Category Archives: Infrastructure

Chesterfield’s $50 Million Fiscal Landmine

Virginia and its local governments are constitutionally obligated to balance their budgets ever year. But as I have repeatedly pointed out, there are many ways to duck that obligation. One is to rack up unfunded pension liabilities. Another is to under-fund maintenance.

Today we discover that even a highly reputed county with a AAA bond rating can engage in fiscal sleight-of-hand. From today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch: “Chesterfield County needs $50 million for school maintenance problems that could keep kids out of schools if they are not addressed soon.”

The county issued $300 million in bonds after a voter-approved referendum in 2013 to replace and renovate county schools. Apparently, there’s only $13 million left for fixing facilities — far short of what’s needed.

Dan Champion, a program manager for the firm EMG, said there are schools across the county with serious electrical, air conditioning and roofing problems. If not adequately addressed over the next two decades, the cost of the repairs could rise to nearly $1 billion, he said.

The Times-Dispatch article delves into the riff between the county administration and the school system. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on. Regardless of who is to blame, it is clear that Chesterfield schools have run $50 million in maintenance deficits over the years. And now the county is on notice that, absent corrective action, the maintenance deficit could reach $1 billion over 20 years.

How many other Virginia school districts have engaged in deficit maintenance spending? How many other agencies and localities have piled up unfunded liabilities for deteriorating roads, highways, bridges, mass transit systems, water and sewer plants and pipelines, libraries, administration buildings, courthouses, jails, prisons, municipal gas systems, IT systems, automotive fleets, and the rest of the state’s vast infrastructure?

Administrators and elected officials have no interest in knowing the truth that might make them look bad. So, nobody tracks this information until it becomes an explosive issue. What’s that noise we hear in Chesterfield? Kaboom!

Bacon Bits: Rails, Roads, Hurricanes and Rainbows

Still off the tracks. Despite promising efforts by top-level management, the Washington Metro corporate culture is still dysfunctional. An audit of $1.9 million in blanket purchase agreements found missing and incomplete documents, reports the Washington Times.

“Auditors found that Metro employees failed to record $845,000 as BPAs in their accounting software, a problem the inspector general attributed to poor controls and lack of staff training,” the newspaper reports. “As a result, $1.8 million of the $1.9 million sampled contained internal control issues.”

Long and winding road. Southwest Virginia’s twisty, windy roads have been long considered a barrier to economic development because they are so inhospitable to commercial trucking. But local promoters in Tazewell County have turned Route 16 into a tourist magnet. The road, dubbed “Back of the Dragon,” provides gut-wrenching turns and spectacular vistas. Last year an estimated 60,000 motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts passed through the nearby 4,240-person town of Tazewell.

Chris Cannon, executive director of Friends of Southwest Virginia, told the New York Times: “We focus on natural and cultural assets” rather than coal, tobacco and lumber. The region has a bluegrass heritage trail, a crafts collective, and outdoor activities like ATV, riding, hiking, mountain biking, and river running. “We as a region are trying to diversify.”

Resiliency reminder. Former Hurricane Michael was only a tropical storm by the time it barreled through Virginia, but it still caused havoc. Some 585,000 customers in Dominion Energy’s Virginia and North Carolina service territory lost their electric power. As of 7 a.m. Friday, nearly 450,000 still had lights out. reported Dominion in a press release this morning:

Early reports of damage include broken poles, cross arms and downed wire in many locations, as well as transmission lines impacted due to tree damage. There were multiple reports of tornadoes within our service territory. In Northern Neck, a tornado touched down and damaged a Dominion Energy substation.

I hope Dominion is keeping good numbers. Legislators and the public will want an after-action report, with a particular focus on the efficacy of the utility’s undergrounding program. How many underground lines experienced disruption compared to the number that would have been predicted before the lines were buried? How much time did Dominion’s repair teams save as a consequence, and how many customer-hours of electric outages were avoided?

Who’s got the brightest rainbow? The city of Richmond scored higher on the Municipal Equality Index, a scorecard measuring municipal policies regarding the LGBTQ community, than the People’s Republic of Arlington and the People’s Republic of Charlottesville — and Mayor Levar Stoney is darn proud of it. “I am delighted that Richmond is able to progress at this level,” said Stoney in a recent press release drawing attention to the ranking.

