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Is Blackwater Successor in Ukraine?

blackwaterBy Peter Galuszka

A private security company with ties to Virginia and northeastern North Carolina has been linked to rising tensions between Ukraine and Russia that some fear could turn into war.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement April 8 saying that a security firm named “Greystone” that is tied historically to the defunct and controversial Blackwater special security operations company has sent “about 150” mercenaries to Ukraine disguised as a military unit called “Falcon.”

A spokeswoman for Greystone denied to ABC news that the firm was involved with Ukraine while other news outlets were told the firm had no comment.

Greystone is registered in Bermuda, according to ABC. It was at one time linked to Blackwater although its ties to Xe Services and Academi which succeeded Blackwater after its demise are unclear.

Blackwater was founded by Erik Prince, a former Navy SEAL, in Moyock, N.C., near the Virginia border.  It hired former special forces military and used a swampy tract for training. The Moyock operations is close to a Navy facility at Dam Neck in Virginia Beach which is the base for the SEALs’ Team Six that tracked down and killed terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Blackwater was hired by the Bush Administration to handle security for officials and other duties in Iraq. Employees of the Blackwater firm were involved in the shooting of 17 people in Baghdad in 2007 and the firm was later banned from U.S. government work after a slew of problems in Iraq, Sudan and other countries.. During the controversy, it changed its name to Xe Services and then again to Academi, which has its headquarters in McLean. Prince has left the company.

Greystone, ABC reports, was formed as a sister company of Blackwater to handle security matters for foreign clients while Blackwater concentrated on U.S. government contracts.

The Russian government started accusing both Blackwater and Greystone of being involved in Ukraine last month although U.S. officials have denied it. Tensions have risen after Ukraine’s pro-Russian president was ousted and Russia seized Crimea. Russia has thousands of troops massed on the Ukrainian border.

Another footnote in this strange tale: a director of Academi is retired Navy admiral Bobby Ray Inman, who is a former head of the National Security Agency, a deputy director of the CIA and a former head of naval intelligence. Inman also had been a director of as the last board chairman of then-Richmond-based Massey Energy, which was forced to be sold to Alpha Natural Resources after a deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine.

I’m not making this up.

The New West: Leaving Richmond Behind

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

Old Chesterfield bumper sticker mocks one from Henrico

By Peter Galuszka

This story may seem a contrarian piece when it comes to smart growth and exurban sprawl but so be it.

Back in 1969, road planners in Richmond came up with an idea for a superhighway, Route 288,  that would span the iconic James River and connect the far western suburban areas of Henrico and Chesterfield Counties, then primarily pine forests or dairy farms. The idea seemed to be to ring Richmond with a Washington-style Beltway and push growth farther away from the center city.

The scheme ran against some curious local snobbery – that of whether one lived on the north or south side of the James. The smug north side, of course, encompassed Richmond and its white ruling elite although many of them had moved to the West End or beyond to escape integration of schools.

Those living on the south side of the river were considered inferior, trailer park folk  whose uncouth views were more in synch with the Southside area of Virginia near the North Carolina border. Dixie would not mix easily with the assumed gentility of the Richmond folk, although southsiders had to drive to Richmond to see a doctor or do serious shopping.

Flash forward 45 years. Route 288 was finished about 10 years ago and despite the 2008 economic crash, it is quietly establishing its own upset of economic and cultural change and growth. It is linking Short Pump and its office parks and restaurants with upscale subdivisions in Chesterfield that boast of the highest income zip codes in the Richmond area. Capital One employees live at Foxfire. I explore this phenomenon in cover stories I wrote this month for the Chesterfield Monthly and the Henrico Monthly.

As George Hoffer, a transportation expert at the University of Richmond told me: “The West End and southwestern Chesterfield were going to grow independently. Then the highway did what public transportation can’t do. It provided links and created markets that didn’t exist before.”

And, as corporate relocations draw in more high-income workers from other areas, the old cultural biases are eroding. The newbies want convenience and could care less about Richmond’s ancient vanity about which side of the James one resides. Schools on either side of the river are comparable in quality, tests scores show. The north has more jobs and the south more houses, but that will shift over time.

