Baron von Munchausen, famous spinner of tall tales

Was Bob McDonnell Convicted with Tainted Testimony?

Jonnie Williams' trial testimony about a critical meeting with the former governor was contradictory, implausible and sometimes incoherent. But the jury bought it anyway

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Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Building Connectivity in Suburbia

Sunnyvale, Calif., wants to reinvent a 60's-era industrial office park as an innovation district. It's making progress but suburban sprawl is not an easy habit to break.

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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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More Coal Industry Propaganda

coal woman By Peter Galuszka

If you read a blog posting just below this (the one with the coal miner with an intense look on his grit-covered face), you will see how hyperbole, confusion, misunderstanding, ignorance and one-sided arguments twist something very important to all Virginians – how to deal with carbon dioxide and climate change – into a swamp of disinformation..

The news is that the State Corporation Commission has responded to the federal government’s proposed rules that carbon emissions be cut 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 by complaining that it would cost ratepayers up to $6 billion.

This is because Virginia utilities may have to shut down 2,851 megawatts worth of electrical generation with only 351 megawatts (at present) of “unreliable” wind power to replace it.

The image one gets from the presentation of the blog post is that it is “The EPA’s War on Virginia” with the haggard-looking miner thrown in, we are given the impression that it is more of the “War on Coal” that the coal industry has been promoting in recent years to blunt much-needed mine safety laws and moves to police highly destructive mountaintop removal practices.

The author does not address any of this. But since he’s handing us the “War on Coal” propaganda line, let’s take his arguments apart. This won’t take too long.

  • The author fails to note part of the Richmond Times Dispatch story upon which he bases his opinions. There is a very important comment: “It appears the staff has misread the rule,” said Cale Jaffe, director of the Southern Environmental Law Center’s Virginia office. “Analyses that we have reviewed show that Virginia is already 80 percent of the way to meeting Virginia’s carbon pollution target under the Clean Power Plan. “Almost all of those reductions are coming from coal plant retirements and natural gas conversions that the utilities put in place long before the Clean Power Plan was even released,” Jaffe said.
  • That said, let’s take a look at coal-fired plants in the state which are the biggest carbon offenders. For starters let’s look at Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest utility. It has already converted three coal-fired plants – Altavista, Southampton and Bremo Bluff – to biomass. The 50-plus-year-old Yorktown plant (335 megawatts) is due to retire in 2015. Another aging plant – Chesapeake (609) megawatts — is also due to retire by 2015. The point here is that these plants are being closed because Dominion realizes that it is just too hard to keep 50 or 60 year plants operating efficiently and cheaply. It would be like keeping that 1960 Corvair because you don’t want to put oil workers out of work.
  • Dominion’s biggest problem and the biggest single air polluter in the state is the Chesterfield station with 1380 megawatts. Yes, it does need more controls. Then there’s Clover (882 megawatts) and Mecklenburg (138 megawatts). That brings us up to 2400 megawatts that might need upgrades. Let’s see. The two nuclear units at North Anna put out a little more than 1,700 megawatts just so we get some scale here. Dominon also has Virginia City (585 megawatts) which just opened, uses coal and biomass and has advanced fluidized bed burning methods.
  • Out west, Appalachian Power has 705 megawatts at Clinch River and 430 megawatts at Glen Lyn. Two of those three units there were built in (my God!) 1944 so I guess the blog author wants to keep those great granddaddies running to save miners’ jobs. Actually they are so unneeded that they have been on extended startups.Besides these Cogentrix has a couple small, modern plants in Portsmouth and Hopewell.
  • One reason there so little renewable generation (6 percent) is that the utilities do not have mandatory renewable portfolio standards to force them into wind and solar, etc. Virginia’s neighbors do.

All of this gets back to Jaffe’s point that the blog author so easily ignores. A lot of the carbon cuts are going to come from plants that are aging and are going to be closed anyway.

The SCC may complain about the $6 billion but guess what, you beleaguered electricity users? If Dominion puts a third nuke at North Anna, that’s easily $10 billion. Is that going to raise rates sky high? Where’s the outcry? It’s almost double what helping save the planet from carbon dioxide will cost.

