The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


 

The Perfect Storm

Virginia has the ideal combination of a strong state transportation agency, uninformed municipal control over land use and a clueless public officialdom to ensure a dysfunctional road and rail system get worse with each passing day.


 

This is the transportation story so far: Current strategies to provide mobility and access (aka, transportation infrastructure and services) are tragically flawed. Building more facilities without a Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns costs billions of dollars and makes traffic dysfunction and congestion worse. 

 

The flawed mobility strategies are perpetuated by fraudulent claims that new projects will solve congestion problems. (See “Self Delusion and Fraud,” June 7, 2004.) Besides not meeting citizens’ mobility needs, current mobility strategies kill tens of thousands of individuals every year and contributes to the United States' non-renewable energy consumption, its dependency upon foreign oil and its balance of payments deficits. (See “Death and Taxes,” June, 21, 2004.)

 

With results like this, why have U.S. citizens not demanded that their governance representatives develop better strategies to achieve mobility and access? The answer is clear: Citizens have been hearing the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth for 80 years from those who profit from auto-mobility. No public official with the authority to change Business As Usual has been willing to openly speak the truth -- certainly not here in Virginia, as I will document in the last half of this column.


The Responsibility for Providing Transport

 

Mobility and access are a public/community/communal (aka, “government”) responsibility. In a democracy, mobility and access must be provided in a way that serves the interests of the majority of citizens. By any objective test, the current mobility system is a failure.  Current auto-mobility strategies favor those at the top of the economic food chain yet, ironically, not even the elite is well served.

 

Transportation is a government responsibility due to the profound impact that mobility and access have a on the public welfare. A government agency does not always have to provide the service directly. But, as with public health and safety, government does have the responsibility to ensure that citizens' transportation needs are met.

 

In Virginia, state government is the entity responsible for transportation, retaining virtually all relevant powers reserved to the states under the federal constitution. At the same time, the state has delegated -- or relinquished, if you prefer -- to municipalities the power to regulate land use. Perversely, by hewing to the Dillon Rule, the state simultaneously limits local authority to intelligently shape human settlement patterns. The Dillon Rule is used as both a reason and an excuse for inaction.

 

By these actions, the Commonwealth of Virginia has established the “perfect storm” of congestion, immobility and lack of accountability.


Road Planning and Road Building

 

Virginia has one of the three most powerful transportation agencies in the United States. The state controls essentially all roadways, highways and expressways and most of the other modes of travel within the Commonwealth. To describe the state's role in transport, one can start with the proposition that “there are no significant municipal transportation responsibilities.” In addition, there are no federal funds or mandates that do not pass through state hands.  One can list exceptions, but they are minor.

 

State and municipal governance practitioners are happy with this system as long as citizens do not come to fully understanding the situation and short circuit governments’ blame game. State officials can blame municipalities for the land-use decisions and reap all the political benefits of running a big transportation agency.  Municipal officials can say their hands are tied, blame “the state” for not providing adequate transport facilities and look like heroes when they provide small amounts of money for a construction project here and there.

 

The disconnect between land use and transportation has led to horrendous results. In the mid-70s after completing an exhaustive and award-winning re-planning process, the Fairfax County transportation staff calculated that there would be four times the number of trips generated by the planned land uses as could be accommodated by the transportation system specified in the Comprehensive Plan. And that assumed supporting land uses surrounding METRO stations and funding for a number of transport facilities not on the state agenda. No one disagreed with the County staff’s assessment: not the citizens who had helped allocate the land uses, not the state transportation staff. 

 

Since those calculations were made three decades ago, the disparity has widened significantly. In most cases, the planned concentrations of development in METRO station areas were abandoned. Many of the transportation facilities were never built. Continual amendments to the comprehensive plan have resulted in a "build out" that exceeds that shown on the comprehensive plan.

 

As bad as Fairfax County is, the transportation-land use disparity is far worse in Loudoun and Prince William Counties. See the two backgrounders “Role of Municipal Planning in Creating Dysfunctional Human Settlement Patterns” and “Anatomy of a Bottleneck”.

 

Congestion does not stem from any lack of planning. The state highway agency planned a lot of roads in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most of the roads, however, were in the wrong location to serve the urban, metropolitan population which has emerged over the last 50 years. Some roads were removed from state plans at the insistence of municipalities under pressure from angry citizens. 

 

By the 1970s, smarting from the lances thrown by angry citizens and posturing politicians, state transportation officials adopted a strategy of building only roads to which municipal and state politicians agreed. This resulted in the overbuilding of roads in some parts of the Commonwealth. Most of the overbuilt areas have been in scattered, low-density jurisdictions far from the core mobility needs. There is one exception. The Greater Richmond New Urban Region, the home of VDOT, was showered with asphalt. (See “The Shape of Richmond’s Future,” Feb. 16, 2004.)

