Category Archives: Infrastructure

Embrace the Scooter Revolution

Bird, the Uber of the electric scooter world, has deployed its first 50 scooters in Virginia — in Arlington County, to be specific. Arlington has no official policy regarding electric scooters, and Bird placed its black-and-white scooters without county permission. Whether that becomes a problem remains to be seen.

“We will be having discussions with the county manager and the county attorney’s office on how to respond to Bird’s deployment of electric scooters in Arlington,” county spokesman Eric Balliet wrote in an email to the Washington Business Journal.

Bird, a California company that has raised $400 million in venture capital backing, has announced plans to expand into 50 new cities by the end of the year. The service works like this: Users download an app that identifies where unused scooters are located. Passengers ride the scooters wherever they want. Bird requires riders to wear helmets and stay off of sidewalks, but has no mechanism to enforce the requirements — a source of contention in some municipalities. At the end of the day, Bird picks up the scattered scooters and places in them locations where they are most likely to be used the next morning.

Bird’s Save Our Sidewalks pledge lays out the company’s thinking:

We’re witnessing the biggest revolution in transportation since the dawn of the Jet Age. From car ride-sharing to bike-sharing to autonomous and electric vehicles of all kinds, an explosion of innovation stands to transform the cities in which live, improve the environment, and help get us from Point A to Point B.

The sharing of bikes, e-bikes, e-scooters, and other short-range electric vehicles to solve the “last-mile” problem is an important part of this transformation. We have an unprecedented opportunity to reduce car trips –especially the roughly 40 percent of trips under two miles — thereby reducing traffic, congestion, and greenhouse gas emissions.

Smaller-than-automobile ride sharing is not without a downside, acknowledges Bird. “We have all seen the results of out-of-control deployment in China — huge piles of abandoned and broken bicycles, over-running sidewalks, turning parks into junkyards, and creating a new form of pollution,” states the Save Our Sidewalks pledge. To avoid having such things happen to the U.S., Bird vows:

  • The company will retrieve all vehicles from city streets every night, inspect vehicles for maintenance and repairs, and re-position the entire fleet to where they scooters be wanted the next day.
  • It will not increase the number of vehicles in a city unless they are being used on average at least three times per day (weather permitting). The company will remove underutilized vehicles, and it will share its data with cities for purposes of verification.
  • Bird will remit $1 per vehicle per day to city governments so they can use the money to build more bike lanes and promote safe riding.

I have no idea how many people will cotton to the idea of riding electric scooters. But Bird is taking the financial risk, so I’m not worried about it. For the public, Bird’s approach sounds like a no-lose proposition — especially if scooter riders avail themselves of the ever-expanding bicycle infrastructure. Take Richmond for example. The city has been adding bicycle lanes (see Steve Haner’s recent post on the Franklin Street bike lanes), but it appears that the bike lanes are expanding faster than bicycle ridership. If bike lanes are under-utilized — and they seem way under-utilized to me — cities should be delighted to see them employed by a bicycle-compatible transportation mode like scooters.

Bird has only so much capital to deploy so many scooters in so many cities. I don’t know how it prioritizes markets for entry, but I presume that it would consider the percentage of young people, density, availability of mass transit, and the prevalence of bicycle lanes and other scooter-friendly infrastructure. Oh, yeah, and one more thing. An expressed desire by city officials to collaborate with the company — which Arlington, despite its preference for non-automobile transportation modes, has yet to provide. Richmond, Roanoke, and Norfolk should be stumbling over themselves to get in line for the next deployment of Bird scooters.

The more transportation choices the better.

Another Warning of Sea-Level Rise

Ashville Park subdivision in Virginia Beach after Hurricane Matthew. Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

By 2030, $838 million worth of residential property in Virginia is at risk of being chronically inundated by high tides caused by rising sea levels, directly affecting more than 6,000 people and $8 million in property taxes, according to a new report by the Union for Concerned Scientists. The definition of “chronic” inundation is 26 times per year.

“Sea levels are rising. Tides are inching higher. High-tide floods are becoming more frequent and reaching farther inland. And hundreds of US coastal communities will soon face chronic, disruptive flooding that directly affects people’s homes, lives, and properties,” states the report, ” Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate.” “Yet property values in most coastal real estate markets do not currently reflect this risk. And most homeowners, communities, and investors are not aware of the financial losses they may soon face.”

By the end of the century, the study warns, sea levels could rise by seven feet, exposing 115,000 Virginia homes worth $30 billion to routine flooding.

That’s the worst-case scenario, predicated on the assumptions that global warming-induced sea-level rise is accelerating and that communities are incapable of adapting, and it’s the one highlighted by the report and the Virginian-Pilot coverage of the report. Under the report’s low-rise scenario based on effective global action against climate change, sea levels will rise only a foot and a half, and projected losses would be much smaller.

