The Great U.S. 460 Swamp

The Great U.S. 460 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.

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Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

Coming up: Car-Lite Burbs

A California developer is teaming with Daimler AG to bring buses, shuttles and ride sharing to an Orange County community -- with no government subsidies.

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Putting the “Garden” in Rain Garden

Putting the Garden in Rain Garden

Soon Virginians will start spending billions to meet tough storm-water regs. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden wants to show how we can save the bay – and look really good doing it.

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Tech Insurrection

Tech Insurrection

Smart cities, says Anthony Townsend, will be forged by geeks, activists and civic hackers through bottom-up technological innovation.

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Sprawl’s Hidden Subsidies

Sprawl's Hidden Subsidies

The answer to sprawl isn't more regulation, says Pamela Blais, it's fixing the endemic biases embedded in taxes, utility fees, municipal services and mortgages.

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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.

Expect No Help from the Ivory Tower

ivory_towerby James A. Bacon

In yesterday’s post, I expressed skepticism that Virginia’s system of education and job training (like that of the nation as a whole) is equipped to provide Virginia’s workforce with the skills required for employment today. Skills, I conjectured, are obsolescing faster than educators and job trainers can keep up. One reason for that, I suggested, is that funding streams are dominated either by fractured and overlapping government-funded job training programs, which by their nature are unresponsive to the marketplace, or by colleges and universities with their own institutional imperatives.

What did I mean by “institutional imperatives”? An article in Charlottesville’s Daily Progress yesterday sheds some light in a discussion of two of Virginia’s elite educational institutions, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary.

As described by reporter Derek Quizon, the great challenge of UVa and W&M is balancing increasing costs, decreased state funding and a push to retain top faculty. Those are essentially the same priorities, I might add, of every university, public or private, although less renowned institutions may lack the resources to recruit star faculty.

Judging from the reporting in Quizon’s article, cutting costs does not appear to be a major preoccupation of either UVa or W&M. The focus is how to increase tuition revenue while meeting the goal of making college affordable to everyone, including lower-income students. The solution: Jack up tuition, siphon a fraction of the revenue into student aid, and squeeze harder those students whose families can afford to pay.

In institutions whose bottom line is prestige, not profits, no one is talking about dialing back the recruitment of star faculty. No one is talking about rolling back administrative overhead. No one is talking about disrupting the educational marketplace through online learning. Strategic plans are forged in response to the demands of internal constituencies, not to the demands of the labor market.

What’s true of major universities is not necessarily true of all colleges within those universities — engineering and business schools, I suspect, stay in close touch with businesses that hire their grads — and probably not true at all of community colleges, which remain focused on equipping their students with specific skills needed in the workplace.

But for the most part colleges and universities seem to be floating in a bubble high above the grubby concerns of the business world that that pays the taxes and creates the wealth in our society. If we’re looking for structural change in how citizens acquire the skills that make them employable, don’t look for that change to be led by our elite educational institutions. The change we need will have to come from somewhere else.

– JAB

For Sustainability, Convert Freeways to Fastways

tollsThis is the first in a series of three columns.

by Michael Brown

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

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Virginia’s Jobs-Skills Mismatch

skills_mismatchEvidence is mounting that a reason for slow economic growth and high unemployment — not the main reason but a significant one — is the mismatch between the skills required for the jobs that American companies have to fill and the skills that American workers actually possess.

A recent survey of 87 small and midsize business CEOs conducted by the Robins School of Business at the University of Richmond and the Richmond Council of CEOs found the following: 70% staffing was a significant issue, particularly the finding, recruiting and training of operational and sales talent.

When asked how much their annual revenues might increase if their talent concerns were resolved, more than half of all CEOs (51.7%) indicated they would experience growth of 11% or more, with 17.2% of firms indicating potential revenue growth of more than 20% if they could solve their staffing issues.

The problem is concentrated in two main areas: sales and IT. “The CEOs I work with are very concerned with attracting talent in two areas,” says Scot McRoberts, executive director of the Virginia Council of CEOs. “Many small business CEOs are raising the bar for their sales teams. … In our local IT community, programmers and coders are just not there in sufficient skill and quantity.”