The blog author’s hyperbole about the poor coal industry shows his ignorance of the topic. Virginia’s rather small coal industry (No. 12 in production) reached its peak in 1991. Natural gas has displaced a lot of expensive coal. Gas prices would have to triple to make Central Appalachian coal competitive again. There’s lots of metallurgical coal for steel, but the Asian economic slump has dropped prices maybe 60 percent.

I won’t comment on the author’s lame and misunderstood point about climate change not happening.

The blog author may want to blame that on Obama and the EPA but that would be almost as ridiculous as his blog post. I decline to name him because I don’t want to embarrass him.

The EPA’s War on Virginia

How to have it both ways: Destroy coal mining jobs with environmental  regulations.... and then blame "capitalism" for growing income inequality.

How to have it both ways: Destroy coal mining jobs with environmental regulations…. and then blame “capitalism” for growing income inequality.

James A. Bacon

Complying with proposed Environmental Protection Agency rules on carbon emissions would cost Dominion Virginia Power customers an extra $5.5 billion to $6 billion, according to the State Corporation Commission staff — and that doesn’t include the cost to Virginia’s smaller utilities, which are even more reliant than Dominion upon coal.

The EPA plan calls for cutting carbon emissions from existing power plants 30% below 2005 levels by 2030 in an effort to fight climate change, improve public health and provide “affordable energy,” reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Writes Peter Bacque:

The EPA’s own model predicts that Virginia utilities will have to shut down fossil-fuel power plants reliably producing 2,851 megawatts of electricity, and replace that generation with just 351 megawatts of unreliable land-based wind power. This raises alarming regional reliability concerns, the staff said.

The power plants involved today ensure reliable service to Virginia customers, have years of useful life remaining, and cannot be replaced overnight or without regard for impacts on the electric systems. …

Even if the operational concerns of replacing dependable fossil-fuel generation with variable, intermittent and “nondispatchable” — unreliable — wind and solar energy could be managed, the staff said, “there is still zero probability that wind and solar resources can be developed in the time and on the scale necessary to accommodate the zero-carbon generation levels needed” to meet the EPA’s mandatory carbon-reduction goal for 2020.

This massive and expensive transformation of Virginia’s electrical generation system is a huge, huge issue. Once upon a time, Virginians could reconcile themselves to tighter environmental regulations on the grounds that they got cleaner air in return. There was a tangible payoff to air cleansed of particulates, sulfur dioxide and mercury. There is no tangible payoff (except to the alternate fuels industry) from the EPA rules. The whole purpose is to reduce CO2 emissions in order to save the globe from the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

The administration seeks to transform America’s energy economy despite the fact that, even as CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased dramatically, global temperatures have remained stable for 18 years now — contradicting the forecasts of virtually every major climate model ever cited by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. While the Global Warming hysterics maintain their prattle that the “science is settled” and “97% of all climate scientists agree,” the science is most assuredly unsettled. Warmist scientists who pay attention to the reality that temperatures are not rising are desperately concocting ex-post-facto explanations of why their predictions went wrong and why, despite all appearances to the contrary, the world is still doomed unless we abandon fossil fuels now.

That’s not to say that alternate fuels are a bad thing. At some point, the technologies will improve to the point where they will be competitive with fossil fuels and it will be prudent to add them to the fuel mix. Energy conservation is always a good idea. Building automation offers a high economic return on investment. More compact, walkable human settlement patterns can save energy and offer tangible health and lifestyle benefits in the bargain. There are lots of ways to reduce CO2 emissions (if that’s a goal you really care about) without saddling Virginia’s economy with an unnecessary burden of $6 billion or more.

This is bad, bad policy, and Virginians need to fight back. Voters need to ask Virginia’s congressional candidates — most prominently Senatorial candidates Mark Warmer and Ed Gillespie — what they think of the EPA mandates and what they, as congressmen, can do to mitigate the impact on Virginia ratepayers.