Scientists skeptical of alarmist global warming scenarios counter that sea levels have been rising steadily by 20 centimeters per century for at least two centuries with no sign of accelerating. The implied sea-level rise globally would be six and a half inches by the end of the century. But the impact varies geographically depending on whether tectonic plates are rising or sinking. In Virginia, the tectonic plate is sinking, suggesting that the impact could be greater locally.

I react negatively to alarmist environmental scenarios, which I think are fed more by wishful thinking that the world is in desperate need of saving. But I don’t dismiss the UCS report out of hand. If these scientists’ worst fears are well founded, Virginia’s coastline could face massive dislocation. Even if the skeptics are right, periodic flooding will get worse — not catastrophically worse but enough to force us to think differently about coastal development.

Given the array of risks, we cannot continue business as usual. I’m not suggesting that it’s time for draconian action, but we can at least stop doing stupid stuff. By “stupid stuff,” I mean we should stop subsidizing coastal development through the National Flood Insurance Program and through implicit promises that state and local government will maintain roads, power lines, water-sewer and beach restoration regardless of cost in the face of increasing floods. Homeowners should bear the costs and risks associated with their decisions to live on or near the water.

Local governments also need to stop zoning for large developments in flood-prone areas. In a separate and unrelated article, the Virginian-Pilot describes the issues surrounding the proposed expansion of the Ashville Park development in Virginia Beach. The developers won zoning approval for the giant, high-quality subdivision more than a decade ago, before periodic flooding became a concern. In 2016 Hurricane Matthew overwhelmed the project’s storm water drainage system, flooding many houses and leaving families stranded for days. Fixes are expected to cost $11 million. The developer will share the cost of the first phase of $2.75 million; the city will cover the rest. Remarkably, the developer claims the right to be able to build up to 400 more houses.

I firmly believe that people should be able to build where they want — as long as they are willing to pay the full cost associated with their location decisions. The problem is not insoluble. Virginia Beach and other coastal localities should establish special tax districts in flood-prone zones, with provisions to expand the geographic scope of those zones as sea levels rise. Property owners in those zones would be assessed a tax surcharge to fund infrastructure projects — storm water drainage systems, flood control berms and dikes, the re-engineering of roads and bridges, whatever — deemed necessary to protect the community. The tax structure should be adjusted to penalize sprawling, low-density housing projects that require greater public investment and reward compact, infrastructure-efficient investment.

The risk of sea-level rise is likely exaggerated, but no one knows for sure. It is not right to transfer that risk — however great or small — from home-owners in flood-prone areas to the tax-paying public. The time to enact reform is now, not when the floods are upon us.

Visual Impacts and Transmission Lines

Will the Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line look like this….

Last week the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia rejected a last-ditch appeal by the National Parks Conservation Association and allied groups to block  construction of the controversial high-voltage transmission line across the James River near Jamestown. Dominion Energy Virginia had embarked upon preliminary construction in February after winning a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permit, and the ruling clears the utility to complete the project by the summer of 2019.

Apparently, a favorable ruling was not a foregone conclusion. At the preliminary injunction phase, wrote Judge Royce C. Lamberth, the plaintiffs made “a powerful argument on the merits” that the Corps had issued the permit improperly. However, he added, “now that the Court has dug into the administrative record and relevant case law it is evident that the Corps made a “fully informed and well-considered decision.”

Lamberth made clear that he was not saying that the Corps made the correct decision; rather, it met all relevant standards and criteria for issuing the permit. 

… or like this?

For those interested in the controversy, the guts of the ruling shed new light into aspects of the seemingly interminable Corps decision-making process.

Perhaps the most contentious issue was the visual impact of the 500 kV Surry-Skiffes Creek transmission line upon a relatively pristine stretch of the James River associated with Jamestown and the English settlement of Virginia. Early in the controversy Dominion prepared visualizations showing the transmission-line towers as barely visible on the horizon when viewed from Jamestown Island. Power line foes disputed the accuracy of the renderings.

The Corps studied the visual impact in detail, creating a 400-page visual effects assessment, entitled the Cultural Resources Effects Assessment (CREA). Employing various vantage points and line-of-sight analyses, expert consultant Truescape created photo simulations demonstrating how the river crossing would appear to the human eye.

After the Corps made the document public, opposition groups criticized the Truescape methodology, noting that the analysis failed to analyze how the project would impact a visitor traveling on the river in close proximity to where the power line would cross the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historical Trail. “In other words,” summarized Lamberth, “while the CREA’s visual analysis captured what the electrical line would look like from historical vantage points on land, it would not capture the impact to a visitor traveling by boat on the river. He continued:

In response, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated in June 2016 to include nearly 80 pages of additional reference photographs and visual simulations depicting views from the river. … Moreover, the PhotoSimulation Overview was updated again in August 2016 to include additional simulations based on a second round of photographs taken from the river.

