Tag Archives: mass transit

This Metro Deal Literally Smells

As the General Assembly debates the state’s contribution to the bailing out of the Washington Metro system, Virginians are continually reminded of the company’s history of dysfunctional management. The latest news from the Washington Post:

An investigation by the agency’s Office of Inspector General has found that the grimey, orangey-brown, 1970s-era carpet installed in Metro trains are the product of “exceedingly stringent” requirements likely written to favor one supplier. The 100 percent pure virgin wool specification is no longer in use in the industry.

The recently concluded investigation found Metro’s standards for its carpeting were unchanged for two decades and that no other vendor could plausibly compete for the contract.

Moreover, the carpet lacked a required coating to prevent fungus and mildew, according to Metro Inspector General Geoff Cherrington — though it did meet standards for being fire-resistant and mothproof.

Further investigation found the carpet’s compliance testing was not being performed by an independent facility, as Metro requires, but by a laboratory with ties to the carpet manufacturer.

“The director of the lab used by the vendor is married to the Chief Financial Officer of the company that provided the vendor a line of credit” for the carpet order, according to a synopsis of the investigation included in a report to the Metro board.

Over the years, the WaPo reports, the carpet became known for collecting dirt and grime. “Riders are especially put off by the way it soaks up liquids — be it rain, slush, spilled beverages or um, other fluids — and smells.”

Meanwhile, back in the General Assembly, Republicans are far less amenable than Democrats to providing Metro the $150 million a year in additional support the ailing mass transit agency has requested to work down a maintenance backlog that has contributed to safety incidents, schedule delays, and declining ridership.

The new version of a bill sponsored by Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has been unanimously approved by the House Transportation Committee and will serve as the basis for negotiations with the state Senate over a final Metro funding bill, reports WTOP. Hugo’s proposal would provide Metro $105 million a year, less than the roughly $150 million requested, and provide the funds only if Metro limits operating spending increases to 2 percent per year.

Further, the bill requires studies and reports on Metro’s governance, labor agreements and the federal law that outlines arbitration rules. “Reforms have to go hand in hand with the money,” Hugo said.

Unlike the proposal recommended by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, the Republican proposal would not immediately require changes to Metro’s Board.

Bacon’s bottom line: This is Virginia’s one opportunity to hang tough and demand long overdue managerial, labor and governance reforms to Metro. Once legislation is passed and the money starts flowing, the Commonwealth loses all leverage over the mass transit system. While the current senior management appears to be more competent then its predecessors, the mal-governance of the system has been spectacular, and it costing Virginia taxpayers (especially Northern Virginia taxpayers) dearly. Without fundamental reform, Metro will remain a festering, oozing, pustular sore that will continue to drain Virginia’s scarce transportation resources.

Want Amazon? Fix Metro, says Wiedefeld.

If Virginians want Amazon to locate HQ2, its second headquarters, in the Washington area, they need to help fix Metro, the region’s ailing commuter rail service. That was part of the message delivered by Metro General Manager and CEO Paul Wiedefeld yesterday to the House Appropriation Committee’s Transportation subcommittee.

The Metro needs at least $15.5 billion in capital spending over the next decade to address a massive maintenance backlog, address safety issues and keep commuter trains running on time. Former Governor Terry McAuliffe included $150 million a year for Metro in the state budget on the condition that Maryland and Washington, D.C. contribute their share.

A functional Metro is crucial to winning Amazon, which has indicated it will invest $5 billion in a new headquarters complex, Wiedefeld told legislators, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

“They want transit, and they want it to work well,” said Wiedefeld, who told the delegates that he has cut hundreds of positions, revised ethics and nepotism policies, and imposed controls on workers’ compensation and employee absenteeism in his efforts to right what has been seen as a woefully mismanaged transit system. WMATA also now has its first-ever preventive maintenance program, he said.

Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., and suburban Maryland are among the 20 locations that made Amazon’s top 20 list of prospects for its second headquarters complex. Amazon has declared that mass transit is a key factor in its site-selection process.

Bacon’s bottom line: It would be helpful to know what inducements Virginia has offered the technology giant to choose a location near Washington Dulles International Airport, but it is standard practice not to reveal such details. Likewise, it would be easier to justify shelling out extra billions for the Metro if we knew the odds of landing Amazon, but Amazon is not about to tip its hand. As usual, legislators and the public are in the dark, trying to make a multibillion-dollar decision on the basis of incomplete information.

A New Generation of Fuzzy Thinkers for Henrico

Henrico County has flipped from a majority-Republican to a majority-Democrat board of supervisors. That could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending. If Democrats nudge the county toward more rational, Smart Growth-like land use patterns — more infill, more density, more mixed use, more walkability — it could be a good thing. If they push the county into ill-thought-out spending initiatives, it could be a bad thing.

Based on the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s coverage of a two-day board retreat, it looks like spending will top the list. The three Democratic members of the board indicated their desire to expand the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company) Route 19 to the Short Pump retail center at an estimated cost of $800,000 annually.

The purported benefit is greater access for job seekers. Tyrone E. Nelson, representing the Varina district at the east end of the county, said he could not understand why a county with a budget of nearly $1 billion had not yet devoted funds to bring bus service to the employment center. “I still don’t understand why it’s like pulling teeth to get public transportation to Short Pump. This is a 2018 need.”

His fellow Democrats expressed the same sentiment. “We’re not doing enough for job access,” said newly elected Courtney Lynch. “When you look at things we should spend money on, this should be something where we can get creative and get things done.”

Democrats and Republicans alike can agree that helping people gain access to jobs is a worthy goal. We want people to work so they can support themselves and their families. In Henrico County, the poorest residents tend to live in the far east end of the county, far from the affluent Short Pump commercial district where many jobs are available. GRTC already runs buses out Broad Street to Costco, and the expansion would extend the service a few miles more at seemingly modest cost.

That makes sense as a starting point for an inquiry: Hey, extending the bus line just a couple miles more would provide passengers access to a whole bunch of jobs they can’t reach now. Let’s take a closer look and see if it makes economic sense. From what I glean from the Times-Dispatch article and county documents, however, the supervisors skipped that let’s-see-if-it-makes-economic-sense step.

Henrico County Public Works has posted a slide presentation online covering proposed investments in roads, highways, sidewalks, bike trails, and mass transit. The slides contain a lot of information, but not everything that we, as citizens need to reach an informed conclusion. Perhaps the speaker making the slide presentation had more to say about the economics of bus service, but there is no indication of it in the Times-Dispatch article.

Let’s start with the map at atop this post. The big blue circle on the right is Mr. Nelson’s supervisor district. The small blue circle on the left is the Short Pump employment center. To get there, Nelson’s job-seeking constituents must take the bus into downtown Richmond where they would transfer to another bus running out to Short Pump.

The first question is how many passengers avail themselves of the bus service to access retail and service jobs along Broad Street at present? One hundred a day? A thousand? Ten thousand? Presumably, existing passenger loads would give us an order-of-magnitude idea of what might be expected if we extended the line. Alas, existing passenger numbers are not provided.

The more pertinent question is how many additional passengers are projected to avail themselves of the bus service going all the way to Short Pump. Again, in orders of magnitude, are we walking about 100 passengers, 1,000, or 10,000? This would seem to be a critical matter because, if the new service costs $800,000 a year to operate to benefit 100 passengers daily, we’re talking about an annual subsidy of $8,000 per passenger — an extraordinary sum. Why not just buy each passenger a new car? If we’re talking about benefiting 10,000 passengers, then the subsidy is only $80 per passenger, a nominal sum in which the social and tax benefits clearly outweigh the expenditure. If we’re talking about something in between, then the decision is not so clear.