Women Flex their Biking Muscles

amy_george

Amy George

by Amy George

Riding a bicycle can be transformative to physical and mental well being, to families, to neighborhoods, and beyond. As cycling becomes more popular, more women and girls are enjoying its effects. However, representation among cyclists still tips male — 76% as measured per-ride in the U.S. Yet recent surveys show women overwhelmingly have a positive view of cycling. What is keeping so many women from taking to the streets on two wheels? Furthermore, why should we care, and what can be done about it?

Since 2010, Richmond as a community has taken several big steps in bicycle advocacy. RideRichmond formed that year, as did Mayor Dwight Jones’ Bike, Trail, and Pedestrian Commission. We have seen the creation of the dedicated, professional action and advocacy groups such as  Sportsbackers’ BikeWalkRVA and the VCU RamBikes program. In this landscape of growing bike-positivity, RideRichmond realized that women’s representation still is an underserved aspect of cycling advocacy. As believers in the bicycle, we could not stand by and watch the benefits of cycling distributed unequally to Richmonders. In order to begin this conversation, RideRichmond is hosting the first Richmond Women’s Cycling Summit on October 23 at the Virginia War memorial.

Fortunately, we’re riding a wave of good research and Women’s Cycling efforts across the nation. The long-held line on women’s resistance to cycling was one of “fear and fashion”. (“The cars! The helmet hair!”) It turns out, when you really ask women how they feel about cycling, the answers are much more practical.

The League of American Bicyclists’ excellent Women On A Roll report proposes five C’s that will get more women biking. These address the eight major issues that most surveys report as the barriers to women and cycling. Some highlights:

Convenience. It should be easy to park your bike wherever you go: work, shopping, entertainment destinations. Bike-friendly retail makes good business sense, and women statistically make more shopping trips and control more of their household’s disposable income. At work, access to lockers and showers alleviates concerns about storing clean clothes and grooming. Transit connections, especially express buses, can “multiply mobility” by traversing high-speed arterials and highways, with the bike as a means of transport for the first/last mile. (Biking to the current GRTC Park-and-Ride locations is a daunting prospect.)  Plus, there are other, less tangible needs such as more flexible working hours for parents (both moms and dads), and more walkable neighborhoods that safely allow children to transport themselves to school and after-school activities.

Confidence. Aggressive and distracted drivers threaten everyone, but women are more likely to admit fear. Bike education can begin at school, first in Phys. Ed. and continuing through driver’s education.  One day in a Traffic Skills 101 class can equip young cyclists and their parents with knowledge of skills like proper lane positioning (to prevent “dooring”) and simple, safe evasive maneuvers. Parents can teach basic maintenance techniques like changing a flat tire and secure locking in an afternoon. Even the students that don’t take to cycling will become drivers who know “Share the Road” as a practice, not just a pithy slogan.

Consumer Products. Sixty percent of bicycle owners 17 to 28 are women. Bicycle riding ranked 9th of 47 popular sports for total female participation in 2011, surpassing yoga, tennis, and softball. But many adult bike models don’t include a size small enough to fit a rider under 5’4”. A woman who can find a bike to fit her must then contend with frames and apparel mostly in pink, lavender, powder blue, and florals. These designs might stand on their own, but can you imagine tennis or softball gear selling in these “soft” presentations?

Community. The fun of riding a bicycle is amplified when you ride with others. Whether for enjoyment, fitness, or as transportation, it’s important to frame bicycling as an everyday activity. Invite a friend to go for a ride. Have a destination or reward. Lead no-drop rides. Help your daughters understand that bicycles are fun, but not merely toys. Incorporate cycling into family’s activities.

Consider for yourself whether it’s better to look fat on a bike, working toward your fitness, or in a car, making zero gains to your health. We are all busy, and making the time to dedicate to fitness is a challenge, but cycling is an easy way to workout while also being social, doing errands, or commuting.

On a larger scale, focus on local advocacy with an eye to equity and connecting lower income neighborhoods with access to jobs, food, and services. Vote for candidates that support high levels of funding for alternative transportation and infrastructure.

