Category Archives: Transportation

Metro’s Latest Breakdown: Control Room Operations

by James A. Bacon

The Silver Line extension of the Washington Metro might not open on time. The latest problem, according to Greater Greater Washington, is that the commuter rail system may not be able to hire, train and retain enough rail controllers to operate the system safely.

The Rail Operations Control Center (ROCC) oversees train movement on tracks. The center is critical to the safe operation of the rail system. In its most recent safety audit, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission (WMSC) issued 21 findings requiring corrective action.

Metrorail has failed to follow its fatigue management policies that allow controllers at least one day off per week. Moreover, the control center is a toxic workplace.

The control center’s environment includes distractions, fear, threats and conflicting instructions that prevent overworked and undertrained controllers from fully and properly carrying out their duties. These serious safety concerns create a variety of safety risks for everyone who depends on Metrorail. … Continue reading

Mass Transit as the Newest Entitlement

by James A. Bacon

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney has proposed eliminating all transit fares, and in a sign of how far left the City of Richmond’s political center of gravity has moved, his two main competitors in the mayoral race, Kim Gray and Alexsis Rodgers, support the idea.

The city suspended fares during the COVID-19 epidemic, which has coincided with a 20% ridership decline for the GRTC (Greater Richmond Transit Company). Stoney endorsed making the fare cuts permanent as he unveiled a new “equity office” in the Department of Public Works, which will also oversee initiatives relating to pedestrian safety, bike lane development, and transit planning.

Rodgers, who is running as a progressive, criticized Stoney, in effect asking what took him so long. Gray, the most centrist of the candidates, said she supports the free-transit model but added the caveat that she didn’t want to raise taxes or make cuts to other services to achieve it. “At some point,’she said, “this will require a budgetary reckoning.” Continue reading

VPAP Ranks Lobbying Compensation

This graphic from the Virginia Public Access Project shows the corporations and organizations that have reported the biggest expenditures on lobbyist compensation. No surprises here — every one of these groups has a major presence in the General Assembly. However, VPAP cautions, don’t read too much into these numbers. These seeming big spenders simply may be using a broader definition of “lobbying” than others.

As VPAP explains: Continue reading

Inching Closer to a Sustainable Mass Transit Model

Fairfax County and Dominion Energy are testing a driverless electrical shuttle. The Relay, a 13-foot-long blue bus is expected to begin regular service this fall, shuttling passengers back and forth between the Dunn Loring-Merrifield Metro station and the county’s Mosaic District.

The service will be free. Users will be able track the Relay’s position with an app.

The 12-passenger shuttle, an EZ10, is now learning its fixed route, undergoing testing and awaiting approval from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to begin passenger operations, reports the Washington Post Continue reading

Beyond COVID-19: New Opportunities in Land Use

Vacant storefronts — a challenge and an opportunity

by James A. Bacon

The stay-at-home orders prompted by the COVID-19 epidemic accelerated a trend that was already reshaping the American economy: the shift of commerce from bricks-and-mortar retail to online delivery. Traditional retailers are retrenching; malls and shopping centers are hollowing out. If current trends continue, we’ll be seeing a lot more UPS and Amazon trucks cruising through our neighborhoods… and a lot of vacant retail space.

This seemingly irreversible trend will create dramatic challenges and opportunities for Virginia communities. Local governments rely upon the property taxes generated by malls and shopping centers. As those properties empty out and lose value, local governments will see an important revenue source erode. That is a problem, to be sure. But the decline of bricks-and-mortar also presents Virginia localities with once-in-a-generation opportunities. The potential exists to address two of Virginia’s chronic issues: affordable housing and traffic gridlock.

The scarcity of affordable housing in Virginia, especially in high-growth counties, has become increasingly acute in recent years. Construction of new dwelling units has not kept pace with household formation, and housing shortages have pushed up rents and sales prices faster than incomes have risen. Home builders would be more than happy to build more houses, if only they could find the land and gain zoning approvals from local governments to do so. Meanwhile, congestion is reasserting itself on Virginia’s Interstates, highways and arterials. There is not enough money to build our way out of gridlock.

While no solution is perfect, the least imperfect is to recycle old retail districts into “walkable urbanism” resembling pedestrian-friendly places such as Arlington, Reston, or downtown Richmond and Norfolk. Continue reading

The Systemic Racism of Monument Avenue

By Peter Galuszka

Richmond’s grand Monument Avenue, a double lane, tree lined thoroughfare, has been the epicenter of the Black Lives Matter campaign that has focused on the statues of several Confederate figures one the road, including Robert E. Lee, J.E.B. Stuart, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

All are up for removal, but the same foot-dragging that has for years protected the statues that some consider racist is at work today. Protestors have torn down Davis and have defaced the rest. On Sunday night, they nearly ripped down the Stuart statue as two city council members urged that it be removed on an emergency basis.