 

A companion problem is that the Virginia Department of Transportation and its predecessor agencies have constructed roads that have made urban areas more dysfunctional. In Northern Virginia, VDOT has improved roads on the fringe while neglecting those serving the core. The resulting congestion in the core has driven residents and businesses to migrate toward the periphery. The removal of a 1930s culvert here and there on primary roadways in the core would have yielded far more congestion mitigation than four-laning farm roads into the hinterlands.

 

From the 1950s through the 1980s, the over-politicized succession of transportation agencies VHD/VDH&T/VDOT built Lemming Roads. “You want to run off that cliff?  Let us build you a nice wide road so you can get there faster.” Now the state has run out of money and has no understanding of the Fundamental Change necessary to achieve mobility and access for the citizens of Virginia.
   
How bad are the current road plans in Virginia? Two national organizations recently listed the 27 most wasteful, unneeded road projects in the United States (Road To Ruin). Virginia has six times its per-capita share of really bad road projects, eight times its per-jurisdiction share and fifteen times its area-served share. A quick analysis of the projects suggests that none of the Virginia roads on the list would serve the citizens of the region where they are located or benefit the Commonwealth as a whole.

 

Private Help for the Government


A solution frequently touted by conservatives who oppose raising taxes to build more roads is to expand the role for the "private sector".

 

Public/private “partnerships” can help government meet its responsibility with respect to public mobility and access. The private sector frequently can cut design, construction and operating costs. However, the "what, when and where" of the transportation infrastructure is inherently a public responsibility that cannot be delegated.

 

In many cases, the problems generated by private money far outweigh the benefit. First, it is critical to keep in mind that, by definition, the private party in the public-private partnership plans to make a profit. There is no free lunch. If the private sector can provide a transportation service or facility much cheaper than the public sector, that is prima facie evidence that the public system needs fixing.

 

Second, too much “private” interest in the public/private partnership results in a push for projects that benefit private interests, not public interests. If the private sector can execute a project for much less than it costs the public sector, it may be because the private sector is more efficient. But it also may be because private investors are benefiting in some way not readily apparent to the public, or because the public sector is shouldering some of the financial risk.

 

A third problem with public-private partnerships is that they provide an easy way to cash in on political connections, thus distorting the specifications and location of transport infrastructure. Halliburton in Iraq is not a unique problem. Consider the Cambridge Systematics/American Highway Users Alliance program to locate and remove “bottlenecks” (“Study Catalogs the Worst Traffic Nightmares,” Leslie Miller, Associated Press, Feb. 19, 2004) and then reread “Self-Delusion and Fraud”.

 

It is axiomatic: When private money goes to build public infrastructure, benefits accrue to the private investors -- often at the expense of the public interest. Zoning proffers, for instance, put private money into the pot to build roads, but almost without exception the construction directly benefits the land owner. Rarely do the new facilities improve the neighborhood or village where the project is located, and almost never do they move towards the creation of a Balanced Community in a sustainable region.

 

A fourth problem is that two major private-sector investments in Virginia transport facilities have been busts. The Greenway Toll Road in Loudoun County, which has just received permission to raise tolls again, has never made a profit for the investors. The bonds for the Pocahontas Parkway near Richmond are on a ratings watch list. This toll road is also underperforming projections, and there is a request on the table to build a new interchange to generate traffic by encouraging development in an unsuitable location.

 

This last point reinforces the axiom that transportation facilities and land-use must be planned together. It is not just imperative public policy, it is good investment policy.  

 

There is an overarching reason for the current popularity of “public-private partnerships” among governance practitioners in transportation: There is no public money for new “projects.” There is a good reason for this lack of funds. Citizens do not trust the government to spend the money wisely to achieve mobility. Given this fact, is tossing private money where public money will not solve the problem a smart choice? Only the Business As Usual crowd thinks it is a good idea. This brings us to the issue of what governance practitioners have to say about transportation and money to support the construction of new facilities.  

 

What the Government Says...

 

Having established that mobility and access are a government responsibility, what do those in government service tell citizens about mobility and access? What do state transportation planners say to dispel the delusion that just building “improvements” solve transportation problems? Recall that it would be fraud to perpetuate the self-delusion of the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth.   Here is a brief collection of recent, typical statements. 

 

Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement says...

 

After the Governor, Secretary Clement is the person chiefly responsible for ensuring mobility and access in the Commonwealth. In a Richmond Times-Dispatch piece published in May 2004 and distributed to Media General papers around the Commonwealth, Clement gets about as close to the truth as a politician ever does:   

 

“...improving Virginia’s transportation network requires far more than simply building more roads.” 