Moreover, from a process perspective, the Corps held discussions with [the National Park Service] regarding its its methodological concerns and received an NPS guidance document on how to evaluate visual impact assessments. … The Corps forwarded the document to Dominion, asking them to address whether the methods used were comparable and what the plan would be going forward. … Dominion demonstrated that the methodology used followed NPS guidance and provide[d] reliable simulations of how the Project would look. Upon considering the methodological concerns raised by NPS and reviewing Dominion’s updated analysis, the Corps concluded:

“Dominion’s simulations provided enough accuracy to sufficiently analyze effects to both historic properties and a visitor’s experience. … While there are various methods for predicting visual impact it is not likely that employing further methods will result in substantively different views or information.”

In the ruling Lamberth also alluded to the involvement of Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in the controversy.

NPS sent a detailed letter in January 2017, in which it pointed to “fundamental flaws” with the decision-making process that “remain unresolved.” NPS specifically noted the flawed visual analysis. Although the Corps was not required to accept NPS’s critique, Lamberth wrote, senior staff met with Interior Department officials to discuss the comments.

In March 2017, the new Secretary of the Interior Zinkie (sic), who ultimately presides over NPS, stated that the information that had been provided by the Corps reflected “thoughtful and thorough consideration of the issues raised by my predecessor. …”

Secretary Zinkie’s letter effectively withdrew the Department of Interior’s previous stance that an [Environmental Impact Statement] was required. “As we all know, elections have consequences” and the Interior Department’s shift in position demonstrates to the Court that there is no longer active disagreement between the Interior Department and the Corps.”

As it happened, Lamberth agreed with the Corps that the visual impact would not be significant. Boaters traveling the James, he wrote, already are exposed to views of de-commissioned Navy ships comprising the Ghost Fleet, the water tower at Fort Eustis, the Surry nuclear power station, several large, modern houses on the shoreline, barges and other commercial vessels, and recreational boaters and water skiers from Kingsmill Resort.

“The Corps did enough,” concluded Lamberth. “It engaged in reasoned analysis, consulted experts, responded to criticisms of both its methodologies and conclusions, took a hard look at the potential impacts, and concluded that the impact of the Project would be ‘moderate at most.'”

5G Wireless: Build, Baby, Build!

The latest wave of wireless innovation is upon us — fifth generation wireless, otherwise known as 5G. The technology will multiply download speeds by 10 times or more, allowing wireless carriers to compete with cable companies for high-speed Internet access. As former FCC trade commissioner Robert McDowell writes in the Wall Street Journal today:

5G will enable advances in everything from driverless cars to the “tactile internet,” in which surgeons can perform operations and builders operate construction equipment remotely, and entertainment can include sensations beyond the audiovisual.

A 5G-enabled Internet of Things will connect people, data and new devices, creating a surge of economic growth. IHS Markit estimates that in the U.S. alone 5G will yield $719 billion in growth and 3.4 million new jobs by 2035.

To deploy the technology, 5G wireless carriers need to deploy thousands of “small cell” antennas the size of pizza boxes. Although these small cells are almost invisible, some state and local governments are treating them as if they are 100-foot towers. Outdated local requirements restrict carriers from placing small cells in local rights-of-way and on government-owned utility poles. Zoning ordinances designed for big cell towers require zoning board approval. Other localities impose prohibitive fees.

It was with a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that I Googled “Virginia 5G regulations,” fearing that the Old Dominion still would be living up to the “Old” in its moniker, imposing all manner of unreasonable fees and restrictions. But I was pleasantly surprised. We have been making progress.

Last year Governor Terry McAuliffe signed S.B. 1282, which, according to Wireless Week, removed some regulatory barriers and sped up local permitting processes.

[The bill] stated that localities can’t require special exceptions or special use permits for small cell facilities installed on existing structures where providers already have permission to co-locate equipment, and gives municipalities 10 days to notify carriers of an incomplete application and 60 days to either approve or deny applications. The measure also caps municipal fees at $100 each for up to five small cell facilities on an application and $50 for each facility thereafter. Fees for carrier use of municipal rights-of-way are prohibited, except for zoning, subdivision, site plan, and comprehensive plan fees related to the general application. Additionally, the bill instructs municipalities that “approval for a permit shall not be unreasonably conditioned, withheld, or delayed.”

Consulting firm Accenture had said the wireless industry is looking to make “significant” infrastructure investments in the state, including $179 million in Richmond and $371 in Virginia Beach, reported Wireless Week. The firm also forecast that the investments would create more than 6,000 jobs across the state.