Lee’s statue has been ordered down by Gov. Ralph Northam, but the effort has been tied up in lawsuits by several property owners. One claims either that the original deed that gave the state the site for Lee included language that it could not be removed. Other plaintiffs, most anonymous,  claim that removing the statues would hurt their property values and their special tax status.

If anything smacks of white privilege and entitlement, this is it. But for more perspective, this article in The Atlantic neatly sums up the history behind the statues and the Avenue, noting that the issue has everything to do with rewriting Richmond’s history and making a marketing play to sell expensive and exclusive real estate decades after the Confederacy was suppressed. Continue reading

“Systemic Racism?” Damned Right!

By Peter Galuszka

There has been much debate on this blog regarding whether there is “systemic racism” in Virginia and the rest of the country.

It’s a crucial question in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd, an unarmed and handcuffed African American who was killed on video by a white Minneapolis police officer two weeks ago. The killing sparked nationwide demonstrations, some rioting and a big rethink of race relations.

Regarding is “system racism,” my answer in a resounding “yes” although I agree there has been significant progress in race relations since the since the 1960s.

A few examples:

  • Virginia was the embarkation point for American’s first slaves.
  • Slavery was a key social, economic and political institution for several hundred years.
  • The Civil War was fought over slavery. Most battles were in Virginia.
  • The state embraced Jim Crow laws and kept them for years. These made it crimes for people of different races to go to school together, go on public transit together, sit together in restaurants, get married and so on.
  • There were plenty of lynchings in Virginia. Many went unpunished.

Continue reading

Hijacking George Floyd: Mass Transit Edition

Katie Cristol

Here’s another example of how white  liberals are hijacking the George Floyd tragedy to advance their special-interest agendas on the grounds of social justice.

At the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission meeting last night, Chair Katie Cristol observed that “Systemic racism, and the opportunity to confront it, is present in every feature of our lives, including transportation. Public transit should also be an opportunity to further racial justice in our region.”

Added Secretary-Treasurer Jeff McKay: “We need to think about transit as an equalizer, as a human service, as a connection to our economy. … A key component of that is how we think about transit and how we factor transit into literally what could be a life-changing situation for so many families in Northern Virginia.”

Here’s another way to think about mass transit: Packing people into buses and commuter rail cars is a recipe for propagating the COVID-19 virus among the minorities most likely to ride them.

Here’s another way to think about social justice: If you want minorities to have better access to job opportunities, address the “affordability and access” crisis in automobile ownership.

— JAB

Construction: Virginia’s Quiet, Strong Man

Scene from Micron’s $3 billion construction project in Manassas. Photo credit: Inside NoVa

By Peter Galuszka

For all the complaints about the COVID-19 pandemic in Virginia – the shut-down restaurants and (temporarily) closed beaches – one industry has been working steadily and quietly all along – the state’s construction sector.

Builders haven’t missed much of a beat since the “state at home” orders started going out a couple of months ago.

In Pentagon City, works still progresses on the two, 22-story towers for Amazon’s new eastern headquarters. In suburban Chesterfield County near Richmond, workers toil adding new drain pipes and four-laning once- rural roads. Four-story apartments overlooking Swift Creek Reservoir are taking shape for the over-55 crowd.

At a loud and garish protest next to the State Capitol against Gov. Ralph Norham’s work-stoppage plans last month, Mark Carter, a contractor from Hanover County, made his views known. “We‘re still working,” he told me. “I’m not for Trump and I’m not a Democrat. People need to work.”

In Virginia, some are. After all, New York state and Boston stopped construction work due to the pandemic. Continue reading

“People Have Stopped Buying Automobiles”

By Dick Hall-Sizemore

That is how Aubrey Layne, Secretary of Finance, summed up his explanation to the House Appropriations Committee of April’s 15% drop in transportation revenue

All of the major components of the transportation revenue were down in April, but the biggest danger sign was in the motor vehicle sales and use tax. That source is the largest single state source of revenue for the highway maintenance and operation fund and the second largest source for the transportation trust fund. Its revenues in April were down 41% compared to April a year ago.

Despite the sharp drop in April, the year-to-date transportation revenues are still running 5.6% higher than for the comparable period last year, and significantly higher than the 3.3% decrease that had been forecast. However, the Governor’s stay-close-to-home policy, continuation of extensive telecommuting, and social distancing will likely bring the total transportation revenue below last year’s total. Revenues should pick up after July 1, when the increase in the gas tax becomes effective, although the increase will likely be less than was forecast in the session.