Therein lies the rub. You have created a thriving exurban corridor that really doesn’t relate to the various and worthy land use ideals such as minimizing car traffic and creating bike trails. The most significant thing is that this outer corridor completely bypasses inner Richmond, its perpetual squabbling over over issues like a baseball stadium and its onerous 26 percent poverty levels. It doesn’t mean that the city is doomed to decay. Signs show more young people and retirees moving there. Unfortunately, however, low income ghettoes are stuck in a cycle of no jobs and inadequate transportation and the efforts of Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones haven’t produced many solutions.

The 288 phenomenon also is evidence that the cul-de sac ideals are not quite dead yet. Locating somewhere has long ceased being about white flight. The newcomers to the “New West”  include many people of color for whom Richmond’s racial animosities are more of an historical footnote. They may drive in to enjoy the city’s eateries and museums but choose not to live there and are hardly obsessed by what happened years ago.

So, Smart Growthers, you had better take notice. In some cases, the center city concepts you espouse are irrelevant.

Picking up the Pieces of the U.S. 460 Fiasco

Aubrey Layne

Aubrey Layne

by James A. Bacon

Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne said today he suspended work on the U.S. 460 Connector project because he didn’t want to run the risk of paying the contractor millions of dollars for work on a project that might be radically revised. The state of Virginia has spent $300 million already on the proposed 55-mile interstate-grade highway with no guarantees that it can obtain the necessary environmental permits to push the $1.4 billion project forward — or get its money back if the permits don’t come through.

“There’s no point in spending money on a road we don’t know will get built,” he said at the monthly Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) meeting. “There will be five alternatives looked at, including a no-build option.”

As a member of the CTB before he joined the McAuliffe administration as transportation chief, Layne had been one of the project’s most vocal backers. He reiterated his support today. “I still believe in the purpose and need – increased mobility in the corridor, support of the port, hurricane evacuation,” he said.

But Layne suspended work on the mega-project late last week, citing concerns that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers might not give its approval. The Corps had expressed concerns from the very beginning about the impact of the proposed alignment on wetlands, he said. Early on, the best guess was that 200 acres of wetlands might be disrupted. But soil borings showed that nearly the entire route transversed wetlands. “It was discovered that it could be 480 acres,” he said.

When Layne took over as transportation secretary, he explained, he adopted a different perspective from his previous role as CTB member, advocate and chairman of the 460 Funding Corporation, the entity created to float toll-backed bonds to help pay for the project. As chairman of the funding corporation, he had a fiduciary responsibility to look out for the interests of the bond holders. As transportation secretary, he has a responsibility to look out for the interests of citizens and taxpayers.

To date the state has spent roughly $300 million on the project. VDOT accounts for roughly $60 million in project management costs. The contractor, US 460 Mobility, has spent about $100 million on environmental work, and the state has paid it roughly $140 million for “mobilization,” preparing for construction by setting up an office and hiring crews. He doesn’t have any more environmental work for the contractor, and he doesn’t want to continue paying millions of dollars for months on end when there is no certainty that the proposed route will win regulatory approval.

Problems with P3s. CTB members were generally supportive yesterday of Layne’s decision. Earlier this week, however, former Transportation Secretary Sean Connaughton was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “Preliminary studies show around 400 acres impacted over a 55-mile corridor, which is fairly small given the size and scope of the project. The current Administration needs to complete the supplemental study, design a wetlands mitigation and avoidance strategy, get the Army Corps permit, and build the road. It’s that simple.” He also said there was “no problem with the structure of the contract” with US 460 Mobility.

In a lengthy explanation of the background to the deal, Layne offered a different spin. “From my viewpoint, it was people in their particular positions making the best decisions they had with the data they had,” he said. However, he alluded to the inherent tension between confidentiality and openness in the Public Private Partnership (P3) process.

The process was open in the early stage when an advisory group studied broad approaches to the 460 corridor. Based on that group’s recommendations, three different consortia submitted their proposals on how to finance and build the highway. In the end, the McDonnell administration decided they were all too expensive and took over ownership of the proposed highway, enlisting US 460 Mobility only to design and build the project. Those negotiations occurred totally in secret, as allowed by the P3 law. The McDonnell administration was not required to obtain CTB approval to sign the contract (although the CTB did have to allocate money for the project), and VDOT gave the CTB what Layne characterized as a “high-level briefing.” “The CTB,” he added, “was not privy to the terms of the contract.”

