Is Smart Scale Working Like It’s Supposed to?

Republican legislators in Northern Virginia (the few that are left) are wondering what happened to Virginia’s Smart Scale mechanism for allocating transportation dollars. Smart Scale was established during the McAuliffe administration to score proposed transportation projects on key metrics such as congestion relief, economic development, safety, land use, and the environment. But somehow 84% of the transportation dollars raised through Northern Virginia regional taxes were directed to transit projects, assert Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, and Del. Tim Hugo, R-Fairfax. Only $8 million per year of the $200 million in state funding has gone to highway projects.

“These recommendations are nothing short of outrageous and demonstrate beyond any shadow of a doubt that SMART SCALE scoring is failing,” said LaRock in a prepared statement yesterday. “It is not following the legislative mandates imposed by the Virginia Legislature in 2014. Northern Virginia’s notorious congestion will not go away if 70% of the estimated benefit of projects comes from Land use, Economic Development, and Accessibility; with another 18% from Environment.” Continue reading

Arlington Could Spend $11.5 Million to Do What?

Let’s see now. Arlington County offered $29 million in incentives to land the economic development coup of the decade, Amazon’s HQ2 project. Now, according to the Washington Business Journal, the County Board is considering granting another $11.5 million in incentives to keep the Drug Enforcement Administration in town. Are you kidding me?

Citizens are raising legitimate concerns that the influx of 25,000 Amazon employees will drive up housing costs and displace lower-income residents and make Northern Virginia’s overloaded roads and highways even more congested. I have argued that the benefit to Arlington — increased economic dynamism and diversification — is worth the millions of dollars worth of enticements. But let’s not pretend there isn’t a cost.

Who needs to bribe the DEA when you’ve got Amazon coming? And not just Amazon, but all the vendors, partners, spin-offs, and other enterprises that will become part of the Amazon ecosystem. What does the DEA bring to the table? Economic diversification? Hah! The DEA perpetuates dependency upon the federal government. Economic dynamism? Laugh out loud! The DEA is a government bureaucracy. Continue reading

Toxic Chemicals and Relative Risk — an Alien Concept to Virginians

The chemical structure of 1,2,4 trimethylbenzene, of which 132,000 pounds were released into Virginia’s air and waterways in 2017. Are we safe? Should you be worried? Should government spend billions to “do” something?

The West Point paper mill, one of Virginia’s 10 largest emitters of toxic materials in 2017, emitted 7.6% fewer toxic materials in 2017 compared to the year before, reports the Daily Press today. All told, the paper mill released 852,914 pounds — mostly menthol, ammonia, and hydrochloric acid — into the air and water. That news got me to thinking…

There are a couple of obvious story lines that could be extracted from the data, which comes from the release of 2017 numbers from the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI). One, which the Daily Press adopts, is that West Point, like other major manufacturers, has done an excellent job over the years in grinding out steady reductions in the volume of toxic chemicals it releases into the environment.

The other story line is the degree to which Virginians are absolutely insensate to the massive volume of chemicals pumped into the air and water. The TRI lists 138 toxic chemicals from 1,2,4-Trimethylbenzene to zinc compounds — totaling 34.5 million pounds in all. These chemicals vary widely in their emission volumes, their toxicity, and the speed with which they break down or are otherwise rendered harmless.

But one thing these compounds have in common is that no one is losing sleep over them. Continue reading

What can Virginia learn from Nashville (Part 1)?

Photo credit: Rachael Ray Every Day – Awesome Things to Do in Nashville

Juggernaut. The Guardian published a story today on the amazing rise of Nashville as a business center, an entertainment center, a tourist destination and a city. Music City is certainly going through a multi-decade growth spurt rising from a population of 170,874 in 1960 to an estimated population of 691,243 in 2017. Interestingly, Richmond had 28% more people than Nashville in 1960 but is only one third the size of Nashville today. In a similar vein, Nashville was 88% more populous than Alexandria in 1960 but is 4.3X bigger than Alexandria today. However, as we’ll see, this is not quite “apples to apples.” The relative growth of Nashville was far more the result of ambitious, aggressive and sometimes hard decisions by the state of Tennessee and the City of Nashville than any failings on the part of Richmond or Alexandria. Yet this amazing growth spurt comes at the cost of considerable growing pains. The question for Virginia is whether the Nashville model (or the Austin, Charlotte, Louisville or Atlanta models for that matter) hold any lessons for the Old Dominion. This topic will be presented in two parts – this post (background and history) and a future post (more recent history, current successes and challenges). I will publish the second post when I return from a long weekend in Nashville at the end of April. Continue reading

Extreme Weather Event, Extreme Weather Event, Go Away…

Now, we’re told, we have a new reason to fear climate change: Record rainfalls are straining the capacity of combined-sewer overflow (CSO) systems in Richmond, Lynchburg and Alexandria. In heavy rains, the antiquated systems, which combine stormwater runoff and wastewater, release untreated wastewater into the river.

