,” he said.

One set of risks revolves around building a major project on budget and on time. Another major risk is “demand risk” — the likelihood that traffic and revenue forecasts will materialize as projected. There also are risks associated with operations and maintenance. Layne is open to assigning those risks to a private-sector contractor. He has been far more skeptical, however, of relying upon private-sector capital. Private-sector demands for higher financial returns on investment can add hundreds of millions of dollars to the price of a project.

Layne’s approach is to establish public policy first — what does the Commonwealth want to accomplish along I-66, and how? The administration has made it clear that the I-66 corridor will be multi-modal, including transit, and that the state will not agree to covenants that would restrict for decades construction on other roads that might divert traffic, as the previous administration did in the Downtown-Midtown tunnel project. Those parameters are non-negotiable, except perhaps at the margins. Once those guidelines have been established, he said, the private-sector input can be extremely valuable.

In other remarks, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue told the conference that Virginia and California lead the country with their P3 laws, and that delegations from other states frequently visit the Old Dominion to see what has been done here. Stymied by transparency laws from talking to private corporations “off line,” he explained, other states cannot enact laws like Virginia’s. And that curtails the ability to put together deals like Virginia’s.

An open and transparent process is critical to Virginia’s P3 law, said Donohue, but so is the ability to engage in confidential negotiations. He believes that Virginia has done a good job, based upon its extensive experience with P3s, in threading the needle between transparency and confidentiality. “Steps we have taken in the last couple of years have addressed a lot of problems” with Virginia’s law, he said.

The decision-making process for the I-66 corridor will put the administration’s faith in P3s to the test. The issue of inside-the-Beltway tolls has exploded into a political furor. More controversy is bound to follow as the administration moves from the concept stage to specific proposals.

Woolly Headed Thinking about Transportation

Woolly headed

Baaah! Baaaaaaah!

by James A. Bacon

Virginia Beach’s ongoing debate over light rail is emblematic of everything that is wrong with Virginia’s system for determining which transportation projects get built. While the Virginia Department of Transportation is implementing a mechanism for ranking road and highway projects, there is no mechanism for ascertaining the proper balance between roads/highways and mass transportation or even to prioritize mass transit projects. Those choices remain as muddied and politicized as ever.

The latest episode in the long-running saga of Virginia Beach light rail, which would extend Norfolk’s existing The Tide rail line to the Virginia Beach resort area, revolved around a bid yesterday by Virginia Beach Councilman John Moss to use $10 million dedicated for light-rail plans to plug a projected $33 million budget hole. City Council rebuffed the measure, but a vocal minority of citizens continue the fight against the rail line. (See the Virginian-Pilot coverage here.)

Foes oppose a rail line that will require heavy up-front subsidies to build and ongoing subsidies to operate. They make a legitimate point. Rail supporters retort that building and maintaining roads also entail taxpayer subsidies. They, too, make a legitimate point. Ever since Virginia abandoned the user-pays principle of transportation funding in the bipartisan transportation-funding legislation of the McDonnell administration, all forms of transportation are subsidized to a greater or lesser degree. Because everything is subsidized, it is exceedingly difficult to determine whether any project is economically justifiable. Anyone can make any claim without any effective way to test it.

In an ideal world, Virginia Beach’s mass transit project would pay for itself through (a) fare revenues, (b) ancillary revenues such as advertising, and (c) revenues from special tax districts surrounding rail stations to capture some of the increased real-estate value created by the rail service. A transit authority would issue bonds to be repaid from those revenue sources, and bond buyers would exercise an independent, non-political judgment as to whether they were likely to earn a competitive, risk-adjusted return on their investment.

But it’s not an ideal world. Mass transit advocates argue rightly that rail competes against subsidized roads. No longer does Virginia pay for its roads mainly through the gas tax. But, rather than hold road funding to a higher and stricter standard, Virginia carves out a percentage of transportation allocations for mass transit. Funds are spread around to appease regional constituencies and ideological enthusiasms.

To see where fuzzy logic of transit funding leads us, read this op-ed by Nelson Reveley, a co-coordinator for the Richmond Clergy Committee for Rapid Transit. Reveley invokes social justice, the environment, public safety and economic development in support of a “comprehensive transportation system for the sake of all our citizens” in the Richmond region. Writes Reveley, a doctoral candidate in religious studies at the University of Virginia:

This isn’t about any singular neighborhood. It’s about all our neighborhoods, as we appreciate and celebrate our intimate interrelation as one metro ecology of education and commerce, employment and leisure, justice and mercy, beauty and creativity, vulnerability and mutuality.