W. Sheppard Miller III expressed frustration with the process that he did not voice publicly at the time: “I have been very uncomfortable on a couple of projects we had. I didn’t have the data I needed to make a decision. At the same time, I was asked to vote. Don’t ask me to do something without giving me the information I needed. I voted like everyone else. I didn’t like it. I was very uncomfortable at the time. I don’t want to be in that position again.” Continue reading

Busy Day at the CTB

Many meaty stories from the Commonwealth Transportation Board meeting today. It will take me a long time to do them all justice, so, for the moment, I will settle for whetting your appetite with the highlights.

  • The Charlottesville Bypass is dead. It may not be buried — a few ritual oblations remains — but it is lying in the coroner’s office. The McAuliffe administration has tasked a Rt. 29 Advisory Panel, headed by former highway commissioner Philip Shucet, to develop recommendations for improving mobility through the U.S. 29 corridor in the Charlottesville area that fits the state’s current budget parameters. The group will examine a wide variety of options. However, Shucet said, “The bypass is not something we would consider.”
  • Can we get that $300 million back? Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne announced earlier this week that he has suspended spending on the U.S. 460 Connector on the grounds that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has warned that it may not grant a critical environmental permit. He noted that the state had spent roughly $300 million so far, about $60 million for Virginia Department of Transportation oversight, $100 million for environmental work by the contractor, US 460 Mobility, and another $140 million for the contractor’s “mobilization,” which includes opening and staffing offices in preparation for the work to begin. VDOT will consider alternative routes, including upgrades to the existing U.S. 460. Layne told Bacon’s Rebellion that he could not now say how much of that $300 million could be recovered. “If it’s a different alignment, we’ll have to negotiate with the contractor.”
  • VTrans is reappraising its forecast methodology. The Secretariat of Transportation, which oversees the VTrans long-range planning process for Virginia’s transportation needs, is implementing the biggest overhaul in its forecasting methodology seen in years. Past forecasts of future transportation demand largely extrapolated from previous trends. But Deputy Transportation Secretary Nick Donohue told the CTB that past projections overshot actual demand by a wide margin. This time around, he said, planners would take into account indicators of changing demand such as Americans’ increasing preference for walkable communities, the declining interest of teenagers in acquiring a driver’s license, and the surge in multifamily housing construction.
  • Expand the Washington Metro… or build an extra 110 lane-miles of highway? The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority wants Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., to kick in an extra $6.1 billion to fund its aggressive Metro 2025 capital improvement program, requiring annual average contribution in $190 million a year more from each state by 2021. Expanding the number of cars per train to eight, WMATA Richard Sarles told the CTB, would increase people-moving capacity in the region by the equivalent of adding two lanes to Interstate 66 or building 110 lane-miles of highway.

– JAB

More Data Points in the Income Inequality Debate

On the New Geography blog, Joel Kotkin has published an interesting list ranking the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan regions by the percentage of income derived from interest, dividends and rent. Inhabitants of metros that rank at the top of this list earn a higher percentage of their income from their investments than from salaries, wages and income transfers.

Much to my surprise, Virginia metros tend to rank high on the list.

income_share4
Frankly, I’m really not sure what this data means. I present it to you, dear reader, because it illuminates an aspect of Virginia’s political economy that usually goes unremarked upon.

A higher percentage implies greater wealth — after all, interest, dividends and rents are income generated from stocks, bonds and real estate. As Kotkin points out, older Americans tend to have accumulated more wealth than young people, so areas with large numbers of retirees tend to rank high. That may explain Florida and Arizona, but I don’t think it pertains to Virginia metros.

A high percentage also could signify lower wages, which would appear not to be the case in Virginia, with its top-quintile income rankings, or it could reflect less reliance upon transfer payments, which is a possibility, given the relatively low level of poverty here.

– JAB

And Your Priorities Are Teaching Kids, Really?

maggie_walker_hsAs a retiree from Maggie Walker Governor’s School, I am constantly bombarded with requests for money for who knows what.  As I have written here before, teachers in Central Virginia have not had a raise since the 2008-2009 school year.  A search of the school website showed a conflicting message about finances.