In the 2018 session, the General Assembly passed SB 405, which exempts wireless structures less than 50 feet tall from requirements to obtain special use permits under local zoning laws, as well as SB 823, which establishes an annual wireless infrastructure erected in public rights-of-way. The fee is $1,000 for structures that are 50 feet or shorter.  The bill awaits the signature of Governor Ralph Northam.

Bacon’s bottom line: If Virginia wants to run with the big boys in technology-intensive industries, it needs to encourage wireless operators to roll out 5G as rapidly as possible. What’s extra cool about the technology is that it doesn’t favor just the big metropolitan regions with dense populations. 5G can reach rural endpoints at one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of wireline connections, thus closing one of the big infrastructure barriers to rural economic development.

I don’t see any downside to 5G deployment. It’s driven by the private sector. It will open up high-speed Internet to virtually the entire state. All government has to do is get out of the way. The only losers are crybaby NIMBYs who can’t bare the thought of wireless towers less than 50 feet tall within their line of sight. Waaah. Build, baby, build!

Noooooooooo! Not another Cville Bypass!

State Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, has filed a resolution and budget amendment to study building an eastern bypass around U.S. 29 around Charlottesville, reports the Daily Progress. During the McDonnell administration, Charlottesville residents managed to kill a proposed $230 million western bypass around the city in favor of making extensive improvements to U.S. 29 itself. Now Peake wants to try building a bypass around the eastern side of Charlottesville. Danville built a bypass and Lynchburg built one, he says, and it’s reasonable to ask Charlottesville to build one, too.

I understand Lynchburg’s fixation on the Charlottesville bypass. Back in the days when interstate highways were being mapped out, Lynchburg drew the short stick and got… bypassed. U.S. 29, a state highway, became its major industrial access corridor. But local land use decisions in Charlottesville and Albemarle County gunked up the highway with shopping centers, malls, stop lights, curb cuts, and other encumbrances. U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville became, in essence, a suburbified Main Street at the expense of travelers passing through. Lynchburg residents had every right to complain.

But $230 million is a lot of money, and analysis showed that construction of a bypass, which would circumvent only a fraction of the congestion, would save only a few minutes in travel time. The Virginia Department of Transportation instead invested in the money spot improvements that, along with stoplight synchronization, have eased congestion somewhat.

Enough time has passed, however, that Peake wants to try again, this time exploring the potential for a bypass east of the city.

This proposal won’t fly any more than a western bypass. For starters, an eastern bypass would be longer, hence more expensive. Second, most Charlottesville-Albemarle residents don’t want a bypass, period, they will oppose it with every fiber of their being, and the politics will be just as ugly this time around as it was for the western bypass.

Third, Peake is overlooking an emerging threat to travel times on U.S. 29 — the gunking up of the entire highway between Charlottesville, Warrenton and Northern Virginia. As the Northern Virginia development blob penetrates ever deeper into the rural hinterlands, the highway is attracting more exurban-style development. It seems as if a new stoplight is added with every passing year. While the stoplights tend to be miles apart, the sheer number of delays are equivalent to what travelers encounter in Charlottesville.

Peake and his fellow Lynchburgers should fear the stroadification of the entire highway north of Charlottesville. (Stroads are dysfunctional street-road hybrids, which U.S. 29 is becoming.) Instead of pushing for an expensive, unpopular bypass, he should work on legislation that safeguards the integrity of the remaining highway portion of U.S. 29 by limiting direct access to it.

Virginia’s Top 10 Stories (Told and Untold) of the Year

Phew! I finally made it through the all-consuming Christmas season, and I’m still alive to tell the tale. Christmas is a wonderful but grueling time of year for the Bacon family, marked by numerous feasts, expanding waistlines, excessive gift giving, shrinking bank accounts, and considerable out-of-town travel to distant relatives. But I’m back in the saddle at the Bacon’s Rebellion global command headquarters and eager to get the blog cranked back up.

Many publications publish a retrospective look at the “Top 10 Stories of the Year.” I have never done this at Bacon’s Rebellion, but perhaps it is time. A few obvious candidates for the Top 10 stories in Virginia’s political-public policy realm come to mind. Please feel free to add, subtract, modify or opine upon this list in the comments.