If the idea of encouraging a healthier, happier, region for all sounds appealing, it is our hope that you  join us on the 23rd to become a part of this growing effort.

Amy George is the Women’s Cycling Summit Coordinator.

Redefining Richmond: Arts! Culture! Food!

ICTby James A. Bacon

Richmonders berate themselves (and outsiders mock them) for their inability to decide where and how to build a baseball stadium for a AA baseball team. If the region’s political and civic leadership can’t pull off this most basic of regional tasks, one might legitimately wonder if they can accomplish anything useful at all. But it turns out that Richmonders can mobilize behind civic projects — it just has to be the right kind.

A case in point is Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Contemporary Art, which has raised $33 million of its $37 million funding goal. Construction of the facility, designed by an award-winning New York architect, is located at Belvidere and Broad, one of the region’s busiest intersections and a gateway to downtown. This project, which will showcase art from VCU, one of the nation’s leading art schools, has not been controversial at all. Funds were raised through contributions by local philanthropists. With help from a construction loan from the VCU Foundation, construction began in June.

A city and region define themselves by the long-term investments they make in civic infrastructure. To pick a very different example: Buffalo, N.Y., a region of comparable size to Richmond, has poured money into a pro football complex downtown more magnificent than anything than Richmonders could conceive of erecting in their own city — and locals still aren’t satisfied. Buffalo groups are exploring an even more grandiose facility. Richmond has nothing to compare. But it does have arts and culture out the wazoo. And we locals like it that way.

Speaking to the Richmond chapter of Commercial Real Estate Women, Institute Director Lisa Freiman outlined the vision. As reported by Virginia Business, the institute will  showcase a changing array of exhibitions not only by VCU artists “but the best of contemporary art from around the world.” Freiman predicts that the facility “will create opportunities for cultural tourism and community revitalization.”

The tie-in between contemporary art and economic development is stronger in Richmond than it would be in many other regions. The advertising industry is remarkably vibrant for a region Richmond’s size. Local companies serve national clients, and they employ artists, graphic artists, videographers and the like. There is a easy, natural cross-over between the art world and the advertising world. Supporting one supports the other.

rappahannock

Travis Croxton (left) and Ryan Croxton, owners of the Rappahannock restaurant. Photo credit: Times-Dispatch.

Meanwhile Richmond — and Virginia as a whole — is developing the reputation as an up-and-coming foodie region. Esquire Magazine has just named Virginia “The Food Region of 2014″ in its 2014 Food and Drink Awards. “The Old Dominion has seemingly overnight exploded into one of the country’s greatest gastro regions,” writes the magazine, as reported in the Times-Dispatch. While the recognition goes to Virginia as a whole, Richmond is a vibrant part of the state’s foodie scene. Rappahannock restaurant won recognition as one of the 12 “Best New Restaurants” in the country.

The article cited Virginia’s diverse geography and the ability to source fresh, locally grown produce and artisinal food products from the mountains to the Chesapeake Bay as a big plus for restaurants aspiring to national quality. I’m sure that’s a factor, but I think the story is bigger than that. Richmond and Virginia produce great restaurants because the local marketplace supports them. People are willing to pay premium prices that restaurants must charge in order to recruit and pay chefs of national caliber.

New Yorkers and Washingtonians may laugh at Richmond’s pretensions in the worlds of art and cuisine — to many we’re still a hicksville backwater still fighting the Civil War. What they don’t see is how the region is steadily reinventing itself. Once the city prided itself on being a regional center of corporate headquarters. That prop to the economy suffered heavy damage during the recession of 2007-2008 and has been slow to recover. But there has been tremendous activity beneath the surface. Redevelopment along the downtown canal. The Richmond Folk Festival. Converting the James River into the region’s “Central Park.” The boom in downtown living. The French Film Festival. The gentrification of Church Hill and Scotts Addition. The creation of a fantastic network of mountain biking trails. The rise of the foodie movement and the renaissance of locally grown food.