 

That is absolutely true, but instead of following up with a comprehensive statement about the need to balance land-use trip generation with transport-system capacity, Whitt and his staff launch into a paean on the importance of transit (aka, shared-vehicle systems).  Their message is that the Commonwealth must build roads and build/support shared-vehicle systems. This is true, of course, only if there is a comprehensive regional plan for land use that the shared-vehicle system can actually serve. Clement implies that if we build both roads and rails, that will solve traffic dysfunction.

 

Clement’s opinion piece never once mentions that spending money on shared-vehicle systems where there is not a supporting human settlement pattern, especially in the station areas, is like shoveling money off the back of the aircraft carrier with a really big shovel. 

 

Building a new shared-vehicle system like the National Capital Subregion’s METRO was sold as a way to solve/prevent transport congestion. Congestion is less severe now than it would have been if the same houses, jobs and services were distributed in the same locations as they are today and there were no METRO system.  But what percentage of citizens face less congestion now than they did in the early 1960s when METRO was conceived? 

 

The reason METRO does not work better is that there is no comprehensive land-use/transportation plan for the National Capital Subregion. 

 

METRO proves the importance of functional settlement patterns. The citizens who now enjoy lower levels of congestion live and work in fundamentally new and different human settlement patterns -- exemplified by the Rosslyn-Ballston Corridor -- that could not exist without METRO. There are only a handful of functional state-area locations, so only a tiny fraction of the Subregion's citizens see an improvement. Those who do benefit pay a high premium in home and work place costs for the privilege. (See “Wild Abandonment,” September 8, 2003.)

 

Clement’s article avoids the reality that building more roads and/or shared-vehicle systems will not improve mobility and access without a Fundamental Change in settlement patterns.

 

University Transportation Fellow Ray Pethtel says...

 

The second example of a governance practitioner’s response to the need to improve mobility can be found in the letter from Ray Pethtel to Jim Bacon in the May 24 issue of Bacon's Rebellion (See “No Substitute for Building More Roads”.) Pethtel, a former VDOT transportation commissioner, has played a leadership role in Virginia’s transportation efforts since Gerald Baliles took office in 1986. He is now the University Transportation Fellow at Virginia Tech. Pethtel does a good job of articulating the thinking of senior state officials over the past 20 years.  

 

Pethtel apparently was traumatized early in his service to Virginia by trying to drive to “Loudounville.” The incident may explain why so few helpful transportation resources have been focused on the northern part of Virginia since 1986. The Virginia Atlas and Gazetteer suggests that “Loudounville” does not exist in Virginia.  For that reason, it would be hard to drive there on VA Route 7 or any other road. Let’s assume he meant “Leesburg.” 

 

Pethtel uses VA Route 7 as an example of a road that needed to be widened. Now that VA Route 7 is four- and six-laned from Leesburg to Tysons Corner, is it smarter to live in Leesburg and work in Tysons Corner than it was in 1970 or in 1986? How about making VA Route 7 into a 10- or 12-lane highway or building a toll road from Tysons Corner to Leesburg via Reston/Herndon/Washington Dulles International Airport to bypass VA Route 7? That would solve the congestion problem, wouldn't it? Actually, that's what actually was built -- and congestion just gets worse.  
 
Pethtel’s letter cites a number of roads built since the Baliles administration increased road funding as examples of why we need to build more roads now. Some roads he listed were needed and serve a useful purpose today.  Some roads he lists are pure "pork." The justification for many of the latter is the hope that if one builds a wide enough road, some “jobs” will wander down the asphalt and come to rest near the urban agglomerations these new wider roadways divide or bypass.

 

The roads that were (and are) needed would be better investments if they served more functional human settlement patterns. The pork roads made mobility worse for reasons noted in “The Shape of Richmond’s Future”.

 

Pethtel seems upset that Jim Bacon, in his column "Straws in the Wind" (April 12, 2004) did not acknowledge the modest demand management efforts that have been undertaken by Virginia over the past 20 years. He asks “what planet” Mr. Bacon has been on. The short answer that somehow must have been missing in Mr. Pethtel’s education is any planet where the laws of geometry, physics and Human Settlement apply. Pethtel lists demand-management actions taken by the Commonwealth to address congestion dysfunction on his and his successors’ watch. The bottom line is the actions do not solve the problems. And they never will. 

 

Pethtel concedes that “better relationships between transportation and land use” would help. There is nothing in his letter to suggest, however, that the key to improving mobility and access is not just a “better relationship” but a balance between land-use travel demand and transportation system capacity. 

 

The accepted tactic in government and road advocacy circles today is this: Never deny there is a transportation/land-use relationship nor deny there is a need for station-area land uses to support shared-vehicle systems. Just do not let on how important these elements are, and then build projects to support Business As Usual before citizens wake up to reality. 