As always, we should ask if there are alternative expenditures of money that would yield greater social benefits. Eight hundred thousand dollars is a nice chunk of change. I were a supervisor representing Nelson’s district, I would convene a meeting of GRTC, Uber, Lyft, Bridj, and other transportation-service companies and ask them, what kind of service could you provide my constituents for $800,000 worth of subsidies? Could you provide more point-to-point service providing more convenient schedules and shorter travel times, making it even easier to make the trip and find a job? Can you come up with a more imaginative solution than simply extending the existing bus schedule?

When such basic questions go unasked, we can be assured that money will be ill spent. Truly, Henrico has entered a new era — from one in which it made lousy land use decisions to one in which it will make lousy spending decisions.

The Political Economy of the Metro Bailout

Funding for Washington’s Metro commuter rail system is shaping up as a bruiser of a fight in the 2018 General Assembly session.

Metro’s management says it needs at least $500 million yearly in government support — $150 million from Virginia — to meet pressing maintenance needs. Without the money, Metro will continue its slow-motion death spiral of cycle of deteriorating safety, schedule delays, eroding ridership, and declining fare revenue. Without the money, Metro’s General Manager has said he will need to cut service in July 1 this year.

While Northern Virginia legislators are eager to patch up the ailing transit provider, which moves hundreds of thousands of commuters, downstate lawmakers won’t be happy about any solution that reduces funding for downstate projects. And Republicans won’t like any remedy that perpetuates the status quo of a broken, dysfunctional rail system hampered by a featherbedding union contract.

In his proposed biennial budget for FY 2019-2020, Governor Terry McAuliffe asked for $150 million in dedicated funding for Metro; $84 million would come from Northern Virginia regional transportation funds, while $65 million would come from new taxes on real estate sales, hotel stays, and wholesale gasoline. Providing the money would be contingent upon Maryland and Washington, D.C., funding their share, and a streamlining of Metro’s governing board from 16 members to five.

“The Metro system is a lifeline for the Northern Virginia economy, and it remains critical to our economic competitiveness,” McAuliffe said. “But we all know that system is just plain broken. And it represents a significant threat to our economy if we don’t fix it, and quickly.”

Notably absent from McAuliffe’s list of requirements is any reform of the Metro’s labor contract. That shouldn’t come as a surprise given the Democratic Party’s pro-union orientation generally and its close ties to the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) in particular.

According to the Virginia Public Access Project, the Alexandria office of the ATU has donated $75,300 to Virginia political campaigns since 2007 — all but $2,000 to Democratic campaigns and funds. The Maryland office of the ATU has donated $44,000, all to Democrats. And Local 689 representing Metro transit workers, has donated $132,269 — all but $250 to Democrats. From all sources, the union contributed $30,000 to the Northam for Governor campaign.

Republicans won’t be happy about funneling $150 million a year more into an organization unwilling to extract concessions from a labor union that in turn funnels money into Democratic Party coffers. Crass political considerations aside, the GOP also has to be concerned that the alliance between Democrats and labor unions is the essence of the Blue State governance model that cements Democratic Party primacy in states like Illinois and New Jersey while pushing them to the brink of fiscal insolvency.

McAuliffe is shrewd enough not to ask downstate Virginians to share the hefty burden of supporting Metro. Virginia’s dispensation of mass transit funds already favors Northern Virginia by lopsided margins. If Metro has problems, that’s because short-term political considerations over the decades have driven Metro to its perilous predicament. Motivated by social justice concerns, the board has refused to raise fares sufficient to meet the organization’s needs. It has allowed the maintenance backlog to build to billions of dollars, and unfunded employee pension obligations to accumulate billions more. All the while, the board has assented to labor contracts that have crimped productivity and inflated costs. Downstate Virginians would be infuriated by any proposal requiring them to help pay the bill for such a dereliction of management.