  1. Republican wipe-out in the November 2017 election. In a wave election driven largely by anti-Trumpism, voters obliterated the seemingly insurmountable Republican majority in the House of Delegates and elected Democrats to all three statewide offices. The Northam administration will look and act a lot like the McAuliffe administration, but it will have more friends in the legislature.
  2. Civil War statues and the Charlottesville riot. Virginia became the cockpit of U.S. culture wars and the debate on race as national and local media alike fixated on statues that memorialize Civil War generals. The controversy exploded as outsiders flocked to participate in, and oppose, the United the Right rally in Charlottesville.
  3. Virginia’s lagging economy. The U.S. economy gained momentum during the first year of the Trump administration, but Virginia’s economy, once a national growth leader, continues to under-perform. Caps on military spending have hobbled growth in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads, while Virginia’s rural, mill-town economy continues to struggle. Governor Terry McAuliffe has shined as the superlative state salesman, but his policies have not budged economic fundamentals.
  4. Dominion on the defensive. Dominion Energy, a dominating political presence in Virginia, was a big loser from the election, as an unprecedented wave of anti-Dominion politicians was elected to the General Assembly. Despite making great progress toward solar energy, the electric utility found itself under attack for its rate freeze, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, and coal ash disposal. In a dramatic, end-of-year gambit, Dominion proposed upgrading its transmission and distribution systems to a more resilient, renewable-friendly smart grid.
  5. Higher-ed mobilizes to defend status quo. The year began with sharp criticism of Virginia’s public colleges and universities for runaway costs, tuition and fees. The year closed with an industry P.R. blitz highlighting the link between higher ed and economic development. Virginia is nowhere near a consensus on how to balance the competing imperatives of affordability, access, workforce development, and R&D-driven innovation.
  6. Death spiral for Obamacare. The Affordable Care Act health insurance exchanges in Virginia entered the year in a slow-motion death spiral due to internal flaws and contradictions. Policies enacted by Congress and the Trump administration accelerated their swirl into oblivion, while offering nothing obvious to replace them. The election of Democrat Ralph Northam will renew the debate over expansion of Medicaid, all but guaranteeing that the focus in Virginia will be on the zero-sum question of who pays for health care rather than how can we improve productivity and outcomes in order to lower costs for the benefit of all.
  7. Interstate 66 and HOT lanes. The McAuliffe administration advanced its signature contribution to Virginia’s transportation infrastructure by developing major upgrades to Northern Virginia’s I-66 transportation corridor. The opening of HOT lanes inside the Beltway erupted in controversy over the fairness and effectiveness of using dynamically priced tolls to ration scarce highway capacity.
  8. Accountability in K-12 education. By some measures, Virginia’s system of public schools made progress in 2017 but by other measures it continued to struggle. One of the most important trends, neglected by the media, is the continued effort by state bureaucrats to use Standards of Learning tests to hold local schools accountable and the continued gaming of the rules by local officials to avoid accountability. Meanwhile, revisions to disciplinary policies to advance social justice concerns has undermined school discipline and made a difficult job — teaching disadvantaged kids — even more difficult. The breakdown in discipline makes it ever harder to recruit teachers to the most challenging schools.
  9. Salvaging the Metro. The Washington Metro heavy rail system needs billions of dollars to compensate for past failures to invest in maintenance, even as it struggles with union featherbedding, declining ridership, and an unwieldy governance structure. Representatives from Virginia, Maryland, Washington, D.C., and the federal government can’t seem to agree on much. Metro is critical for the functioning of the Northern Virginia economy, but Virginia wants to see labor and governance reforms before coughing up billions of dollars to prop up a failing system that, lacking those reforms, inevitably will come back and ask for more in the future.
  10. Turn-around at Virginia’s ports. This end-of-the-year list is gloomy, with an emphasis on crumbling and failing institutions. But there is at least one good news story (which I have neglected to cover on this blog): the revival of the Ports of Virginia. Traffic is booming and profitability has revived.

Water Board Gives Atlantic Coast Pipeline Conditional Approval

In a 4 to 3 vote, the State Water Control Board gave a provisional water-quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline today, but added a big condition reports WHSV television: The permit won’t take effect until several additional studies are reviewed and approved by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Dominion Energy, managing partner of the ACP, is evaluating the additional conditions and will issue a response later today.

In the meantime, environmental groups were cautiously approving of the decision.

Said Peter Anderson, Virginia Program Manager of Appalachian Voices: “We are somewhat encouraged by the depth and scope of the board’s discussion about several critical issues today and their apparent recognition of the thousands of citizen voices they’ve heard from over the years, but we are disappointed they did not deny this deficient certification and remand it back to the Department of Environmental Quality for a thorough analysis.”

“We particularly commend members Roberta Kellam, Nissa Dean and Robert Wayland who cast the three dissenting votes,” he added.

Said Mike Tidwell, Executive Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network: 

In a setback for notorious polluter Dominion Energy, the Virginia State Water Control Board today sided with landowners and environmentalists in calling for more rigorous and comprehensive review of the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline. After being ignored for years by Governor Terry McAuliffe and Dominion, the voices of everyday Virginians were finally heard and we will work tirelessly to make sure all the facts can come to the table. CCAN and our allies have argued all along that any science-based and transparent review of all the harmful impacts of the ACP can only result in official and final denial of Dominion’s radical pipeline for fracked gas.