WTJU Podcast: COVID-19 and the Economy

By Peter Galuszka

Here’s is the twice-monthly podcast produced by WTJU, the official radio station of the University of Virginia. With me on this podcast  are Nathan Moore, the station general manager, and Sarah Vogelsong, who covers, labor, energy and environmental issues across the state for the Virginia Mercury, a fairly new and highly regarded non-profit news outlet. Our topic is how Virginia is handling the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Screwing Workers On Safety and Liability

A GRTC bus driver in better times

By Peter Galuszka

At 4:30 a.m. on April 27, about 100 workers of the Greater Richmond Transit Company — half of the total – failed to show up for work.

Worried about the health of its membership, Local 1220 of the International Amalgamated Transit Union demanded additional safety measures such as full personal protection equipment, time and a half hazardous pay, limits on the numbers of passenger and testing.

GRTC management threatened to fire workers who stayed away from work but agreed to talk. A resolution may come at a May 19 board meeting.

Indeed, stories are showing up throughout Virginia and across the country as workers most likely to be exposed to COVID-19 often have the least protection and no guarantees their employers will provide testing, hospitalization and sick pay.

In Timberville near Harrisonburg, workers at a Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant worry that they are required to work at less than six feet –- considered safe distancing –- from each other. In Norfolk, non-union workers at a General Dynamics ship facility were required to do electrical work until they refused, citing exposure threats and a death. Continue reading

Mass Transit Reacts to COVID-19 Menace

Norfolk transit employee wipes down a bus.

by James A. Bacon

Another data point in the ongoing debate over cars versus mass transit…

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has asked riders to stay home and not to travel, as the agency prepared to cut service Wednesday, reports the Washington Times. Ridership has already fallen 70%.

Metro, which operates buses and commuter rail in the Washington area, will continue to provide service for essential trips.  In the past trains normally ran every four minutes during rush hour and no less frequently than every 12 minutes during the day. now they will run every 15 minutes on each line from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m. weekdays.

The loss of revenue will have a significant impact on Metro finances. Farebox recovery accounts to 57.5% for Metrorail and 24.3% for Metrobus. I guess it won’t be long before Metro asks for another bailout. Update: Question answered in one day. According to the Washington Post, the transit agency is asking for $50 million a month in emergency federal aid. Update: Meanwhile, according to Virginia Business, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has allocated $11 million to help struggling transit systems recover from ridership losses. Continue reading

Sweet 16 (Tax Bills) Will Cost Virginians Billions

By Steve Haner

What will this year’s General Assembly cost you in taxes? Here are at least 16 bills approved by the 2020 General Assembly that create or raise taxes on Virginians or authorize a local government to do so. No one told Virginians at the start of session that major tax increases were coming, and there is little recognition of what has now happened. It is time to tally the bill.

If anybody would or could run the fiscal projections on these 16 tax bills, they might combine into a major tax hike comparable to those in 2004 and 2013. Over several years this will cost families or businesses billions of dollars, but most will be collected by wholesalers (cigarettes and fuel) or too deeply buried on receipts to see.  Assessments on business eventually get passed down to the customer: you.  Continue reading

COVID-19 as Boost to Telework, Distance Learning

by James A. Bacon

The COVID-19 virus may change our lives in ways we can only begin to imagine. Believe it or not, some of them might even be positive. Consider the impact of today’s stories upon Virginia’s higher-ed and transportation systems.

A  boost to distance learning. The University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, and James Madison University may follow the lead of Harvard and other Ivy League institutions in moving classes online.

Virginia Tech sent a letter to faculty members Monday urging them to prepare options for delivering coursework outside the classroom, reports Virginia Business. “We must accelerate planning necessary to sustain our academic mission, including the use of online platforms to deliver instruction,” said Provost Cyril Clark. “Please use this spring break when most classes are not in session to become familiar with strategies to continue teaching through disruptions and to plan for the possibility that students and faculty may not be able to meet for course sessions in person.”

“We are looking at how do we move our courses online,” said JMU spokeperson Caitlyn Read. “Our libraries and our online learning centers have ratcheted up support services for faculty who are looking … to get classes online.

Update: UVa has made the decision to move all classes online. So has Virginia Tech.

Schools out for summer. Schools out forever! OK, that quote from rocker Alice Cooper might be a slight exaggeration. But Fairfax County Public Schools, which serves 188,000 students, will close all of its nearly 200 schools for “staff development day/student holiday” next Monday, the Washington Post reports. The purpose: “to provide an opportunity for staff to prepare for the possibility of distance learning in the event of a school(s) closure.” Continue reading