Let’s see…. Businesses want employees with different skill sets. Employees want skills that will get them hired. Virginia has a massive educational/job training establishment — colleges, universities, community colleges, job training programs — that spends billions of dollars a year. Yet, somehow, the system is not functioning properly. Old skills are obsolescing faster than ever as businesses strive to incorporate new technologies, and the education/training system can’t keep up.

Bacon’s bottom line: If those 87 CEOs are representative, thousands of jobs in Central Virginia alone are going begging. Instead of trying to create jobs by building baseball stadiums and sports arenas, perhaps our political and civic leaders should focus on the jobs-skills mismatch. On the other hand, maybe they shouldn’t. Given their track record, maybe they should just stay out of the way.

Regardless, we need a new system to equip Virginians with the skills they need to be employable and that businesses need to be competitive — a system that can keep up with fast-evolving technology. Will we get that system? Don’t count on it. The existing system is ossified in place by funding streams determined more by politics and institutional privilege than by market demand.

– JAB

Should Virginia Beach Subsidize a New Arena?

Image credit: ESG Companies

by James A. Bacon

United States Management (USM), a Virginia Beach development company, wants to build a $200 million, 18,000-seat arena and sports complex adjacent to the city’s convention center, which, it claims, will create jobs, boost the local tourism industry, bolster city property values and bring events to Hampton Roads that enhance the regional quality of life. Backed by $150 million in financing from Chinese interests, the company would spend $200 million of its own money.

All it will take from the City of Virginia Beach is a $52.7 million contribution to infrastructure costs for road improvements, utilities and parking. … Plus $26 million in optional streetscape improvements and additional road improvements…. Plus $7 million yearly in tax revenue generated by the project to pay down USM’s debt.

This project has consumed the attention of Hampton Roads much in the way that the Shockoe Bottom baseball stadium has absorbed Richmond residents. The arena is back in the local news thanks to the release of a consultant report detailing the commitment the city would have to make under the terms of the deal proposed by USM. That commitment, though large, is significantly smaller than called for in a proposal made and rejected earlier in the year, which makes it look good by comparison. Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms is supportive of the project, although some City Council members have expressed concern about the public cost.

If Hampton Roads residents wonder why their region has been such an economic laggard in the current business cycle, the fact that Virginia Beach is debating how much to subsidize a sports arena should tell you all you need to know. Sessoms had shown a penchant for grandiose public projects — extending light rail from Norfolk to the Virginia Beach resort area is another — that require the expenditure of massive public funds for highly speculative benefits. Rather than focusing resources on making Virginia’s largest city more competitive in a technology-intensive knowledge economy, the mayor is doubling down on the city’s past as a tourism destination – a second-tier tourism destination, at that.

It is undoubtedly true that the proposed arena, which could host everything from a pro basketball team to monster truck rallies, would stimulate economic activity. In a 2012 study, economist and former Old Dominion University James V. Koch estimated that an arena would generate $98 million in revenue throughout Hampton Roads, two thirds of it in Virginia Beach itself. (Two critical caveats: Koch’s study assumed that the arena would attract an NBA team that would play regular games there, and it included a multiplier effect as initial spending rippled through the economy.)

As Koch made clear in his study, he drew no conclusions regarding whether the arena should be built or how it should be financed. Nor did he, nor anyone else that I have been able to find, analyze the city’s Return on Investment of public dollars. Nor did he or anyone else conduct a risk analysis of what could go wrong, and what exposure the city would have, if, say, a recession came along and the wonderful assumptions behind the economic forecasts fell short. Risk analysis, as citizens of Southeastern Virginia should have learned from the U.S. 460 fiasco, is critical. Finally, I have seen no analysis of what alternative uses Virginia Beach might have for $53 million to $79 million.