“Diversity and inclusion are … cornerstones for attracting and retaining residents, top talent, and industry,” wrote Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class,” in a letter published in the MEI study. “Cities that do not guarantee equal rights to LGBTQ send a strong unwelcoming message to potential visitors, residents, and investors, stymying their potential for economic advancement. In short, many businesses and top talent consider LGBTQ discrimination a deal breaker. … It pays to prioritize inclusion.”

Shoreline Resiliency Funds for Hampton Roads?

In 2016 former Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a bill that set up a revolving loan fund to help homeowners and businesses elevate their properties to safeguard against sea level rise. Just one problem, says the Virginian-Pilot. The fund has no dedicated revenue source. Two years later, “the well is dry.”

Now the Virginia Conservation Network is calling for the state to contribute $50 million to the Virginia Shoreline Resiliency Fund. “The coastal communities need help,” says Karen Forget with Lynnhaven River Now, a member of the environmental network. “This is a huge, really unprecedented, issue for the coastal communities all up and down the East Coast. We definitely need assistance.”

Virginia’s coastal tidewater region is highly vulnerable to flooding caused by land subsidence and a rising sea level. The inundations are increasing in frequency, and, according to some, will get worse as global warming intensifies and sea level rise accelerates. Even if you don’t buy the alarmist global-warming scenarios, there is no disputing that the sea level has been rising at a steady rate for more than a century and will continue to do so, or that land around Hampton Roads has been subsiding and will continue to do so. The flooding of coastal Virginia is one of the most predictable crises in history.

The million-dollar questions are (1) what should we do about it, and (2) who should pay for it? It’s not surprising that representatives from the Hampton Roads metro area are begging the state for money. Who can blame them? That’s what everyone does. And there is a case to be made that in a Commonwealth such as Virginia, we’re all in this together, and other regions should help out.

However, when Hampton Roads asks for $50 million, a not inconsiderable sum, the rest of the state need not write a blank check. Let’s face it, it will take a lot more than $50 million to adapt to rising sea levels — it will take billions of dollars — and we can safely say that this request for state funds will be only the first of many in the years ahead.

While inland Virginia has a moral obligation to help Coastal Virginia, the obligation is not an open-ended, no-strings-attached commitment. Coastal Virginia needs to take actions, which, at the very least, will stop increasing the region’s exposure to flooding. Ideally, the region should take steps to reduce its exposure to flooding. And that will mean curtailing coastal development.

Now, I’m a free-market kind of guy, and I think people should be able to build where they want to (as long as they don’t cause harm to others). So, if someone wants to build a $5 million house on the beachfront, be my guest. But I don’t believe people have no right to expect society to insulate them from the risks they’re taking by, say, subsidizing their hurricane and flood insurance. Nor do I believe that they have a right to insist that society provide infrastructure — flood-proof roads, water, sewer, electricity, etc. — at any cost to beachfront dwellers need to sustain themselves in the facing of rising waters and increase funds.

That $50 million revolving fund will be used to help people put their houses on stilts. That may be a reasonable use of the money (although I’d like to see the fine print). But it doesn’t come close to addressing the massive unfunded liability Coastal Virginia has created for itself. Inland Virginians should extend a hand of assistance to their brethren on the coast — and insist they get serious about reducing their liabilities.

Update: Today’s Washington Post headline: “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say.” Yeah, right. That’s what they said ten years ago…. and twenty years ago. Those of us who remember past doomsday prophecies have become inured. But you don’t have to believe in global climate catastrophe to acknowledge that flooding risks on the Virginia coastline are real and slowly but steadily getting worse.

Pipelines, Fake Racism and the Environmental Justice Hustle

Photo credit: The Interfaith Alliance for Climate Justice

A 15-member advisory council has recommended that the state rescind permits for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and Mountain Valley Pipeline on the grounds of environmental justice, the Washington Post reports.

The Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, created by former Governor Terry McAuliffe, said that Governor Ralph Northam should appoint an emergency task force “to ensure that predominately poor, indigenous, brown and/or black communities do not bear an unequal burden of environmental pollutants and life-altering disruptions.”

Environmental justice advocates have focused in recent months on the community of Union Hill in Buckingham County, a historically African-American area where the ACP wants to build a compressor station. The compressor requires an state air-quality permit, the denial of which would put a serious crimp in the pipeline plans. African-American residents would be impacted by the noise and dust of construction as well as from air pollution emanating from the compressor station. A draft letter (I haven’t been able to find a copy of the final letter) from the group declares that the compressor station “exhibits racism.”

