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
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
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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.
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.
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
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
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
By Steve Haner
Having voted to give Dominion Energy Virginia a blank check to spend billions of your money on offshore wind turbines, the Virginia House of Delegates will vote today to provide hundreds of millions more from your pockets for electric school buses.
Last week the House defeated a similar bill, twice. It received only 35 votes the first time and 44 votes the second. The response from the utility and the Senate patron was to introduce a new bill “Thursday,” after she received unanimous consent from her fellow senators. Continue reading
Yes, Virginia, our long statewide nightmare is almost over. Lawmakers in the General Assembly are scheduled to go home next week. In the meantime, life goes on, and we get news like this…
Silver Line looking tarnished. Phase 2 of the Silver Line, which extends the Washington Metro commuter rail to Washington Dulles International Airport, is already two years behind schedule. Now it could face more delays due to new problems revealed in a Metro Inspector General report. The latest review, reports the Washington Post, found recurring problems with surge arresters that protect the Metro’s electrical systems; problems with the insulated rail joints at the rail yard; and a software validation issue relating to the system that allows operators to reduce train speeds. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) has been responsible for oversight of the two-phase, $5.8 billion Silver Line construction. The first phase opened in 2014.
The Blue Coats are Coming! The Blue Coats are coming! As the Democratic-controlled General Assembly puts the finishing touches on its gun control legislation, gun-rights activists in Amherst County and Nelson County are issuing calls to muster for the purpose of forming militias. In an interview with the News & Advance. Nelson County organizer Don Heres was vague about the proposed militia’s purpose. “He sees the future militia as a “resource for the county.” But “everything is all preliminary. We’re not really started yet. It’s a citizen’s group and the citizens will decide what we do, what we’re called, all those things.” Organizers in both counties are hoping for turnouts of 100 or more. The musters are not sanctioned by the county governments.
One Ring to rule them all. Shades of 1984 (or Sauron, take your pick)… The Albemarle County Police Department is partnering with Ring, the doorbell camera company, to get video from county residents deploying the surveillance cameras. The police department first started thinking about a partnership when a burglary victim brought a photo from his Ring app to police. Roughly 1,000 other departments are partnering with Ring, according to the Daily Progress. Said Police Chief Ron Lantz:“I think this is a way for us to partner with the community to help make this a safer place to live.”
Source: “2019 Corridor Performance Report for the I-66 Inside the Beltway and I-395 Corridors,” presented March 5, 2020.
by James A. Bacon
In late 2017, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) installed tolled express lanes on the congested inside-the-Beltway segment of Interstate 66. Planners hoped the tolls would discourage commuters from driving solo, and surplus toll revenues would be used to expand bus and rail alternatives. There was a frenzy of media coverage in the early days when dynamically set toll prices pushed past $47 for an inbound rush-hour commute, but the fever soon abated.
The Northern Virginia Transportation Commission (NVTC) decided to revisit the issue two years later. A new study has concluded that I-66 inside the Beltway “moved people more efficiently” in 2019 than it did in 2015 before the tolls were installed.
The total number of people traveling inbound during morning rush hour increased by 1.2% while the associated number of vehicles decreased by 2.7%, indicating a shift in the share of trips made by transit and HOV. Overall, 65% of the corridor’s morning rush-hour inbound trips were made by transit or HOV in early 2019, compared to 64% in early 2016. Continue reading
By Steve Haner
With two weeks remaining in the 2020 General Assembly session, the tendency to procrastinate (and perhaps some buyer’s remorse) has several key issues still pending. Here is an update on some previously discussed on Bacon’s Rebellion.
The moderating impact of the narrow 21-19 split in the Virginia Senate, with several of those Democrats needing to be sensitive to more rural constituencies, is on full display. The defeat of the assault weapons ban is not the only example, just the most reported example. Continue reading