Unconsciously, Richmond has been building the foundations of the “creative class” economy. It’s becoming the kind of place where creatives want to live, work and play. When creatives settle here, they start new businesses. In time, some of those businesses become success stories and economic dynamos that will propel regional growth. VCU’s Institute for Contemporary Art symbolizes how Richmond is redefining itself as something very different and very new.

The Forbidden City Comes to Virginia

forbidden cityBy Peter Galuszka

The Forbidden City has come to Virginia and it’s definitely worth a look.

Rarely-seen works from the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City, the imperial residence of Chinese emperors from the Ming to the end of the Qing Dynasty (roughly from about 1406 to 1912) go on display tomorrow at the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond.

Putting the exhibits together took lots of work and diplomacy, VMFA Alex Nygeres told guests and the news media Wednesday at a morning event. There were plenty of visits back and forth and there are plans for the VMFA to reciprocate by sending its famed Faberge Egg exhibit from the Russian Romanov era to China. The Ambassador from the People’s Republic of China to the U.S. attended a gala, $10,000 a table event the evening of Oct. 14.

I’m no expert of Chinese art, but the exhibit was highly impressive. The many works included court paintings, religious artifacts and costumes, including an early form of body armor for soldiers which consisted of layers of tough cloth protecting vital organs and appendages.

The exhibit opens at a time of unsettled relations between the U.S. and the People’s Republic. China has been torn by pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Workers’ expectations are rising as China’s economy is slowing. Beijing is becoming more aggressive as a regional military power and its efforts to censor Web-based information and launch cyber spying are worrisome.

Another issue is that given the tough, expansionist diplomacy of Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the negative reaction from the West, Moscow is looking for more links with China. Relations between the two have always been up and down. Not that long ago, experts believed that if there were a nuclear weapons attacks, it might occur between those two countries. Now, peace has returned and both may be able to exploit their close geography and relative strengths in energy and population in a way based on economics and not Communist ideology.

On the bright side, China does have money and is fast developing expertise. China’s Shandong Tranlin paper company is investing $2 billion in a modern paper plant in eastern Chesterfield County that will employ 2,000. It won’t use trees, but leftovers from farm fields and is supposed to be less polluting than paper mills most Americans are familiar with. What’s more, Gov. Terry McAuliffe is off on a trade mission to China in a few days.

In any event, the Forbidden City is worth a look. It runs until Jan. 11.

Woo hoo! Giving Money to Rich, Out-of-State Capitalists Is Fun!

Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones (left) and Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Capitalist benefactors: Richmond Mayor Dwight Jones (left) and Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Richmond is home to numerous craft brewers: Legend Brewing, Triple Crossing, Richbrau, Strangeways and Hardywood Park, just to name five that show up on the first page of a Google search. But when it comes to rolling out the red carpet, state and local government is lavishing its favors upon Stone Brewing, of Escondido, Calif. — $23 million in City of Richmond bonds to build the brewery, $8 million to build a restaurant, $5 million from the Governor’s Opportunity Fund and potentially $250,000 from the Governor’s Agriculture and Forestry Industries Development Fund.

Admittedly, none of the local brewers have achieved the scale of Stone Brewing, which announced last week that it would invest $74 million in Richmond, creating 300 jobs. In a state economy struggling for traction, Stone’s announcement is the fifth largest economic development deal (ranked by investment) so far this year.

But the massive loans and subsidies raise a number of issues of equity and fairness, as Bart Hinkle noted one such issue in his Times-Dispatch op-ed this morning:

Stone executive Steve Wagner says other factors determined its final decision: water supply, wastewater capacity and proximity to suppliers. If that’s true, then Richmond should have been able to land the brewery without the handouts. It’s bad enough to think officials felt they had no choice but to offer Stone public inducements. It’s even worse to think the inducements were necessary.

Hinkle also wonders, as I do, how the home-grown brewers feel about the special treatment accorded their potential competitor. While the Stone Brewing brewery will serve a wider East Coast market, its restaurant will compete more directly with local brew-pubs. And, really, how many brew pubs can a city Richmond’s size support? Will Stone Brewing’s presence crowd out local players? Nobody knows but it’s a risk worth pondering.

