What Donald Trump Tells Us about the Changing Character of Virginia Politics

by Frank Muraca

When Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, Virginia’s Republican candidates for governor and Congress offered tepid support. Barbara Comstock, representing the diverse 10th district in Northern Virginia, actually withheld an endorsement, saying that Trump needed to “earn” her vote.

And when House Speaker Bill Howell told the Times-Dispatch that he, too, would back Trump, he tacked on an interesting comment:

Politics at the national level won’t change how Republicans in Virginia govern and lead. We’ve distinguished ourselves from Washington over the years, and I think voters recognize that.

Howell’s comment was true – Virginia has historically distanced itself from the unpredictability of national politics. There was a time when Virginia’s political leaders could step away from national politics, even declining to support their own party in presidential elections. But the fact that Virginia’s Republican establishment fell in line for Trump, whose persona and ethos run counter to the Commonwealth’s image of politicians as genteel statesman, shows how much that independence has waned in the past few decades.

The legacy of Harry Byrd Sr. influences Virginia politics today. From the 1920s until the early 1960s, Virginia was dominated by a one-party oligarchy that maintained unbridled control over the state government. The “Byrd Organization,” was just one of a handful of conservative, Democratic machines that controlled the political apparatus of southern states in the first half of the 20th century. Former Senator John Battle, one of the organization’s top leaders, described it as follows:

It is nothing more nor less than a loosely knit group of Virginians … who usually think alike, who are interested in the welfare of the Commonwealth, who are supremely interested in giving Virginia good government and good public servants, and they usually act together.

V.O. Key, one of the preeminent political scientists to study southern politics in this time period, wrote that Virginia was a “political museum piece.”

Of all the American states, Virginia can lay claim to the most thorough control by an oligarchy. Political power has been closely held by a small group of leaders who, themselves and their predecessors, have subverted democratic institutions and deprived most Virginians of a voice in their government. The Commonwealth possesses characteristics more akin to those of England at about the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 than to those of any other state of the present-day South.

One of Byrd’s most consequential accomplishments was creating a political reality separate from the national scene.

With a small, controllable electorate, Virginia’s Democratic leaders were able to act independently of national trends or opinions. The organization flexed its muscle during the Great Depression when President Roosevelt, a fellow Democrat, was selling the New Deal to the American electorate. Virginia, a Democratic stronghold committed to fiscal conservatism, was one of the least cooperative states in enacting the New Deal’s programs. Continue reading

You Want Studies? We’ve Got Studies!

The latest news in the Bacon’s Rebellion in-box…

Coal ash. Resource International, an engineering and consulting firm hired by Prince William County, has concluded that lead found in well water near the Possum Creek Power Station  has no connection to the coal ash ponds nearby. Concludes the study:

The test results for the sample collected from the wells … appear typical of shallow wells in the Virginia Coastal Plain and Piedmont regions. Natural hydrogeologic processes do not allow for movement of shallow groundwater from the Possum Point Power Station toward the residences on Possum Point Road.  … Based on the foregoing, it is reasonable to conclude that the Dominion Ash Ponds do not represent a potential source in connection with lead or other constituents identified in the private well samples.

Mountain Valley Pipeline. Meanwhile, a new study by Key-Log Economics, commissioned by foes of the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, estimates that the total net-present-value cost to an eight-county region in Virginia and West Virginia would amount to between $8 billion and $9 billion. Annual costs in lost property value and lost ecosystem service value would range between $119 million and $131 million yearly.

The same group had estimated in an earlier study that the annual cost of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline would run around $141 million annually.


Tech’s “Smart Infrastructure” Initiative Progresses

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

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

by James A. Bacon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W&M Takes the Money and Runs

History of William & Mary cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board,

History of William & Mary cost of attendance (tuition, fees, room, board) for in-state students.

by James A. Bacon

The General Assembly boosted state funding for higher education by $300 million in the upcoming two-year budget in the hope that public universities would restrain tuition increases. Most universities have complied. Even the University of Virginia dialed back its planned tuition hike from 3% to 1.4%. But the College of William & Mary has decided to take the money and run. An extra $3.8 million from the state is not enough to induce the university to back off its plan to jack up tuition 12% for the incoming freshman class this fall.

W&M’s defense, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Technically, the tuition does not constitute an increase, for it applies to incoming undergraduate students only, and the university has pledged to freeze their payments for their four-year attendance at the college.

Maybe so, but tuition just keeps climbing, along with the overall cost of attendance, as can be seen in the graph above taken from online W&M data. (You might notice that four years of data are missing. That’s because W&M switched formats for reporting the cost of attendance, omitting the cost of room and board for four years, making it impossible for anyone drawing information from the Web to make a continuous, apples-to-apples comparison of the total cost of attendance.)

If the total cost of in-state attendance had marched in lockstep with the Consumer Price Index, it would be about $9,400 today. Instead, the actual cost will be an eyelash shy of $36,000 — four times higher.

The perennial excuse for higher tuition and fees is cuts in state funding. There’s just enough truth there to be semi-plausible. State support for William & Mary has rebounded in recent years but it is still lower than back in 2001. Here are the numbers for state support:

2000-2001 school year — $50 million
2012-2013 — $40.6 million
2013-2014 — $42.4 million
2014-2015 — 42.5 million
2015-2016 — $43.7 million
2016-2017 — $47.3 million

Adjusting for inflation, the General Assembly has fallen $20 million behind over 16 years. But consider: there are 6,300 undergraduates enrolled at W&M. At $36,000 a pop, increased tuition, fees and revenues (before adjusting for student aid) should bring in $227 million, an increase of about $189 million. Cuts in state support for higher education account for about 10% of that increase. Clearly, there are far more important factors at work, and just as clearly, those costs are out of control.