“We’re on the frontlines dealing with climate change,” Grace LeRose, program manager for the Richmond public utilities, told The Virginia Mercury. “We’re seeing bigger and more frequent storms that are going to tax our system even more.”

In  May and June the city experienced 23 inches of rain, the highest ever recorded. That year, contends the Virginia Mercury, was indicative of a longer-term trend. There was a 33% increase in the number of heavy rainstorms in Virginia, and an 11% increase from the largest storms between 1948 and 2011.

Of course, you can make statistics say anything you want them to, so I thought I’d do some checking. Continue reading

A Street Sign by Any Other Name Is Still Just a Street Sign

The Arlington County board is expected to ask the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) to rename the section of the Jefferson Davis Highway, Rt. 1, that runs through the county.

What took it so long?

I defend the preservation of Civil War statues, especially those along Richmond’s Monument Ave. The statues are magnificent works of public art that are integrated into the urban design of the community. No one erects statues of this quality any more — just compare the craftsmanship of the Lee, Jackson and Stuart effigies compared to the modest and forgettable memorials that pop up today. Remove the statues, and you create gaping holes in the streetscape. But a street name is just a street name. Continue reading

Is Winter Coming For Virginia Pipeline Projects?

The Mountain Valley Pipeline route on Brush Mountain, July 18, 2018. (Heather Rousseau/The Roanoke Times)

The building season is here, but for developers of Virginia’s two hotly-contested natural gas pipelines, activity is back in the government agencies and courthouses.  The construction sites remain largely silent, delays running up the ultimate cost of the projects, including the cost of failure.

Here is my (probably flawed) attempt at a status report.  And you thought Game of Thrones is a complicated plot.

Dominion Energy’s leadership told stockholders on March 25 that it is hoping to “recommence at least partial construction” on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) in the third quarter of this year, and the Mountain Valley Pipeline is still talking about being in service by the end of this year on its website.  One national rating agency expressed concerns about the ACP several weeks ago, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.  A few days later another analyst told Forbes readers about the challenges facing both pipelines.  Continue reading

Northam Waters Down Virginia’s Livestock Fencing Plan

Northam Administration vs The Chesapeake Bay. Two disturbing facts were brought to light last week. First, a survey of two agriculture-intense Virginia counties found that the effort to reduce agricultural pollution by fencing off farm streams from cattle is far behind schedule. Second, our supposedly progressive governor put forth a very watered down Watershed Improvement Plan that effectively eliminates the livestock fencing goals in the Commonwealth.

Cows do more than fart and burp. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, raised more than a few eyebrows when her New Green Deal included measures to curb the greenhouse gas effects of farting and burping cows. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez whimsically referenced the emissions of methane and nitrous oxide as digestive byproducts from many farm animals, especially cattle. While these emissions are a legitimate issue, a bovine prescription for Gas-X and Rolaids would not solve the problem. The production of meat in general, and beef in particular, has a sizable negative impact on the environment. Every step in raising, slaughtering, packaging and shipping meat adds to greenhouse gas emissions. Across the globe animal agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions (14-18%) than transportation (13.5%). However, the environmental impact of animal agriculture doesn’t end with greenhouse gas emissions. A 1400-pound Holstein steer produces 115 pounds of manure per day or about 21 tons per year. Some of this prodigious amount of manure finds its way from cows and steers to farm creeks and eventually into the Chesapeake Bay. The manure contains high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus which cause excess algae growth de-oxygenating the bay’s water. Many consider animal waste the biggest problem confronting the Chesapeake Bay. Continue reading

Virginia’s Decline in Crime

Source: Demographics Research Group, StatChat blog

One of the advantages of living in Virginia is that citizens are less likely than other Americans on average to become crime victims. The rate of violent crimes (seen above ) is about half the national average, according to data published today on the StatChat blog based on 2017 FBI crime data. The rate for property crimes is only three-quarters of the national average. That’s pretty impressive considering that Virginia’s demographics come pretty close to matching the national profile. The Old Dominion is doing something right.