There’s one other issue: Richmond apparently will be issuing $31 million in municipal bonds to help finance construction of the brewery and the restaurant. The city has finite borrowing capacity. If it borrows $31 million to back the Stone project, that’s $31 million it cannot spend elsewhere without endangering its AA+ (Standard & Poors) bond rating. This is a city, mind you, that wants to issue bonds for an $80 million baseball stadium and redevelopment project in Shockoe Bottom, $8 million to create a Bus Rapid Transit system along Broad Street, spend millions more to the city bicycle-ready for an international bike race in 2015, push ambitious housing-redevelopment and neighborhood-revitalization goals the city’s East End, support a new children’s hospital, and presumably pursue other capital improvement projects and economic development opportunities as opportunities arise.

Its good that Mayor Dwight Jones has a can-do attitude. But the city needs to pick its projects wisely. It needs to leverage its public investment to the max. And it needs to keep some powder dry for other opportunities that may appear. The best criteria to adopt when investment public dollars is this: Would I invest this money if it belonged to me? Am I maximizing  risk-adjusted Return on Investment? I have seen no evidence that the Stone Brewing deal would pass that test.

– JAB

Virginia Tech: What a Difference a Decade Makes

Tech_robotics_lab

Virginia Tech robotics lab

It’s probably been a decade since I’ve been to Virginia Tech. I spent a year living in Blacksburg about 30 years ago and I visited with some frequency during my tenure as editor and then publisher of Virginia Business magazine, but I haven’t had much cause to return to Hokieland recently until this weekend when the Bacon family visited to expose the Bacon male progeny, who has expressed an interest in pursuing an engineering career, to the top engineering school program in Virginia. (Sorry, Wahoos, but it’s true, Tech engineering is No. 1 in Virginia.)

It is remarkable what has transpired in Blacksburg in a mere decade — both in Virginia Tech and the surrounding town. Slowly but surely Virginia Tech continues to gain ground against other engineering schools in the hyper-intense competition for resources, cutting-edge programs and prestige. Tech ranks in the top 50 nationally for total R&D expenditures but the College of Engineering ranks among the Top 10 undergraduate engineering programs in the country.

The College of Engineering also has generated considerable spin-off economic activity. We’re not talking Boston or San Francisco-style impact, but Tech’s Corporate Research Center — in essence, a corporate park for companies interacting with the university — has grown to 31 buildings employing 2,700 employees. That’s small potatoes compared to, say, Northern Virginia, but it’s pretty darned impressive for Southwest Virginia. Indeed, the performance is all the more impressive considering the fact that Tech is not situated in a major labor market, is geographically remote and has lousy airline service.

One benefit of Tech’s isolated location is that the physical setting of the New River Valley is stunningly beautiful. And I’ll say this about Tech’s campus: It may not have the world-heritage quality of the Thomas Jefferson-designed Rotunda and Lawn of the University of Virginia, my alma mater, but university leadership has done a superb job of maintaining architectural continuity over the years — all buildings are built of Hokiestone. I hesitate to say so but the Virginia Tech campus overall is more aesthetically pleasing than the hodge-podge of UVa outside of the Rotunda-Lawn core. Furthermore, the Hokies have paid close attention to the art of “place making” over the past couple of decades. The campus is much more inviting in many small ways than it was when I saw it last.

Another virtue is that the town of Blacksburg has been evolving in a positive way. County planners have permitted developers to increase the density of buildings around the perimeter of the campus. Far more apartments and commercial establishments are within walking and biking distance of the Virginia Tech campus than there were when I last visited. The town has replaced two busy signalized intersections with roundabouts, and I spotted a couple of tandem buses rolling through town.

My main concern is that Blacksburg’s prosperity is built upon a mountain of student indebtedness. But rising tuition is hardly unique to Virginia Tech.  Indeed, the College of Engineering probably could do just fine catering to out-of-state students willing to pay significantly more than in-state students do. The College of Engineering does not charge what the market would bear, to the benefit of thousands of Virginia students. All things considered, I’d be delighted if the Little Porker ended up at Virginia Tech.