Del. S. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, is not happy. “I’m extremely disappointed,” he told the T-D. “This is mind-numbing ad potentially shows the (college) board of visitors are out of touch with reality.”

Said Vice Chair R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta: “”They’re really making it tough for middle-income individuals and families to afford William & Mary.” The board’s decision, he said, is “outrageous.”

Bacon’s bottom line: William & Mary perceives itself as a “public ivy.” Its administration, faculty and board of visitors are all driven by a desire to maximize the prestige of the institution, which means enrolling students with higher SAT scores, recruiting more prestigious faculty, building a bigger endowment, and doing all the other things that win accolades in the U.S. News & World-Report top college rankings — even while competing against other prestigious institutions who also want to climb in the rankings. Meanwhile, the university is buckling under higher regulatory costs, with the federal government playing a more intrusive role than ever before, and it needs more money to pay for financial aid for poor and working class students.

Of all the competing goals that W&M would like to achieve, affordability for the middle class gets the short stick… which happens to be a top goal of General Assembly politicians catering to middle-class constituents. Tension is built into the state-university relationship.

Deep down inside, William & Mary wants to privatize, jack tuition and fees to the level the market will bear, recycle money back to the poor, and increase its standing and prestige compared to peer institutions. While I vacillate on the topic, I usually tend to the view that we should let W&M be W&M. Let the institution go private, end state support, and re-direct the $47 million a year to other public institutions.

Watch Those Utility Poles!

Odd fact of the day: Last year some 2,000 vehicle accidents across Virginia involved utility poles — more than five accidents per day on average, according to Dominion Virginia Power.

How should you react if you struck a pole and electric wires fell onto the car? Let’s just say the life-saving response is not intuitive. Watch the video above.


IG of the Day: The South (Atlantic Coast) Shall Rise Again


Chart credit: Demographics Research Group. (Click for larger image)

By the year 2040, Virginia will be the 10th most populous state in the country, if projections by the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia pan out. The Old Dominion will bump Michigan from the Top 10 list.

Meanwhile, North Carolina will climb ahead of Ohio to take the No. 8 spot, and Georgia will supplant Illinois for No. 6.

The South Atlantic coastal states from Virginia to Florida represent one of the most dynamic regions of the country. The region doesn’t get the credit it deserves from analysts fixed upon traditional regional groupings like “the South” or the “Mid-Atlantic.” Some aspiring geographer could write a great PhD thesis on the topic.


Next Front in the Coal Ash War: Groundwater Testing

water_testingby James A. Bacon

Brian West, whose property backs up the Dominion Virginia Power’s coal ash ponds at the Possum Point Power Station, has had his well water tested three times in the past few months. He got three very different results, leaving him wondering how safe the water is to drink.

The first test, conducted by the Virginia Department of Health, found lead, a metal commonly associated with coal ash, to be safely within Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limits for drinking water: 3 parts per billion, a fraction of the EPA’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion. However, a second test commissioned by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network found a lead concentration of 549 parts per billion. A third test by the Virginia Cooperative Extension’s Household Water Quality Program logged lead of 120 parts per billion, lower but still over the limit.

Maybe the water is safe, maybe it isn’t. Needless to say, West isn’t taking any chances — he’s not drinking the water anymore.

The widely divergent test results, reported in an excellent article by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, raise critical questions as Dominion seeks Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permits to close its coal ash ponds at Possums Point and the Bremo Power Station.

Like other electric power companies, Dominion faces a federal mandate to shut down coal ash ponds in a two-step process. Dominion has received DEQ permits to de-water the ponds, a roughly year-long procedure it has commenced at both facilities. The next step is determining what to do with the dry coal ash. Dominion wants to impound it locally, capping it with impermeable material to prevent rain water from seeping through and getting contaminated. But environmental groups, arguing that the caps don’t prevent the leeching of compounds into ground water, insist that Dominion ship the ash to lined landfills. Dominion responds that such a solution could cost rate payers upward of $3 billion.

The sparring over well water tests shows how much uncertainty reigns. One might think that testing water for toxic levels of contaminants would be a straight-forward task. But West’s experience suggests that testing is anything but simple. Results may vary depending upon the methodology used, Dwayne Roadcap ta health department director, told the Times-Dispatch. Was the water sample taken as a “first draw” or after purging the water from the system? What was the sample’s chain of custody? It was not clear from the article how the Department of Health’s methodology might have differed from the Potomac Riverkeepers’.

A related question is whether or the lead in West’s well water originated from Dominion’s coal ash ponds. The Department of Health suggested that the lead might have come from West’s pipes. West rejected that possibility. But if West’s groundwater had been contaminated by the coal ash, would it not have been contaminated by other heavy metals as well? The article makes no mention of cobalt, cadmium, mercury or other substances commonly associated with ash.

Another question is how rapidly groundwater migrates through the proposed coal-ash pits and how fast contamination can spread through the water table. Dominion argues that the movement is very slow, that frequent testing on the perimeter can spot any build-up, and that the company can intercept the water flow by digging ditches, extracting the water and then treating it. Citing tests that indicate coal-ash contamination in Quantico Creek, riverkeeper Dean Naujoks doesn’t trust Dominion to do the job. The Southern Environmental Law Center, which provides legal representation to the Riverkeepers, says it is “still looking into whether there’s a connection between coal ash and the contamination at wells in Possum Point.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If environmentalists can’t persuade DEQ to force Dominion to truck the coal ash to landfills, expect them to fight for the toughest possible water testing requirements, holding out for a strict methodology and independent, third-party testing whose objectivity is beyond reproach. Expect Dominion to agree to almost any testing and mitigation regime that allows the company to avoid the $3 billion expense of shipping coal ash in thousands of truck trips along narrow roads past peoples’ houses to landfills dozens of miles away.