A review of the minutes of the January 16, 2014 budget session demonstrates some rather strange contradictions. The general faculty will receive a “whopping” raise of 2% as some are asked to teach more classes, thus significantly raising the workload. A course or two may be dropped, and other minor adjustments may be made. But wait, there’s more.

The budget includes a $13,000 raise for an administrator whose sole job is to overlook the curriculum of the school.  (Please see 01-16-2014 meeting of the regional board of the Budget Work session on the school’s website.)  The Board justifies this outrage by having this educrat work a few more weeks in the summer. It mystified me how an organization that claims to be short on cash seems to find funds to pay such increases while asking the bulk of their employees to continue to experience a decreasing standard of living.

I would love to be a fly on the wall when the leadership of the school gives the usual “let’s-do-more-with-less” speech.  If it believes that its administrative staff is underpaid, let them go out into the pool of mid-management talent and find out what the job market in the real world is really like.  This is an example of why the public has lost faith in education.

– Les Schreiber

Virginia Missing from White House Climate Conversation

Flooded street in Norfolk during Hurricane Sandy.

Flooded street in Norfolk during Hurricane Sandy.

by Rachel Cannon

On November 1st, 2013, President Obama signed an Executive Order “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change” – the newest addition to the Administration’s Climate Action Plan. One part of the Executive Order establishes the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience: a collection of state, local and tribal leaders from across the country who will serve as advisors to the government on building climate preparedness and resilience in their communities.

This is a great idea – so what is the problem? Scanning the list of Task Force members reveals a glaring omission: Among all of these names, there is not a single representative from Virginia. Why not? Other east coast states, including Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey, are represented. One state (California) has not one, not two, but three representatives on the Task Force.

Virginia, particularly coastal Virginia, needs to be a part of this.

The Task Force was created to advise, based on first-hand experiences, on how the federal government can respond to the needs of communities that are dealing with the impacts of climate change.In part, it will help agencies assist cities and towns to build “smarter and stronger,” identifying and removing barriers to investing in resilience. In other words, the Task Force will tell the government how it can help these communities prepare for and survive climate-change-fueled disasters.

Virginia, especially the Tidewater region, faces tremendous and unique threats from climate change. Moreover, communities such as Norfolk have been battling damaging weather events, not to mention storm surges and relentless flooding, for years. Virginia research institutions, such as the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), have developed superb research on best practices and implementation. Insights from our region’s community leaders are invaluable and irreplaceable to the White House’s efforts. With no Virginians on the Task Force, who can speak on Virginia’s behalf? Maryland? Delaware? How could they? The region faces unique concerns, and must offer its correspondingly unique perspective.

Although storms and sea level rise are only some of many concerns the Administration hopes to address, they are significant, and Virginia can help. First, the predicted effects of climate change on the state are tremendous. Virginia’s Tidewater region has one of the fastest rates of sea level rise in the country. NOAA predicts there will be almost two feet of local sea level rise over the next 100 years at Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel – the highest increase on the east coast. VIMS estimates that over the next 20-50 years, the Hampton Roads area could experience up to a 1.5-foot increase in sea level rise. Over 80% of the Virginia coastline is considered at “high” or “very high” risk from sea level rise. According to one estimate, 19,000 people in Norfolk and 40,000 people in Virginia Beach live below the 100-year flood level, ranking Norfolk among the five most vulnerable U.S. cities to harm from hurricanes.

Recent weather events like hurricanes have been unprecedented both in frequency and severity (consider the 4-foot storm surge in Hurricane Irene in 2011). What’s worse, the region’s land is sinking as sea level rises. The cruel trifecta of sea level rise, subsidence, and these extreme weather events, threaten to leave a much of cities like Norfolk under water. When (not if) a hurricane like Sandy touches down in Virginia, it will jeopardize homes, lives, critical infrastructure, not to mention the enormous federal investment in Naval operations. The economic and human harm in the region threatens to be astronomical.

Most importantly, Virginia is working to prepare for these forecasted harms. Leaders in Hampton Roads have expressed their desire to work with state and federal government on climate change in the region. A recent conference on adaptive planning for sea level rise in the region reached maximum capacity, with legislators, local leaders, and researchers coming together to discuss the challenges facing coastal Virginia, and how they can move forward to protect our cities and citizens.