Personally, I can think of many other ways for Virginia Beach to invest sums of that magnitude, although none would be as flashy as a new arena. The city could invest in creating islands of mixed-use, higher-density urbanism that bring in far more taxes, with fewer offsetting spending liabilities, than traditional suburban-style development. The city could invest in “smart cities” technologies that could cut energy expenditures, reduce water consumption and do a better job of managing traffic. The city could invest in integrating online learning into the curriculum of Virginia Beach schools. If city officials were feeling especially adventurous, they could foster the creation of innovation districts that would stimulate sustainable, entrepreneurial-based economic growth. Most of those priorities, however, require a decidedly un-sexy, stick-to-the-basics approach in which government focuses on those things that government can do well while leaving risky development schemes to the private sector. Alas, stick-to-the-basics doesn’t garner headlines or add to the aura of activist mayors.

Local governments in Virginia face chronic fiscal challenges. Virginia Beach doesn’t have a lot of money to waste. City officials need to show discipline in allocating tens of millions in discretionary spending. Once they commit to spending that money, they foreclose alternatives that could offer bigger payoffs at less risk.

Why High Schools Should Prioritize Proficiency in Writing and Algebra II

enrollment_persistence

Image credit: VLDS

Virginia high school students who earned the more academically demanding Advanced Studies diploma were six times more likely to have earned an Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree within four years of graduating. That’s one of the most recent findings to emerge from the Virginia Longitudinal Data System (VLDS), a system that matches de-identified data from multiple state data sources, allowing researchers to track the progression of Virginians from school to college and into the workforce.

A study of “postsecondary persistence,” the likelihood of a student persisting through college long enough to earn a degree, also found that students who scored “advanced proficient” on their Algebra II Standards of Learning and end-of-course writing SOLs were far more likely than their peers to enroll and graduate from college within four years.

Why does this matter? Because experts estimate that by 2018 65% of all jobs will require some level of post-secondary education or training. “It is critical that Virginia’s high schools ensure that students graduate with the knowledge and skills needed for success in post secondary programs,” write the authors Deborah L. Jonas and Marshall W. Garland in “Virginia’s 2008 On-Time Graduation Rate Cohort Four year college enrollment, persistence and completion.

“This research provides important insights into the value of the Advanced Studies diploma — and the courses within the diploma – in preparing students for success in life.” In particular, it documents the importance of ensuring students reach high achievement in mathematics and English courses.

That may not sound like the most dramatic finding in the world, but it does lead to important public policy conclusions. (The authors did not draw these conclusions — I am drawing them.). Not only should high schools encourage students to strive for Advanced Studies diplomas, they should focus resources (e.g. the best teachers) on English and algebra courses. Students need writing and math skills to make it through college. All other courses — history, foreign languages, physical education, various elective studies — are worthwhile but less essential.

In the future, we should be seeing more research like this based upon VLDS data. Hopefully, Virginia’s government and political leaders will use the research to guide public policy. I don’t under-estimate the power of ideology and bureaucratic inertia to trump research when it comes to reforming the system, but hope springs eternal.

– JAB

McAuliffe Hits Private IT Outsourcing

mcauliffeBy Peter Galuszka

Just a decade ago, privatizing and out-sourcing traditionally government work was all the rage.

Virginia’s Democrats and Republicans alike saw a philosophical advantage in fending off Information Technology, road maintenance and other work to for-profit, private companies who supposedly – if you believed the hype then  –could always do things better, faster and more efficiently than state workers.

The concept of “government” workers always seemed to be negative. Not only would taxpayers have to pay their health and retirement benefits, they might try to join unions and make labor negotiations even more difficult. It didn’t wash with Virginia’s conceit of being an anti-labor, “right-to-work” state that promised to keep workers docile as the state tried to recruit outside firms.

Now, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is turning this concept on its head. He is ordering a review of state contracts, especially on out-sourced IT service work that he says may be inefficient and expensive. “I am concerned that state government is inappropriately dependent on expensive contract labor when traditionally appointed state employees can perform at a higher level at a lower cost.”

Now that’s a major turn-around, even for a Democrat. After all, it was fellow Democrat and former Gov. and now U.S. Senator Mark Warner, currently running for re-election, that worked the get the state to accept a $2.3 billion contract for defense contractor Northrop Grumman to take over and upgrade the state’s antiquated IT system in 2005.