Friends, the environmental justice/social justice movement has jumped the shark. Pipeline foes raise serious issues about landowner rights (are property owners sufficiently compensated for rights of way?) and water quality (will erosion and sedimentation in mountainous karst terrain damage local water supplies?). But the environmental justice angle is hokum.  We live in an era in which labeling someone or something as “racist” trumps all other facts and logic. The anti-communist McCarthyism of the 1950s has revisited America a half-century later in a new guise. Today, social justice warriors espy racists behind every bush. But tarring the ACP as exhibiting “racism” deprives the term “racism” of any meaning.

Let’s consider a few facts about the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The pipeline is 600 miles long. Architects of the pipeline route circumvented sites of historical or cultural significance (including those associated with African-Americans), as well as sites of ecological importance, including large tracts of land protected by conservation easements and national park status. Concerned about the impact on local economies and local tax bases, the ACP made efforts (not entirely successful) to minimize impact on sites with economic value. The unavoidable consequence was to steer the pipeline through properties with less economic value.

Steering a pipeline through areas with lower property values means redirecting it from affluent areas to lower-income areas. Insofar as there is overlap between the lower-income population and the African-American population, that means routing the pipeline through areas populated by African-Americans. ACP didn’t route its pipeline with an intention of discriminating against African-Americans, it reconfigured the route in response to pressure emanating from those with political power. If there is institutional racism in the picture, it’s the superior ability of affluent white pipeline foes to protect their property.

Despite this unintentional bias in the routing process, it is difficult to see a disproportionate impact on lower-income or African-American Virginians in the numbers.

According to the ACP Environmental Impact Statementin Virginia 11.5% of the population lives below the poverty line. Thirty-four of the 63 census tracts in Virginia within one mile of the pipeline have a higher percentage of the population living below the poverty line when compared to the state. Consider how elastic this definition is. The pipeline doesn’t have run through a lower-income census district, it can run within a mile of such a district! Furthermore, the methodology fails to adjust the “poverty” line for the lower cost of rural living. Thus the percentage of poor Virginians who are truly poor — and the putative impact on truly poor people — is significantly overstated.

Likewise, minorities in Virginia comprise 30.8% of the population, according to the ACP’s Environmental Impact Statement. The pipeline route goes through, or within one mile of, census tracts with minority populations ranging from o.2% to 100%. In 15 of the 63 census tracts, the minority population is either (1) greater than 50% or (2) is meaningfully greater than the percentage of the minority population in that particular jurisdiction. Nice trick: Create two definitions for describing disparate impact and rather than pick one or the other, use both!

Despite the way the process is loaded, it strikes me that you would have gotten much the same impact if you had plotted the pipeline route by random chance. In 48 census tracts, the disparate-impact criteria do not apply.

In a state in which the African-American population is scattered throughout the countryside, it is impossible using random selection criteria to avoid impacting some African American landowners and communities. As it happens, one cluster of the minority communities in the path of the pipeline is located in Buckingham County near a proposed compressor station, the location of which was picked not because of proximity to African-Americans but because of the availability of an industrial parcel in proximity to the anticipated junction with the Transco pipeline.

The social justice warriors are focusing on one African-American community along a 600-mile pipeline and using it as a stand-in for the entire African-American population along the route. Then the SJWs purport to speak for that community (some of whose members may not share their views), and insist that the alleged injustices visited upon that single community are grounds for scuttling the entire project. If this logic prevails, SJWs will be given the power to exercise veto power over major infrastructure projects — not just gas pipelines, but electric transmission lines, highways, or any major industrial project — on the basis of race.

Of course, as I have frequently pointed out in other contexts, the SJWs are highly selective in assigning racism. One could just as easily describe the SJWs as the racists. Pipeline construction will open up hundreds of jobs for African-Americans working for the Laborers International Union of America. By augmenting local supplies of gas, the pipeline also will make rural counties with large African-American populations eligible to recruit new categories of manufacturing business.

Dominion Energy and other ACP partners would be fully within their rights to accuse the predominantly white SJWs of trying to shut off economic opportunities for blacks to advance their anti-fossil fuel agenda — an accusation which has considerable validity. Dominion doesn’t play the game that way. But I wouldn’t blame them if they did.

Virginia Has Hired Its Own Offshore Wind Guru

Andy Geissbuehler

Getting serious about making a Virginia a major player in the offshore wind energy, the Northam administration has engaged international energy consulting firm BVG Associates. BVG Advisory Director Andy Geissbuehler made his first public appearance in a public listening session in Newport News yesterday on the topic of wind development.