 

VDOT Transportation Commissioner Philip Shucet says...

 

Philip Shucet is the current transportation commissioner, heads the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and chairs the Commonwealth Transportation Board. 

 

In the lengthy three-part survey of transportation problems published in Media General newspapers in June, Shucet laments the politicized decision making that took place during the Allen and Gilmore administrations. There is a lot to lament. Besides committing all the same sins of omission and obfuscation as the current administration, Allen and Gilmore add massive cost overruns and financial gimmickry. In his discussion, however, Shucet focuses on the lack of money to start new projects. The second of three articles ends with Shucet saying that without new money, there will be nothing to talk about. Nothing?  How about Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns?

 

But road advocates should not despair, they have the support of the Commissioner. In an “alert” distributed by a road building advocacy group, Shucet is quoted as saying we need to keep focused on the “future of transportation,” and that means finding money to build new, large projects.

 

Urban traffic congestion continues to get worse. More than 95 percent of the citizens of Virginia are urban citizens based on their economic and social needs and their mode of travel. Building more roads without Fundamental Change in settlement patterns only makes matters worse. Shucet never lets on that this is the case.

 

The failure to own up to the core problem of dysfunctional human settlement sets the stage for “shrewd” political tactics such as eliminating popular services so citizens will demand more spending. You will recall closing the DMV offices to dramatize the revenue pinch. In another recent move, the Commonwealth Transportation Board removed funds from the VDOT six-year plan for an HOV connector between HOV lanes on I-95 south of the new I-95/I-395/I-495 Interchange at Springfield and the HOV lanes that exist north of the interchange on I-395 (Shirley Highway). That translates to “Let the carpoolers carry their cars around the new Springfield interchange. That will serve them right for not voting for the sales tax surcharge.” 

 

VDRPT Executive Director Karen Rae says...

 

Karen Rae is the current Executive Director of the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (VDRPT). VDRPT is a little sister department to VDOT in the family of  departments under Secretary of Transportation Clement. As the name suggests, Rae’s department is responsible for shared-vehicle transport systems.

 

In a letter to the editor in The Washington Post on July 5, Rae cites the fact that there were over 200 public meetings on the “Rail to Dulles” project since 1994 as evidence that the extension and the public-private partnership to implement that extension is a good idea.  (See “Rail To Dulles Realities,” January 5, 2004.) [add link]

 

As far as we know, at none of these 200 meetings did Rae or others in her department make it clear that without supporting land uses immediately adjacent to the planned METRO platforms, the extension will make METRO less functional. The result will be more peak hour/peak direction demand. This demand already exceeds capacity. 

 

VDRPT also did not point out that, without major changes in station-area land uses, the line will serve only a fraction of the Washington-Dulles International Airport-related travel demand. METRO does not serve the areas where most airport workers and airline passengers will be traveling from.

 

The extension is an exceptionally good deal for land owners in the corridor who have agreed to pay a small special tax and have played a key role in setting up the public-private “partnership” to build the extension.   Do you see a pattern here? It is not a functional human settlement pattern that you see.

 

Commonwealth Transportation Board appointee Katherine Hanley says...

 

For nearly two decades, Katherine Hanley was a supervisor or the chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. In her terms on the board that ended early this year, she had key a role in approving much of the land use now lacking mobility. She also played a key role in blocking the development of supporting land uses near METRO stations. She was recently appointed to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, the senior transportation policy board in Virginia.

 

What did Hanley say about creating mobility and access upon her appointment? According to The Washington Post, she said: “The fact that most of the money is now going to maintenance, and there’s not many new projects underway to help relieve congestion, is a concern.” 

 

In another era, she might have claimed, “If we just had more straw we could spin a lot more gold thread, and then the King and his courtiers would all be able to wear golden clothes.” Today, most citizens would know the straw trick was a myth and a fraud. Soon, hopefully, they will realize that the money trick is a myth too.

 

Money, Money, Money


Money will not “relieve congestion.” A lot of money spent on the sort of projects that Clement, Pethtel, Shucet, Rae and Hanley champion will only make things worse if they are not accompanied by Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns. It cannot be said enough: Money is not the problem.

 

If money will not relieve congestion, why the obsession with it? Because focusing on money keeps citizens who do not relish paying more taxes or tolls distracted and away from the real solutions that take political courage.  It keeps citizens off the backs of governance representatives and their transportation appointees for a while longer. 

 

From what those who are appointed to conduct the Commonwealth’s transportation business say, it is easy to see why citizens are deluded into making bad location decisions based on what their government is telling them.

 

In the next column, we consider the other “solutions,” the role of the media and what the path to mobility might be.

 

-- July 12, 2004

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."

 

Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at [email protected].

 

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