The question is how Northern Virginia legislators will receive McAuliffe’s proposal. Only a fraction of Northern Virginia commuters ride Metro rail and buses — most commute by car. Tens of thousands of motorists who use the Dulles Toll Road pay additional tolls to help fund construction of the Silver Line to Washington Dulles International Airport — indeed, they pay more to subsidize the Silver Line than Silver Line passengers pay in fares.

McAuliffe shrewdly rejected the option of a new regional sales tax, a move that surely would have infuriated non-Metro-riding voters. His ploy is a classic one of imposing a series of opaque indirect taxes — levies on real estate transactions, hotel stays, and whole gasoline — that voters will not readily connect with the Metro. But dipping into Northern Virginia’s regional transportation fund will deny money for other projects. Metro could yet trigger an electoral revolt. But most of NoVa’s legislators are Democrats now, they are philosophically inclined to support mass transit, and they are likely to fall in line behind a Democratic governor.

Not a Good Sign: Deadline Missed for Metro Safety Panel

Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., will miss a February deadline for setting up an independent Metro safety oversight group. A realistic time frame for the panel’s launch is another six months, according to Virginia’s Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne.

As a result, the Federal Transit Administration has withheld $15.8 million from the two states and the district, reports the Washington Post. The commission launch has been held up by the search for an executive director and six commissioners. Virginia and Maryland have announced their commissioner picks, but D.C. Council has not.

“It’s taken a lot longer than we anticipated with our partners getting together their personnel, but it is what it is,” Layne said. “It’s similar to [Metro]. It’s dealing with different regional issues and the politics of doing that.”

Bacon’s bottom line: If Virginia, Maryland, and D.C. can’t work effectively on an issue as innocuous as Metro rail safety — a goal everyone shares — how will they ever come to agreement over how to fund and operate the Metro itself? There is no consensus on how much to charge passengers. There is no consensus on how to revamp the Metro’s union contract. While there is agreement that the ailing commuter rail system needs billions of dollars to pay for maintenance backlogs, there is no consensus on who should pay. What a mess.

How to Inconvenience Drivers and Punish Businesses for No Discernible Reason

Pulse construction on Broad Street — at a location where construction is actually occurring. (Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch)

One of these days, when Richmond’s Pulse service is running buses up and down the Broad Street corridor, and investors are redeveloping properties around the transit stops, Richmonders will be really glad they have a bus rapid transit system. But until then, residents of the entire metropolitan area can be forgiven for roundly cursing the project.

Construction, which began in August 2016, is still ongoing. The contractor hopes to complete work by the end of the year. In the meantime, the city has closed off two lanes (one lane each way) from automobile traffic, significantly adding to the hassle factor of driving on the transportation artery.

This has been a pet peeve of mine from the very beginning. Miles of Broad Street are afflicted with traffic cones. That would be fine if construction work were actually occurring the full length of the corridor. But it’s not. Work appears to be occur, in a most desultory manner, only at a few locations at a time.

Now, I don’t expect anyone to lose any sleep over Henrico resident Jim Bacon incurring an additional five or ten minutes driving time. But the businesses lining the corridor do warrant consideration, and many of them have suffered a marked decline in business. Richmond City Councilwoman Kimberly Gray has proposed compensating those businesses from a $3.2 million pot of money set aside to reward the contractor, Lane Construction, as an incentive for early completion of the project. The prospects of early completion are fading rapidly, so the idea, it seems to me, does have merit.

Putting up with street construction is an inevitable hazard of living in the city — someone always seems to be patching asphalt, accessing water lines, laying cable — and businesses have to grin and bear it. But cordoning off two lanes along miles of Broad Street for nearly a year and a half seems mind-numbingly unnecessary. I can think of no reason why Lane Construction couldn’t close only those street segments it’s working on when it’s doing the work.

Virginia Department of Transportation contractors put down traffic cones when they’re doing work and pick them up when they’re not. Presumably in adherence to VDOT guidelines, they keep lanes open as much as they can. Why can’t Richmond do the same thing?