“Everyone knows the U.S. will be a massive offshore wind market, and the U.S. will be very fast in picking up and catching up with some of the current market leaders, and will probably develop to one of the No. 1 markets globally,” said Giessbuehler, as reported by the Daily Press.

The idea of making Virginia an East Coast leader in offshore wind and a center of the supply chain supporting an offshore wind sector, has been a prominent goal of Virginia governors since at least the time of Bob McDonnell. But what was once a lofty aspiration for the distant future is becoming an urgent priority. Other East Coast states are promoting offshore wind, and they, too, want to exploit a first-mover advantage to become the operations center for the offshore wind industry. As the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week:

In Fall River, a former textile hub on the Massachusetts coast, Bristol County economic development director Kenneth Fiola touts waterfront land and a workforce rooted in manufacturing as reasons the city would make a perfect base for the American offshore wind industry.

In Providence, R.I., officials are promoting their port’s experience helping build the country’s first offshore wind farm off Block Island. In Virginia, representatives are selling the advantages of a waterway with no bridges that would ease the transportation of enormous pieces of the building-size wind turbines.

All along the East Coast, politicians and economic development officials are beginning to pitch their communities as potential hubs for the burgeoning U.S. offshore wind industry. Offshore wind developers, which have largely focused on coastal Europe thus far, have plans to build a dozen utility-scale farms off the U.S. side of the Atlantic in coming years, spurring billions in investment and thousands of jobs.

The competition has ratcheted up this year, with leaders in some states, including New York and New Jersey, pushing aggressive wind-energy procurement goals and pledging financial support to develop the necessary infrastructure and workforce.

In Virginia, the big hold-up has been a need to design wind turbines suited to the geological conditions of the seabed off the Virginia coast and capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds. Dominion Energy has proposed building two test turbines offshore as a demonstration project that, hopefully, would prove the viability of a coastal Virginia location. That project has been stalled due to the astronomically high cost per turbine, which the State Corporation Commission could never justify on a cost-per-kilowatt basis alone. But political winds have shifted with the enactment of the Grid Modernization and Security Act of 2018, which declared offshore wind to be in the public interest.

Dominion says that offshore wind could generate as much as 2,000 megawatts of electricity, roughly equivalent in capacity to one-and-a-half modern combined-cycle natural gas plants. Virginia touts its mid-Atlantic location and the presence of an existing ship repair industry as reasons for the wind construction and repair industry to locate in Hampton Roads.

Presumably, Geissbuehler has been hired as an advocate for Virginia’s offshore wind ambitions, although it is not clear from the Daily Press article whether he will be spending most of his time as an economic developer seeking to entice offshore-wind companies to Virginia, as a wind champion to build political and regulatory support within Virginia, or something else entirely.

Dominion Files 10-Year Grid Modernization Plan

Dominion Energy today filed a plan with the State Corporation Commission outlining how it intends to comply with the Grid Transformation and Security Act of 2018. The filing asks the SCC to approve the programs and investments included in the first three years of a 10-year grid modernization initiative. The filing can be viewed here.

Features of the plan highlighted in a Dominion press release include:

  • $200 million in bill credits to customers, and $125 million in annual rate cuts due to tax relief;
  • Modernizing the energy grid to improve reliability, resiliency and the ability to integrate more renewable energy and emerging technology;
  • Significantly expanding the company’s renewable energy fleet in Virginia;
  • Future testing of wind turbines off the coast of Virginia Beach.

Dominion emphasizes that the improvements will not require any rate increases. Rather, the upgrades will be paid for through earnings over and above its normally allowed Return on Equity, which will be retained for the purposes of reinvestment in grid modernization. This particular provision, the most controversial aspect of the 2018 legislation, was criticized as a form of “double dipping” that allowed Dominion to earn money on its original investment and then to earn more money on the profits that otherwise would have been returned to rate payers. The legislation was said to have fixed the double-dipping issue, but it is not clear how that will work out in practice.

In the meantime, Virginians can look forward to aggressive investment in solar power, wind power, and energy efficiency. Dominion is committing to having 3,000 megawatts of wind and solar in operation by 2022, adding to what the company touts as the sixth largest solar fleet in the nation. (It’s not clear from the press release if that includes solar resources outside of Virginia.)