And Chesapeake Bay Foundation Assistant Director Peggy Sanner:

We are pleased that the Water Control Board refused to allow the pipeline project to proceed until threats from pollution are more thoroughly examined. This was the right decision. Thanks to the Board for its careful consideration of this vital matter. Building the pipeline without this information would disturb waterways across Virginia and increase pollution to local rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay. We will continue working to make sure the pipeline is held to the strictest environmental standards possible.

Update: Dominion spokesman Aaron Ruby said the following:

Today the Virginia State Water Control Board approved the state water quality certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a very significant milestone for the project and another major step toward final approval.

The Board reached its decision after the most thorough environmental review of any infrastructure project in Virginia history. After more than three years of exhaustive study by state agencies and extensive public input, the Board concluded that the project will preserve Virginia’s water quality under stringent state standards.

The Board approved several conditions to strengthen water quality protections and require other state approvals before the certification takes effect. We will work closely with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to complete all remaining approvals in a timely manner and ensure we meet all conditions of the certification.

At every stage of the project we’ve taken great care to meet the highest standards for the protection of water quality. In many cases, we’ve gone above and beyond regulatory requirements and adopted some of the most protective measures ever used by the industry. State and federal inspectors will carefully monitor our work throughout construction to ensure strict compliance with the law. The protective measures we’ve put in place and the regulatory oversight we’re receiving should assure all Virginians that the pipeline will be built safely and in a way that preserves the state’s water quality.

We commend the Board members and DEQ staff for the years of hard work and careful study they’ve dedicated to reviewing the project. We also appreciate the thoughtful and constructive input provided by members of the public. This has been a rigorous and transparent process, and everyone’s voice has been heard. The process has resulted in more environmental protection and higher water quality standards than any other project of this kind.

ACP Foes, Supporters Contend in ACP Environmental Hearing

After issuing a water-quality certification for the Mountain Valley Pipeline last week, the State Water Control Board held a public hearing today to consider a comparable certification for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP). Public comment this morning tended to focus on the question of whether new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) rules designed to cover pipeline construction in mountainous “uplands” are up to the task of protecting water quality.

Two hundred or more pipeline foes packed the Trinity Family Life Center in Henrico County to voice their support of speakers critical of the proposed 605-mile natural gas pipeline, mainly on the grounds that it will threaten water quality in mountainous western Virginia communities. But many of the speakers, including state legislators, retired employees of Dominion Energy (managing partner of the pipeline), and others expressed support for the project which they said will promote economic development in eastern Virginia.

Even with speakers limited to three minutes at the podium, the hearing was expected to last into the evening, and the water board was not expected to vote until tomorrow.

Opponents hammered home the argument that DEQ’s regulations were inadequate to protect water quality in steep mountainous terrain with landslide-prone slopes and complex karst geology with sinkholes and underground rivers. In particular, they charged, the Board relied upon ACP erosion-control plans that have not been seen yet to prevent sediment from fouling streams and underground drinking water.

A major sub-theme of those hostile to the pipeline was distrust of the regulatory process, which, given the approval of the MVP project last week, showed every sign of going against the pipeline foes. Typical was Cabell Smith, a Nelson County resident, who said that the regulations provided “no assurance” that water quality standards will be maintained under a “corrupt corporate and political system.”

Some insisted that democracy itself was under assault. Richard Averett, a landowner in the path of the ACP, called the pipeline an “unprecedented threat to eminent domain” and a “threat to democracy.” The pipeline, he said, will scuttle his plans to build a five-star boutique resort in the Rockfish Valley. In an impassioned speech that brought pipeline foes to their feet, he faulted “a corrupt governor more interested in mining the pockets of his pals and future donors than protecting the rights of citizens.”

DEQ devised the certification for upland water quality out of a concern that the existing regulatory framework did not address the unique problems encountered along the proposed pipeline route, said Melanie Davenport, DEQ’s water permitting division director. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates wetlands and streams, while a different set of regulations governs erosion & sediment controls. The 401 water quality certification, she said, fills the gaps.

DEQ acknowledges that the digging of trenches and laying of pipeline on steep, erosion-prone slopes can create problems that pipeline construction does not pose in flatland and hill country. Sediment-generating erosion is particularly problematic in karst terrain when underground water flows are out-of-sight and difficult to track. Therefore, said Davenport, the commonwealth decided to add an additional certification.

According to Davenport, conditions attached to the ACP water-quality certificate provide, among other features:

  • A prohibition against the removal of riparian buffers within 50 feet of surface waters.
  • A narrower construction right of way, 75 feet instead of 125 feet, as pipeline construction nears water and stream crossings.
  • Additional protections to accommodate karst terrain, including the use of dye-tracing studies to update karst maps.
  • Tougher conditions on the withdrawal of surface waters.
  • Tougher conditions on the release of water used in hydrostatic tests (conducted to measure the integrity of pipeline joints and seams).
  • Implementation of water quality monitoring plans to track erosion during and after construction.
  • Spill-prevention plans

A point made repeatedly by pro-pipeline speakers is that the DEQ regulations provide “added layers of protection” to water quality.

Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, Del. Roxanne Robinson, R-Chesterfield, and Del. Buddy Fowler, R-Ashland, all spoke in favor of certifying the pipeline. Wagner said that added gas-transportation capacity is especially critical for economic growth in Hampton Roads, where some 100 large customers were called upon to curtail their natural gas consumption during the intense cold of the polar vortex a few years ago. The tight gas supply will make it difficult to recruit any energy-intensive industry to the region, he said.

“There is not enough upstream capacity today to serve existing customers and new customers,” confirmed Jim Kibler, president of Virginia Natural Gas, which serves Hampton Roads. Other than the ACP, he said, “We’re out of options for South Hampton Roads.”

“Our city and region need the supply of natural gas from the pipeline,” said Edwin C. Daly, assistant city manager of the city of Emporia in Southside.

Technology has advanced to the point where the ACP will be “the safest pipeline ever built,” said Paul McCormick with the International Union of Operating Engineers.

While a handful of critics disputed the positive economic impact of the pipeline, most pipeline foes focused on the negative impact on water quality.

Tina Smusz, representing the Virginia chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, called DEQ’s regulatory approach a “flawed framework” that ignores the impact of water-born toxins that could pose “grave health threats.” Toxins buried in sediments along stream banks could be exposed by erosion and make their way into local water supplies, she said. DEQ should get predictive data on toxin release before granting certification, she said. While DEQ proposes to monitor water quality and execute contingency plans should problems arise, that’s an inadequate after-the-fact solution, she added. Continue reading

Atlantic Coast Pipeline Inks Labor Contracts

Now that the State Water Control Board has approved water-quality permits for the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP), the odds look exceedingly good that the board will approve comparable permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) as well. Indeed, state regulatory approval looks like such a lock that the ACP has signed project labor agreements with four major construction trade unions.

The agreements cover these four unions:

  • Laborers’ International Union of North America. Laborers install environmental control devices, perform ground clearing, coat and install the pipe and restore the right of way.
  • Teamsters National Pipeline. Teamsters transport personnel, materials and equipment.
  • International Union of Operating Engineers. Operators operate excavators, bull dozers, pipe bending and laying machines, cranes, forklifts and other construction equipment.
  • The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry of the United States. Welders weld and bend the pipe, install road bores and perform hydrostatic testing.

“This is the biggest job-creating infrastructure project we’ve seen in our region for many decades,” said Dennis Martire, LiUNA’s Vice President & Mid-Atlantic Regional Manager. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rebuild our region’s infrastructure and bring back the middle class jobs that have disappeared from too many of our communities. Our members live in these communities, so we have a personal stake in doing this the right way and with the utmost care for safety and the environment.”

While the two pipeline projects will be a boon to the construction unions — 13,000 workers will be needed to build the ACP — landowners and others living along the path of the pipeline routes remain adamantly opposed to both projects.

“[Governor] Terry McAuliffe has harmed farmers, consumers, drinking water, and the climate by pushing the Virginia Water Control Board to give final approval today of the Mountain Valley Pipeline,” said Mike Tidwell, executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network said after the 5 to 2 vote. “The 301-mile pipeline for fracked gas constitutes a colossal misallocation of resources and will permanently harm the Governor’s economic and environmental legacies.”

“We are thoroughly disappointed by the board’s decision. Thousands voiced their opposition to this pipeline based on evidence that it cannot be built without violating the federal Clean Water Act and the board’s obligation under Virginia law,” said Tom Cormons, executive director of Appalachian Voices. “DEQ created a rushed, haphazard process, limited the scope of the board’s review, and abdicated the state’s authority to the Corps of Engineers for oversight of pipeline construction at almost 400 water crossings.”

While pipeline foes have cited many reasons for opposing the two projects, they have focused in recent months on blocking state regulatory approval on the grounds that the regs cannot adequately protect water quality from construction on steep mountain slopes in karst terrain riddled with underground streams.

Having met defeat at every turn at the federal and state levels, the last resort is the courts. “We are considering all options,” said Cormons, “and expect the outcome will be determined in the courts.”

If Mountain Valley Pipeline breaks ground on the project, he added, “citizens along the entire route are prepared to watchdog every action, along every mile, every day of construction and afterwards, and compel agencies to act when violations inevitably occur.”

The water control board is expected to vote on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline this Monday.

Update: That was fast! Minutes after I posted this story, Appalachian Mountain Advocates announced that it has filed suit in Richmond’s U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. “The DEQ’s erosion and sediment control plans and stormwater control plans are incomplete and have not been presented to the Board,” said David Sligh, conservation director of Wild Virginia, which is allied with Appalachian Mountain Advocates. “Karst analyses are incomplete. Data related to specific waterbody crossings is non-existent. The Nationwide 12 permit has not yet been authorized and determined to be applicable.  The procedure is not based on sound science and is legally flawed. We cannot accept this betrayal of our trust and our rights without challenge.”