Update: The densification of downtown Blacksburg continues apace. Town Council approved 4 to 3 yesterday (Oct. 15) construction of a 37-bedroom, four-story condominium on the edge of downtown. The project had stirred controversy because it bordered a neighborhood of single-family houses. The developer argued that the condo would be located within walking distance of Virginia Tech and downtown.

There’s plenty more room for Blacksburg to densify without impinging upon old neighborhoods — just up-zone the Main Strip commercial strip. Vast acreage there is dedicated to parking lots and low-rise shopping centers. If the town council encourages mixed use and runs those tandem buses down Main Street, it can accommodate the town’s population growth for many years to come.

– JAB

Virginia Tech campus -- very bike friendly

Virginia Tech campus — very bike friendly

Why We’re Being Railroaded On “STEM”

 csx engineBy Peter Galuszka

When it comes to education, a constant mantra chanted by the Virginia chattering class is “STEM.”

How many times have you heard that our students are far behind in “STEM” (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics)? We have to drain funding from more traditional areas of study (that actually might make them better human beings like literature, art or history) and give it to STEM. The two types of popular STEM are, of course, computer science (we’re all “illiterate” claims one journalist-turned computer science advocate) and biotechnology.

But how important is STEM, really? And if Virginia joins the STEM parade and puts all of its eggs in that basket, will the jobs actually be there?

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know what jobs will be around in the future and like the famous generals planning for the last war, we may be stuck planning for the digital explosion of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs that is like, so, 25 years ago.

To get an idea where markets may be, look at today’s news. Canadian Pacific is making a play for CSX railroad (headquartered in Richmond not that long ago) because of the unexpected explosion in fracked oil.

CP handles a lot of freight in the western part of Canada and U.S. where some of the most impressive new fracked shale oil are, namely the Bakken fields of North Dakota and Alberta. CP wants access to eastern U.S. refineries and transshipping points, such as a transloading spot at the mouth of the York River. CSX is stuck with dirty old coal where production and exports are down, although it has an extensive rail network in the Old Dominion.

The combined market value of the two firms is $62 billion — a far bigger potential deal than the $26 billion Warren Buffett paid for Burlington Northern Sante Fe in 2010. There are problems, to be sure. CSX isn’t interested and the Surface Transportation Board, a federal entity, nixed a matchup of Canadian National and Burlington a little while back.

But this isn’t really the point. The point is that the Old Steel Rail pushed by new sources of oil and to some extent natural gas has surprisingly turned domestic economics upside down. Many of the new oil fields are in places where there are not pipelines, so rail is the only answer. In 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal, six or so American railroads generated $25.8 million in hauling crude oil. Last year that shot up to $2.15 billion.

So, what does that mean for students? A lot actually, especially when we blather on about old-style STEM that might have them inventing yet another cell-phone app that has a half-life of maybe a few months. Doesn’t matter, every Virginia legislator, economic development official and education advocate seems to be hypnotized by the STEM genie.

A piece I just did for the up-and-coming Chesterfield Observer on vocation education in that county:

“The recent push to educate students in so-called STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) may be case in point. The goal is to churn out bright, highly trained young people able to compete in the global economy with their counterparts from foreign lands.

“A subset of this area of concentration is computer science, which goes beyond knowing the basics and gets into the nitty-gritty of learning code and writing computer languages. By some accounts, such skills will be necessary to fill more than 2 million jobs expected to become open in the state by 2020.

“Critics question, however, if overspecialization in technology at earlier ages prevents students from exploring studies such as art and literature that might make them better rounded adults. And, specialization often assumes that jobs will be waiting after high school and college when they might not be.

“Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, has written about such problems of academic overspecialization in national publications such as The Wall Street Journal. He recently responded to questions from the Chesterfield Observer via email.”

“Not many science grads are getting jobs in their field,” Cappelli says. “The evidence suggests that about two thirds of the IT (information technology) grads got jobs in their fields, about the same for engineering. There is no guarantee in those fields. It’s all about hitting the appropriate subspecialty that happens to be hot. There are still lots of unemployed engineers and IT people.”