To many, it only seems like a matter of time until Virginia’s perspective shifts from preparation to restoration, unless the region gets attention and assistance from federal resources. Entire communities are at risk, and are waiting to be heard. If the White House wants to learn from communities that are taking steps to protect themselves from extreme weather and other impacts from climate change, Virginia needs to be part of that conversation.

Rachel Cannon is a student at the College of William & Mary Law School, class of 2014.

Virginia Population: 8.3 Million and Climbing

peopleVirginia 2013 population growth highlights fresh from the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center:

  • Current population: 8.3 million
  • The state population grew 74,531, less than one percent and the slowest rate since before the Great Recession.
  • Still, that rate was faster than the national average, making Virginia the 14th fastest-growing state in the country.
  • Population gains were concentrated (a) in Northern Virginia, and (b) in urban areas. Urban-core jurisdictions of Arlington, Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Radford and Richmond grew faster than the state average.
  • Many counties outside the urban crescent, including all seven coal-producing counties in Southwestern Virginia, lost population.

For details, click here.

– JAB

Conservative vs. Progressive: Global Climate Change

climate_changeKiller Bs. In an unprecedented move, two prominent Virginia blogs, Bacon’s Rebellion and BlueVirginia, have agreed to cooperate in a structured debate over a series of possible programs designed to combat global climate change. The programs were selected based on two major criteria – they had to be applicable to Virginia and they had to encompass actions that could conceivably start in 2014.  The blogmasters from both blogs have agreed to post the articles verbatim on their blogs. This introductory article is designed to explain the “rules of the road”.

Picking sides.  A few regular contributors from both blogs have been divided up into “conservative” and “progressive” teams.  The division into teams was based on political outlook not “home blog”.  Here are the teams:

Conservative – Jim Bacon (BaconsRebellion) and Don Rippert (Bacon’s Rebellion)

Progressive – Lowell Feld (Blue Virginia), kindler (Blue Virginia) and Peter Galuszka (Bacon’s Rebellion)

No hitting below the belt. In order to foster a constructive debate all participants have stipulated certain things.  They are:

  • The Earth is warming.  All participants accept the consensus of leading scientists that the Earth is warming.
  • Humans cause a substantial amount of the warming. While there may be disagreement on the relative role of humanity in causing global warming there is agreement that humans are a cause of global warming.
  • The speed with which the Earth will warm is not known with precision.
  • The impact of the warming Earth on human civilization is not known with precision.

Marquess of Queensberry.  The rules are simple.  A series of policies that may, or may not, be effective in combating global climate change have been selected.  Each potential policy is applicable to Virginia. Each policy could conceivably be part of a law enacted by the General Assembly of Virginia in the upcoming 2014 session.  A blog article will be written for each possible policy.  The blog article will have the following three sections:

  • Factual description.  A neutral party has written a description of the potential policy with relevant facts.  Both the conservative team and the progressive team have reviewed and accepted the factual description of the possible policy.
  • Conservative viewpoint(s).  A conservative perspective on the policy written by one or more authors from the conservative team.
  • Progressive viewpoint(s).  A progressive perspective on the policy written by one or more of the authors from the progressive team.

Just some facts, ma’am.  All authors have been encouraged to document their assumed costs and benefits of the potential policy in as quantitative terms as possible.  However, it must be recognized that a strict quantitative cost or benefit may not be possible in all circumstances.

Let the games begin.  The first potential policy initiative is … Virginia should adopt a strong (mandatory) Renewal Portfolio Standards as opposed to the weak (voluntary) Renewal Portfolio Standards currently in place.

See you at the next blog posting for the first policy debate!

-D.J. Rippert
Bacon’s Rebellion      

New Names for the Redskins

Hey, how bogus, this dude's skin isn't even red!

How bogus, this dude’s skin isn’t even red!

OK, this Washington Redskins controversy is getting out of hand. If people don’t like the name, let’s change it!

My two nominations:

The Rednecks
Major advantage: With a little white-out, you wouldn’t even have to change the team stationery.

The Palefaces
Major advantage: The Palefaces didn’t win all the battles but they won all the wars. Isn’t that what you want for your football team?

– JAB