Gray could do the public a service by tracking down who in the city public works department approved a construction plan that so unnecessarily inconvenienced drivers and hurt local businesses.

Business As Usual in the Old Dominion: Gridlock, Greed and Confusion

After LaHood report, more squabbling over Metro’s future. In the wake of recommendations by former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., are edging toward compromises that would reform the ailing mass transit system’s governance system and shore up its financing. LaHood’s proposal to shrink the Metro board from six seats to five is drawing some bipartisan support, and legislation in Congress is being drafted, reports the Washington Post. But suburban jurisdictions in Virginia and Maryland, worried about losing their voice on the board, are unhappy with the plan. Also, while LaHood affirmed the need for an additional $500 million a year to work down a massive maintenance backlog, he did not propose how that massive sum might be funded — mainly because there is no consensus for a regional sales tax, the main proposal on the table. Also unaddressed is the not-insignificant matter that Metro really needs an additional $1.5 billion a year, not $500 million, to fix its problems.

Good business if you can get it. (Alternative headline: First, kill all the lawyers.) Richmond has emerged as the preferred venue for bankruptcy trials, reports the New York Times. Toys “R” Us, Gymboree, a West Virginia coal company, and a Pennsylvania fracking company all have filed in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court there. The federal district court’s so-called rocket docket resolves cases swiftly. Also, precedents in the court’s legal record make it easier for companies to walk away from union contracts. But perhaps the biggest draw is the ability of bankruptcy lawyers to charge outrageous fees — as much as $1,745 per hour. Lawyers advising troubled companies, writes the newspaper, tend to gravitate toward courts that approve higher fees.

Dazed and confused — but mostly confused. A state review of the police response to the chaotic white nationalist protest in Charlottesville in August describes a confused command structure, a breakdown in communication, and uncertainty among officers about the “rules of engagement” with protesters, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The review, led by James W. Baker, a consultant with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, did not address whether or not police were ordered to “stand down” in the face of escalating violence between white supremacists and leftists. Nor did it assign responsibility for the confusion to anyone in the Charlottesville city administration.

Uh, Oh, Metro Needs Another $9.5 Billion

Washington Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld has been pushing for $15.5 billion in additional contributions from participating states and localities over the next 10 years, including $500 million in dedicated funding, to make the ailing commuter rail system safe and reliable.

That request has set off serious jockeying between Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Virginia over who should pay how much, and which reforms the Metropolitan Washington Area Transit Authority (MWATA) must make before anyone trusts it with more money.

But at a recent MWATA board meeting, reports the Washington Post, Chairman Jack Evans enumerated $9.5 billion in anticipated needs not covered in Wiedefeld’s $15.5 billion figure.

Wiedefeld’s proposal “will only keep us where we are right now, which is not a good place to be,” Evans said. “What the region does, what the elected leadership, the business [community does] — they will seize on the easiest approach. So when he put out the number ‘500,’ everybody seized on ‘500,’ which gets you to $15 billion — which gets you to where you are today. Nobody wants to be where we are today.”

“We’re asking for the wrong number,” he said. “I think it was a mistake on behalf of the GM . . . to ask for the lower number.”

Bacon’s bottom line: Well, you have to appreciate Evans’ honesty. No one wants to hear that revitalizing the Metro will cost an astonishing $25 billion, not a mere $15 billion. As Virginians discuss how they will find their multibillion-dollar share of the Wiedefeld proposal, they should be acutely aware that they would be meeting only the Metro’s most urgent needs — “nonnegotiable” safety and system upgrades. They to ask themselves, will $15.5 billion be enough, or will it just paper over the problems?

Metro is “too big to fail.” Its collapse would throw the Washington region’s transportation system into turmoil, with endless repercussions for the economy and economic development. For instance, the Washington region would be an attractive location for the Amazon second headquarters in many ways, but the company is sure to ask itself, does it want to locate 50,000 employees in a region whose commuter rail system is falling apart and a proposed $15 billion fix merely preserves a deficient status quo?