So there you have it. In my opinion, the over-emphasis on STEM training has the unfortunate effect of producing young adults who have one goal in mind – getting a job and making money, not helping humankind. And, if you insist on STEM, why not branch into something where there are actually jobs namely petroleum engineering, geology and transportation engineering.

I’ll leave the dangers of added petroleum cargoes in trains to another post.

Zydeco Comes to Richmond

 

Dopsie3Another reason why I love this town: The Richmond Folk Festival. When my wife and I arrived in downtown Richmond last night, an infectiously fun Dominican merengue band was playing, and I wondered how the final act could possibly top it. I need not have worried — the final act was Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers, a New Orleans legend. Accordionist Dwayne Dopsie is one of the great live musical performers in the United States. For Dopsie, playing the accordion is a physical workout. By the end of the show, he was drenched, literally wringing sweat from his shirt. He and washboard player Paul LaFleur descended from the state into the audience to play the final song and engage in some foot-stomping fun. The Folk Festival is a fantastic event and every Richmonder should support it.

– JAB

The Uphill Climb for Virginia Schools

by James A. Bacon

Why aren’t we making more progress improving the academic performance of Virginia’s school children? Many reasons have been advanced. Some say that school divisions don’t get enough money or that the money is unfairly distributed between schools. Others say that the public school system is over-regulated, bound by bureaucracy and resistant to innovation. Yet others blame society at large (sliding work ethic, the distraction of electronics) or point to the different emphasis on education among different racial/ethnic groups.

But there is another explanation that gets very little attention. Could the root of the problem be demographic? Could Virginia schools be struggling to raise academic achievement scores because school children increasingly are drawn from the ranks of the poor?

The correlation between poverty and socioeconomic status is well known. The challenges of poverty and economic insecurity — homelessness, frequent moves between school districts, family dysfunction, domestic violence, inadequate nutrition — distract poor children from focusing on school work. There is a cultural overlay as well: Because poor children tend to come from less educated parents, they grow up in households where reading is not emphasized and academic achievement is not stressed.

It is an indisputable demographic fact that poor women bear more children than middle-class and professional-class women. According to “Fertility of American Women: 2008,” published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, the breakdown by income category looks like this:

fertility_by_income

The poorest women, typically unmarried women, have the most children. Not only do they tend to have more children, they tend to have them at younger ages than higher-income women who typically wait until they complete their educations and get married before bearing children. Thus, to cite an extreme example, a poor family in which successive generations of women give birth at age 18 produce two generations of offspring in the same length of time as a more affluent family in which a woman has her first child at 36.

When poor women give birth to more children and they do so at an earlier age, the result is that the student body of school systems is significantly poorer than the population at large. Here is a list of the 10 Virginia school divisions with the largest gaps between general poverty rate and poverty among children under 18 (a proxy for the poverty rate of children in the school system):

largest_poverty_gaps

Source: 2012 U.S. Census Bureau data

The same pattern prevails in every school division in Virginia with the exception of five small localities with large university populations in which the number of “poor” is skewed by the presence of college students. (To see the poverty gap for all Virginia school divisions, click here.)

Even with a fair amount of upward economic mobility — poor people lifting themselves out of the ranks of the poor — the tendency of the poorest women to bear more children at a younger age continues to fill up school houses with their poor progeny, with all the economic and cultural disadvantages they suffer. I subscribe to the idea that many school divisions could be doing a better job with the resources they have — the horror stories I could tell you about the City of Richmond school system! But the problem is bigger than bad schools, bad teachers or inadequate funding.

The question that should concern us all: Will the trend of schools filling up with poor children get better or worse over time?

Bonus question: What does this mean for the ongoing debate on the war on poverty? Does the persistence of widespread poverty in the U.S. represent a failure on the part of U.S. institutions to foster upward economic mobility? Or does it reflect the fact that poor people replenish their ranks faster than people can raise out of poverty?