Not that you’d know it by reading Charlottesville’s Daily Progress today. Continue reading

Another Fig Leaf Solution for Affordable Housing

Virginia lawmakers are adding $4 million this year to the Commonwealth’s affordable housing trust fund. While acknowledging that the sum is a “drop in the bucket” when it comes to affordable housing costs — the money would bring the revolving low-interest loan fund up to $9.5 million — the Washington Post cites housing officials as saying that the money “is a sign that the state is paying attention to a growing need.”

I would characterize the $4 million expenditure differently. The political function is to allow the Northam administration and lawmakers generally look like they’re doing something while. in actuality, they are studiously ignoring the underlying problem. The erosion of affordable housing is mostly a supply-side problem, not a financing problem. Continue reading

Courts Authorizing “Reverse Location” Warrants in Virginia

FBI “reverse location” warrant in Henrico County…. Photo credit: Forbes

Big brother Google is watching you. Back in October, 2018,  Forbes reported that a Virginia court had authorized the FBI to use a “reverse location” warrant to try to solve a series of crimes in Henrico County, Va. This warrant, also known as a geofence warrant, allows police to compel Google to provide all cellphone activity for all people in a general area over a specified period of time. The resulting handover of data includes locations and other information on potentially hundreds, if not thousands, of people. While Google has complied with the warrants in the past, it is unclear whether the company complied in the Henrico case. Continue reading

Medicaid: Report The Taxes Along With The Growth

Expansion tracking on the Virginia DMAS website. Click to expand, web version is here.

Virginia makes is easy to track the growth of Medicaid enrollment since the decision a year ago to expand coverage but tracking the tax dollars behind the scenes is another matter.

The new enrollment expansion dashboard on the Department of Medical Assistance Services website is updated every couple of weeks, with the April 4 report showing just under 260,000 people added to the program since late last year.  The City of Salem has added the fewest, only 34 new recipients, while Fairfax County has added the most at 18,220.  The advertised goal for expansion was 400,000 persons, so probably there are more to come.  Continue reading

17th-Century Renderings of Native Virginians

Wenceslaus Hollar, a prolific maker of etchings in the 1600s, has an exhibit dedicated to his works now on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Born in Bohemia, he spent most of his adult life in Germany, Netherlands and England, where he cranked out a prodigious number of works, sometimes of his own contrivance, sometimes copying the paintings of others as etchings. Two renderings, I thought, were worthy of note for Bacon’s Rebellion, for they depicted the indigenous inhabitants of “Virginia” — a term used somewhat more loosely than it is today — before they were displaced by the Europeans. One etching is of the muscular gent above. And the other… Continue reading

VRS Not Out of Woods Yet

Following up on Jim’s recent post about the WMATA pension problems, I decided to check on the recent performance of the Virginia Retirement System.  Now that I get a monthly check from these folks, my interest is more active than in the past.

Analysis of pension plans is out of my league, but there is a recent report that does create some concern and even I understand it.  VRS is required by statute to conduct periodic stress tests.  The latest one was released in December.  For those who are interested in digging into the weeds, here it is .  Toward the end of the report, the authors point out that VRS lost about 25% of its value in the first couple of years of the Great Recession.  They warn that, if there is another great shock or even a period of a few years of returns lower than needed, the plan would be in a worse position to absorb the shock than it was in 2009.  The Free Lance-Star had a good summary of the issue in this editorial.

In summary, to keep VRS able to meet its pension obligations, the General Assembly needs to continue its recent practice of paying down the plan’s unfunded obligations.

A Visual Refresh for the Rebellion

My wife is my toughest critic (other than Blue Virginia, maybe), and she suggested that I need to freshen up the Bacon’s Rebellion header. A lithograph of Nathaniel Bacon and his fellow rebels burning down Jamestown in 1676, she contended, doesn’t jive with the tagline, “Reinventing Virginia for the 21st Century.” After hemming and hawing for a few months, I finally decided she was right.

So… I have replaced the old Nathaniel Bacon header with rotating images from around Virginia. They include Back Bay, the Blue Ridge mountains, the Richmond skyline, the Tysons skyline, the Norfolk Naval Base, Monticello, and the Virginia capitol building.

I am totally open to adding to or deleting these images. Indeed, I invite readers to submit photographs for consideration. The key criteria are simple: Do they say something about Virginia today? Can they be cropped in a long horizontal image? Will they reproduce well without digital fuzzing? And do they reside in the public domain? (I don’t want to steal anyone’s copyright.)

If you have better versions of the images I’ve got in the rotation list (a couple of them could be sharper), by all means, let’s see them!