The plan asks the SCC to include the Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind (CVOC) project: two experimental turbines generating 12 megawatts of power in a federal lease area about 27 miles off the Virginia Beach coast. Experience and data gained from operating those turbines could pave the way for widespread deployment of wind turbines in the future.

Dominion also is asking to install 2.1 million smart meters at a cost of $450 million. These meters, in conjunction with a new customer information system, will enable customers to better manage their energy bills. Additionally, the utility is proposing to spend $870 million in energy efficiency programs over the next decade. The programs are “designed to help customers save energy and manage the demand on Virginia’s electric system.” At least 5% of these programs must benefit low-income, elderly or disabled individuals, “most likely through weatherization upgrades.”

Proposed new construction and material standards will improve grid resiliency by hardening infrastructure and protecting against cyber-attacks. The burial of outage-prone distribution lines and the deployment of intelligence devices and control systems will are meant to speed the re-establishment of electric service.

There is no mention in the Dominion press release of a much talked-about pumped-storage facility in Southwest Virginia, which previous legislation had declared to be in the public interest. The pumped-storage facility would use electricity in off-peak hours to pump water from a lower-elevation containment lake to an upper-elevation lake, and then generate electric power during peak hours.

The State Corporation Commission has been skeptical of some of these investments in the past, but the Grid Modernization Act declares them to be in the public interest. It’s not clear exactly how that assertion of General Assembly priorities will play out in the SCC decision-making process. The next few months should tell the tale.

SCC Examiner Recommends Shorter Transmission Line Towers for Augusta

Image source: Staunton News Leader

Dominion Energy wants to rebuild 17.7 miles of a 500 kV power line through Augusta County to meet the electricity load of its western Virginia customers, and as long as it’s rebuilding the line, increase the height to accommodate an additional 230 kV line should the need for it ever arise. Building a double-circuit structure would add $6.1 million to the project but save between $44 million and $55 million if the utility had to come back later to add the second transmission line.

Local landowners, distressed by the visual impact on their property, oppose the higher line, and they want Dominion to pay between $1.3 million and $2.5 million extra to add a coating that would give the bright galvanized steel a brown color.

In a ruling issued earlier this month, State Corporation Commission hearing examiner Ann Berkebile ruled that the rebuilding of the existing Dooms-Valley 500 kV line is justified by the public convenience and necessity but that spending the additional money for taller towers is not. Further, she found that the expenditure of additional money to chemically dull the towers is warranted. The case now goes to the SCC’s three judges for a final ruling. Wrote Berkebile:

The ability to address a need that could arise at some time in the future at an incremental increased cost (and at a lower cost than is likely to be incurred should a future need arise) does not outweigh the actual detrimental impacts of significantly taller towers upon the scenic and historic assets of August County. Under the circumstances, I conclude that the Commission should approve the use of less expensive, shorter lattice towers for the rebuild.

Berkebile’s findings come at a time in which Dominion and other electric utilities are investing massive sums to upgrade their electric grids. Over the next 15 years, Virginia likely will see the retirement of more coal-fired plants and the construction of more solar farms and gas combustion-turbine plants. An open question is whether Dominion will be able to re-license its four nuclear power units. The grid, designed for a traditional configuration of electric-power generation also will need to be upgraded to meet a new configuration in which intermittent solar and wind sources play a role.

Dominion consulting engineer Peter Nedwick identified three scenarios that would support the need for the additional 230 kV line through Augusta County, according to Berkebile’s summary of the testimony. In her report, however, Berkebile did not discuss the scenarios or assess how likely any one of them was to occur. SCC staff, she stated, was “unable to verify” a need for taller towers to accommodate a 230 kV line.

In his testimony, Nedwick also cited three instances in which single-circuit structures proved inadequate and Dominion was required to come back and rebuild transmission lines within a double-circuit structure. Given the relatively low cost of preserving the flexibility, summarized Berkebile, “he continued to support the double circuit option as a means of maximizing the use of existing [Right of Way] while maintaining flexibility to meet future demands and changes in [North American Electric Reliability Corporation] Reliability Standards.

The SCC staff supported the chemical dulling option to reduce the visual impact of the pipelines on the Augusta County landscape. A relatively new product, Natina, gives galvanized steel a brown color. According to a Dominion engineer, testing shows that the coating will not maintain a uniform appearance over time. Also, it will increase rust, be difficult to paint over, and hinder the natural development of a patina on the steel girders. Alternatives include COR-TEN weathering steel, hot-dipped galvanized steel, a chemically dulled (pre-dulled) steel.

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.'”