Broadband Boondoggles in Southwest Virginia

Throughout the Central Appalachian region — Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky — community leaders have a keen understanding that they must find new industries to replace coal. And there is a near universal conviction that any hope to diversify local economies requires high-bandwidth connections to the outside world. This conviction has led to a series of initiatives, some misguided and some on target, to bring broadband to this isolated region.

Ronald Bailey with Reason Magazine has visited Central Appalachia to examine these efforts and concludes pessimistically, that they’re not accomplishing much. The article’s headline says it all: “The Noble, Misguided Plan to Turn Coal Miners into Coders: Expensive high-speed internet and job training will not transform Appalachia into ‘Silicon Holler.'”

The story begins in 1999 with the decision of Bristol Virginia Utilities (BVU) to build a fiber-optic network connecting its eight electric substations and all of the city’s public facilities. In 2002 BVU OptiNet began deploying a fiber-to-the-home network with the help of state and federal grants, tobacco settlement money, and revenue bonds — $132 million all told for 13,000 customers. (That’s a capital investment of about $10,000 per customer.) The end result:

Cash inflows from successive government grants enabled OptiNet to function like a Ponzi scheme, masking the fiscal rot at the heart of the enterprise. Eventually in 2013, an audit found extensive misuse of funds—personal trips, bribes, and kickbacks—by board members, officers, and contractors. In 2016, nine people associated with the BVU Authority, including its CEO, chief financial officer, and board chairman, were sent to prison for conspiracy and fraud. The state government’s 2016 final report noted that the OptiNet division was operating at a net loss, that this was expected to continue, and that therefore it was unlikely to generate enough cash to pay both the principal and interest owed on $45.5 million in bonds it issued in 2010.

The audit also found that the BVU Authority used an improper methodology to account for and cancel debt when it became an independent entity, and as a consequence it now owes the Bristol city utility division nearly $14 million. The auditors’ blunt assessment: “These conditions raise substantial doubt about OptiNet’s ability to continue as a going concern.”

Now a Southwest Virginia entity, Sunset Digital, has negotiated a deal to acquire OptiNet’s assets for $50 million. As the author Bailey notes, that’s a “smart move” for Sunset Digital and its owner Paul Elswick, who are backed by a Miami, Fla., based private equity firm.

Meanwhile, in nearby Dickenson County, the county also has been investing in building a fiber-optic cable network. In 2004 the board of supervisors created the Dickenson County Wireless Integrated Network (DCWIN). Next year  DCWIN issued $1.5 million in bonds to build 10 cell towers. To pay off the bonds, the network had to sign up 1,500 customers. Never happened. Five years later, the county board dissolved the authority, assumed its debts, and sold the wireless network to a local company for $277,000.

Those are relatively small potatoes compared to the shenanigans in eastern Kentucky, which Bailey describes in considerable detail. The author came away impressed by some of the entrepreneurs who want to bring broadband to the region, but not so impressed by the efforts of local government officials, who don’t know what they’re doing. He calls into question the entire premise of trying to rejuvenate the economy by pumping money into highways, broadband, and other infrastructure.

It is hard to see the seeds that are supposed to someday sprout and grow into a nascent Silicon Holler.

It’s difficult to tell how many employers, if any, have decided to relocate to Southwestern Virginia due to better access to high speed data networks. As with the highway construction project before it, the internet infrastructure push has not created a detectable boom. Population in the counties covered by various government-subsidized broadband networks continues to fall, dropping from 334,000 in 2000 to 324,000 now. Between 1980 and 2000, by contrast—without any high-speed internet to speak of and with the highways uncompleted—the area’s population dropped by a smaller amount, from 336,000 to 334,000.

For more than 50 years, the feds have poured billions in job training and infrastructure funds into central Appalachia with the goal of spurring economic growth and reducing endemic poverty. There is very little to show for all that effort.

Bacon’s bottom line: I kinda sorta agree with Bailey. But not entirely. I share Bailey’s skepticism about how local governments have tried to jump-start broadband connectivity. Clearly, Bristol and Dickenson County lost a lot of money they could ill afford to lose. If local governments are going to get into the broadband business, they need to be better stewards of scarce public dollars..

But I sympathize with the desire of Southwest Virginians to salvage their economy, and I agree that having broadband connectivity is a necessary condition to achieving that revitalization. In other words, without broadband, there will never be an economic revival. Unfortunately, investing in broadband is no guarantee that new jobs and opportunities will come. It’s the ticket the region must buy to get into the game.

Hat tip: Jack Lucas