Metro must be salvaged. But Virginia needs to hang tough and demand comprehensive management, labor, and governance reforms before coughing up hundreds of millions of dollars a year for a bail-out that may not accomplish much.

Washington Metro as Wealth-Redistribution Tool

Paging Karl Marx. Karl Marx, please. Three left-leaning think tanks think businesses should be taxed to subsidize lower Washington Metro fares.

The progressive outfits — the Virginia-based Commonwealth Institute, the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and the Maryland Center on Economic Policy — have declared their opposition to a region-wide one-cent sales tax to fund the Washington metropolitan region’s decrepit Metro heavy rail and bus systems. Such a tax would fall disproportionately on poor families, they argue, taking five times the share of income from the bottom 20% of earners when compared to that of the top 1%.

“It does not make sense to add an extra cost to families who already struggle from stagnant wages, rising housing costs, and Metro fare hikes and service cuts,” says the joint position paper. “Black and Latino families are more likely to be living on low incomes than white families, which means that a sales-tax approach would ask communities of color to devote a greater share of their incomes toward fixing Metro.”

Who, then, should pay for Metro, which requires billions of dollars in maintenance and capital improvements to reverse a vicious cycle of poor service, eroding ridership, and declining fare revenue?

“Those who benefit the most should pay the most, including businesses,” say the think tanks. “A strong Metro is critical to a functioning economy. This suggests that businesses should be expected to shoulder a substantial share of the costs, since their success depends on a strong public transit system.”

All businesses should be expected to contribute, whether they are close to public transit or not, since even businesses not near public transit benefit from the reduced traffic that results from having a strong public transit system. Public transit takes cars off the roads and reduces congestion for those who drive.

The think tanks did suggest, however, that localities might consider imposing the biggest taxes on businesses located closest to Metrorail lines. “While it’s likely that these businesses already face higher rents and property taxes because they are in a desirable location, it’s also the case that these businesses have the most to benefit from a strong Metro system.”

The authors also oppose cost-cutting measures such as reducing hours of operation or cutting low-usage bus lines on the grounds that they would fall hardest on low-wage workers and economically disadvantaged communities.

Bacon’s bottom line: Wow. I would be hard-pressed to devise a way of thinking more diametrically opposed to my own. My core principle is that all modes of transportation should be self-supporting to the greatest extent possible, and that those who benefit from a transportation asset should be the ones who pay for it.

The most immediate beneficiaries of the Metro system are the riders — the people who actually use it. In an ideal world, fare box revenue would cover all operating expenses. Politically, that is impossible, of course. A major cause of Metro’s slow-motion fiscal train wreck is that the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has kept fares excessively low for years, largely on the grounds that higher fares would harm the poor and minorities. Decades of under-funding have led to the situation WMATA now finds itself in.

The absurdity of holding down fares is that it subsidizes fares for the non-poor as well as the poor. If the think tanks and WMATA board members really want to help the poor, then they should find a mechanism that targets low-income people rather than subsidize all Metro riders equally. To the extent that Metro rail serves suburbanites commuting to work in the region’s urban core, many are well-off and can readily afford a fare increase.

The second set of beneficiaries is not the generic business community. While businesses may benefit from proximity to Metro stations, they pay for that location through higher rent. The real beneficiaries are the property owners. A respectable body of thought says that heavy rail can be financed through “value capture” — capturing the increased value of the real estate created by building a Metro station. That value represents a windfall to the property owner who did nothing to create it. Insofar as property owners near Metro stations can charge higher rents, it is reasonable to ask them to pay a real estate tax surcharge out of their higher cash flow. But that’s not what the think tanks are arguing. They advocate charging everyone, including tenants who are already paying higher rents to landlords for the privilege of proximity to Metro.