My stomach heaves in rebellion against such treacly sentimentality. Nowhere in his op-ed does Reveley wonder how much this majestic mass transit system might cost. Obviously, the concept of “alternate opportunity cost” is not taught in the UVa religious program, for nowhere does Reveley wonder what could be accomplished by expending the same sum in other ways. Nor does he much care who will pay for this vision of his, although we can be certain it will not be the people who ride the buses or otherwise benefit from the transit lines through the higher property values he insists will occur or workforce benefits accruing from the young talent he suggests will be attracted to the region.

Further, nowhere does Reveley acknowledge the emergence of an alternative, private sector-driven model as epitomized by companies like Uber, Lyft and Bridj, which, given sufficient time and dismantling of regulatory barriers, could provide a shared-ridership transportation alternative far more robust and comprehensive than a public system.

The prevalence of blinkered, woolly headed thinking in the Old Dominion is just staggering. It goes a long way towards explaining our stagnation and relative decline among the 50 states.

Building an “Unmanned” Industry Cluster

Virginia Tech's smart road simulates a wide variety of driving conditions.

Virginia Tech’s smart road simulates a wide variety of driving conditions.

by James A. Bacon

Two decades ago the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI) had two sponsors, fifteen employees and a dream of becoming a major player in testing new automotive technologies. Sixteen years ago, it opened a literal road to nowhere — a 2.2-mile “smart road” cutting through the hills of Montgomery County that ended in a dead-end loop.

Today, according to John Ramsey writing in Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, VTTI has 75 sponsors and 475 employees. The institute has helped attract $300 million in research funding to the state. VTTI is by most measures the largest transportation institute in the country.

The McAuliffe administration is hoping to turn that into a magnet for attracting autonomous-related corporate investment to Virginia. The autonomous vehicle initiative is one of the more sophisticated — and promising — economic-development efforts launched by Virginia in recent years. It encompasses more than smart cars. It includes drones, another up-and-coming industry — earlier this year, the first delivery of a humanitarian package by drone took place in Wise County — and autonomous boats.

“They seem like disparate industries, but when you start to think about sensor technologies, aerodynamics, there’s a lot of overlaps in capabilities that will support a land vehicle as well as an air vehicle or marine,” said Secretary of Technology Karen Jackson.  She says Virginia has the eighth largest concentration of autonomous-related companies in the country, including those that build sensors and analyze data.

Virginia formed an unmanned systems commission this summer with the following goals:

  • Identify the state of all unmanned systems industries in Virginia. This review should look comprehensively at the industry, including the supply chain from pre-competitive research and development through production and operation.
  • Identify challenges and needs of the unmanned system industry that may be met with Virginia assets for each domain of unmanned systems (aerial, land, maritime) including but not limited to workforce, research and engineering expertise, testing facilities, manufacturing facilities, and economic development opportunities within the Commonwealth.
  • Provide recommendations, develop a value proposition for economic-development marketing purposes, and submit periodic reports on its activities and findings.

Virginia can do much without showering subsidies and tax credits on the industry. For instance, the state has designated 70 miles of highways as “Virginia Automated Corridors” where fully automated cars can be tested on public roads. The state has implemented a simpler process for getting vehicles certified and on the road for testing. The Wallops Island spaceport is building a runway for drone testing, while an initiative is underway in Hampton Roads to develop autonomous boats.

Bacon’s bottom line: Google, Tesla and conventional automobile manufacturers are, and will continue to be, dominant players in developing and manufacturing autonomous cars, but there’s no reason that Virginia can’t get a share of the spoils from this emerging industry. The technology is new and in flux. The sector is big and sprawling, and hasn’t established a geographically centered clustered yet.

From a 10,000-foot perspective, Virginia seems to be going about this the right way, combining Virginia Tech’s R&D strengths with targeted economic-development marketing and the Virginia Department of Transportation’s (VDOT) opening up of state roads for real-world testing.

The only piece not mentioned in Ramsey’s story is evidence of any study of the state’s liability laws. If anything holds back the development of autonomous vehicles in Virginia, and other states, it will be a hostile tort climate. Given the fact that 90% of all traffic accidents occur as the result of human error, autonomous vehicles will likely make the roads far safer. But if accidents occur involving autonomous vehicles, as inevitably they will, it will be virtually impossible in some instances to disprove plaintiff claims that the fault resided somewhere in the millions of line of code. (See the “Demon in the Machine.”) Sorting out liability issues in a way that both promotes the public welfare and compensates accident victims from genuine wrongs would give Virginia a huge competitive advantage.

One thing Virginia is indisputably good at is producing lawyers. We ought to bring our best legal minds together — I nominate Chris Spencer, one of the top automobile liability attorneys in the country — to craft model tort legislation. If we can add that to our list of assets, we truly can make Virginia a national leader in unmanned vehicles.

Breaking the Cycle of Debt and Suspended Licenses

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

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

by James A. Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Slow, Inevitable Demise of Traditional Mass Transit?

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

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

by James A. Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Hat tip: Tim Wise.)

Virginia’s Maritime Future Is Now

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

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

by James A. Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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