That deal proved disastrous as the contractor’s performance issues brought on bouts of oversight and renegotiation. The state ended up extending its contract with Northrop Grumman by three years.

An underlying problem is that while the contract lasts until 2019, the state must make some decisions if it wants to continue with the outsourcing route or start relying on its own state workers.

Another problem is whether the state identifies independent contractors as such or employees of state organizations. About 1 percent of the state’s workers were misidentified as independents. Apparently, state workers have their Social Security and taxes withheld from paychecks. But are they really independents? Or is it just window dressing to play homage to some fad thought up by fiscal conservatives?

McAuliffe is right to start thinking in these terms. What he’s going to have to face, however, is the conventional wisdom in Virginia that “public” is always bad and “private, for-profit” is always good. For evidence of this hidebound view, just read this blog regularly.

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.

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Author Tom Robbins Remembers Richmond

 Tibetan PeachBy Peter Galuszka

Cult author Tom Robbins has always been a fun read, be it his novels “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” or “Still Life With Woodpecker” or his remarks in interviews.

Now in his 80s, the acid-dropping and whimsical iconoclast who is an icon of the 1950s through ’70s has written a memoir of sorts called “Tibetan Peach Pie,” and it is also entertaining. But what is of special interest is how he pays attention to Richmond.

Many think, correctly, that Richmond is the stuffy capital of the “Clown Show,” the self-important legislature, and snobby, WASPy types overly impressed by their pedigrees and their privileged positions. Robbins, however, turns these views on their heads, noting that Richmond has always had an artistic rebel streak.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, he was part of it in a big way. Born in the mountains of North Carolina, Robbins moved to the Virginia Tidewater as a child and ended up in Richmond. He went to button-down Washington & Lee, then a school for nice Southern boys, where he wrote sports stories for newspaper editor Tom Wolfe (THE Tom Wolfe although then he had numerals after his name). A stint in the Air Force later, he went on to the Richmond Professional Institute, now VCU.

As I write in a recent Style story: Robbins greatly admires RPI, which he says “isn’t widely known, though it was Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, and the Sorbonne rolled into one for aspiring artists in the southeastern U.S.; and in many ways was the ideal school for incipient bohemians looking for a friendly academic environment in which to pack those tender roots.”

He’s mesmerized with the alleys of the Fan District, writing that they “become all the more interesting after nightfall, when they softly resonate with stray disembodied fragments of music (live or recorded), intellectual discourse, dog-bark, couple-squabble, and woo-pitch, not to mention the even less tangible secrets that seem to sweep from the shadowed crannies. …”

Striking a deeper chord, he worked senior year at night on the copy desk of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Despite the TD’s innate conservatism, he says that it actually had high journalistic standards. I felt the same way when I was a reporter there for a couple of years in the 1980s although I had similar feelings about its stuffiness. Back in his time, Robbins writes that the big dictionary used by editors was so out of date that it described “uranium” as a “worthless mineral.”

Like many Southern papers of that era, including one I worked on in the early 1970s in North Carolina, there was an unwritten rule not to run pictures of blacks that might make them look good. They were slotted for crime news. Photos in sections for the “colored” were acceptable.

Robbins sympathized with the civil rights movement that was in full swing circa 1960. He spent some time at a Unitarian Church working for integration. Fellow TD copy editors called him a “nigger lover.”

He also got in repeated trouble when he chose to place photographs of black artists such as Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey in a gossip column by Earl Wilson that he edited. Summoned by his editor, Robbins was warned that readers had complained that they “couldn’t finish their breakfast” after seeing the photo of Bailey. Readers had lit up the telephones to complain.

It was time to move and he did, to Seattle where he spent most of his literary career. One final strike, though. On one of his last nights at the desk, he ran a photo of Sammy Davis Junior, an African-American entertainer married to a blonde woman. Still, he regards Richmond and the TD fondly.

It’s a fun book for a beach trip.