While it may be true in a very general sense that businesses benefit indirectly from the construction and operation of mass transit, that is no justification for compelling them to subsidize Metro service. Businesses benefit from people having food to eat — why not make them subsidize grocery stores? Businesses benefit from people knowing how to read — why not make them subsidize schools? Businesses benefit from the digital revolution — why not make them subsidize the cost of PCs, laptops and smart phones?

Subsidizing everyone to benefit the poor becomes an opaque and open-ended handout. If left-leaning think tanks want the poor to have more money, perhaps they should help elected officials create a program that precisely targets lower-income Americans and appropriates funds annually in a transparent process visible to all.

Another Useless, Irrelevant Debate

Sterile

Ed Gillespie, Republican candidate for governor, has gotten himself in a political pickle. According to press reports, he has been blasting his Democratic rival Ralph Northam for backing the 2013 transportation tax package as “the largest tax increase in Virginia history.” But as Democrats have been pointing out, Gillespie was gubernatorial campaign chairman for Bob McDonnell, who pushed the bill through the General Assembly with significant Republican support.

The criticisms don’t address the substance of what Gillespie is saying — Northam did back the biggest tax increase in Virginia history. But the pushback raises an obvious question: What would Gillespie have done differently? How would he have proposed to fund Virginia’s pressing transportation needs?

Frankly, both Republicans and Democrats are incoherent on the subject of transportation funding. Both sides base their arguments on three untenable propositions: (1) that building more roads or commuter rail will solve our transportation problems, if only we build enough of the right thing; (2) that someone else should pay; and (3) that current transportation solutions will be relevant in the rapidly approaching era of driverless cars, transportation as a service and Uberization of transportation.

Let’s address these issues point by point.

Building more roads and commuter rail will not address transportation congestion unless local governments allow developers to transform what we commonly call “suburban sprawl” into traffic-eating walkable urbanism. Pedestrian-friendly, mixed-used development built at moderate densities substitutes foot travel for car trips, substitutes short car trips for longer trips, and makes mass transit a attractive to more riders.

While this market-driven transformation is taking place in fits and starts — mainly in Virginia’s urban-core jurisdictions and around Washington Metro stops — it is not taking place nearly fast enough. There will never be enough money to provide congestion-free transportation for sprawling, low-density land use patterns.

The second problem is that everyone wants a better transportation system, but no one wants to pay for it themselves. Having long ago abandoned the idea of a user-pays system, Virginia politicians excel at singling out others to pay. The result is an absurd system in which there is no connection between those who use transportation infrastructure (roads and rail alike), and those who pay for it. Thus, 85-year-old, blue-haired ladies who drive 2,000 miles a year pay sales taxes to subsidize road warriors who drive 20,000 miles, Dulles Toll Road users pay inflated tolls so Silver Line riders can enjoy below-cost fares, and everyone subsidizes tractor-trailers whose taxes don’t come close to covering the wear and tear they cause on roads. The perverse result: When people don’t pay the full cost of their travel decisions, they travel more.

The third problem, approaching insanity, is that Virginia continues to build roads and rail on the assumption that driving and commuting patterns will be the same in 20 years as they are today. But that is a manifestly idiotic assumption. The advent of driverless cars will drive down the cost of taxi-like, bus-like and jitney-like transportation services, making shared ridership services a more attractive option. The rise of subscription-based transportation-as-a-service enterprises will provide an alternative to individual automobile ownership. There is no way to forecast with any certainty how these innovations will affect driving habits and the need to build more highways and commuter rail.

The debates that politicians should be having, but aren’t, are these:

  1. How can we relax zoning codes to encourage land use patterns that put less strain on the transportation system?
  2. How can we reform transportation funding to support a user-pays transportation system?
  3. How should Virginia position itself to take maximum advantage of the fast-approaching driverless/electric/transportation-as-a-service revolution?

None of these conversations are occurring. Ed Gillespie isn’t talking about them — but neither are his critics. The debate is more sterile than a mule with a vasectomy. Virginians should demand better.