Category Archives: Transportation

Chesterfield’s Slow-Motion Suburban Suicide

by James A. Bacon

The traffic engineers, it appears, have won. Chesterfield County is doubling down on suburban sprawl with plans to build a series of “superstreets” at a cost of tens of millions of dollars over the next decade. While the massive infrastructure investment likely will reduce traffic accidents and improve traffic flow on the streets themselves, they will literally cement into place the county’s dysfunctional land use patterns.

This article in the Chesterfield Observer lays out the rationale behind the superstreet concept. “It provides for a high-capacity roadway, and also safety because you don’t have these intersections where [cars] cross paths in front of each other. It’s a way to eke out additional capacity without widening,” says Jesse Smith, the county’s transportation director. According to the Observer, work on the first project, on Iron Bridge Road (Route 10), will cost $64 million and is scheduled for completion in the spring of 2022.

Greater Greater Washington critiques Chesterfield’s superstreet in a recent blog postGGW questions whether the added transportation capacity is needed, argues that the superstreet design rules walking and biking in the corridor, and contends that the money could be spent more effectively elsewhere, such as mass transit. The critique is worth a read. I agree with much of it, but differ in important respects. Continue reading

Republicans Must Find a New Way Forward

by James A. Bacon

Virginia is a blue state now. Not only do Democrats occupy all statewide elected positions — two U.S. senators, governor, lieutenant governor, and attorney general — with yesterday’s election, they control both houses of the General Assembly.

Republicans got their booties  kicked. And the butt-stomping is not likely to subside. The Dems will control the next redistricting, which will cement their dominance of the legislature. Auguring well for the blue team in the future, the fastest-growing region of the state, Northern Virginia, now is pure blue with bits  of purple on the exurban fringe. By contrast, Republican strongholds in rural Virginia have shrinking or stagnant populations. Also favoring Democrats in the long run is the increasing percentage of racial/ethnic minorities in the state and the declining percentage of whites.

Republicans need to re-define who they are and what they stand for, or they will become a permanent minority. News reports say that dislike of Donald Trump drove Democratic voter turnout, but the Blue Tide is much broader and deeper than voter animus of one man. Take Trump out of the equation after the 2020 election, and Virginia Republicans still have a huge problem.

Can the Republicans re-calibrate? I certainly hope so, because I’m terrified of the Democratic Party agenda of $15 minimum wage, spiking the right-to-work law, a damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead rush to a 100% renewable electric grid, spending and taxing, taxing and spending, and injecting its grievance-and-victimhood agenda into the consideration of every issue. But Republican priorities on culture war issues — guns, abortion, transgenders — are not winning issues statewide. As long as Republicans remain captive to its rural/small-town base, I don’t see how it can reinvent itself.

What does a rejuvenated Republican Party look like? (Or, if the GOP is incapable of reinventing itself, what does a successor party look like?) Continue reading

Electric Vehicles Are Punishingly Overtaxed in Virginia


by Alleyn Harned

In an October 15th post, James Bacon asked the question: How should we tax electric vehicles?

Bacon’s bottom line is reasonable, and it is worth noting that electric vehicles (EVs) and clean fuels already pay more than their fair share in Virginia with equivalent or excessive taxes, according to Consumer Reports. It is easy to agree with Bacon’s ideas of user fees and externalities, where EVs also pay, and where pollution externalities are integrated into state fee structures.

However, Virginia has not ignored the transportation revenue potential of EVs and reaps a high tax on these vehicles. Since the McDonnell administration, electric vehicles been assessed a punishing $64 a year fee in order to gather an approximate amount of revenue equivalent to somewhat more than traditional vehicles pay in gas tax. This fee has been used by the oil industry to justify high fees nationwide.

A recent Consumer Reports study in September showed that now in many states, electric-car fees often cost far more than what owners of gasoline-powered cars pay in gas tax. Virginia’s fee is 5% higher, even though EVs and clean fuel vehicles have great benefit to the Commonwealth through emissions reduction.

I suggest we should tax electric vehicles no greater than gasoline and diesel vehicles. Other financing mechanisms are great, but punishing cleaner vehicles fueled by domestic energy creates an unbalanced playing field favoring high cost oil. Continue reading

How Should We Tax Electric Vehicles?


by James A. Bacon

Electric vehicles (EVs) are commonly touted as a necessary part of America’s green energy future: Shifting from cars powered by gasoline-combustion to cars powered by 100% clean electricity will cut CO2 emissions (and other pollutants) implicated in global warming. Virginia ranks among the states with the lowest EV market share. But on the assumption that EVs eventually will become part of Virginia’s energy future, there’s no time like the present to start thinking about what EV taxation should look like.

Perhaps the most pressing issue is whether to tax EVs the same as conventional cars for the purpose of raising money to pay for the construction and maintenance of roads, highways and bridges. EVs contribute to traffic congestion and cause traffic accidents like any other kind of car. Should their owners not share in the cost of building, maintaining and operating roads?

The rise of EVs, hybrids and high miles-per-gallons vehicles was part of the justification when Virginia overhauled its transportation tax structure during the McDonnell administration. Revenues from the gasoline tax were stagnating, and legislators saw a need to diversify the source of transportation revenues. Once the tax increases were enacted, however, cogitation about the tax structure largely ceased.

Virginia cannot ignore the problem forever. One good place to start thinking about the issue of EVs and road maintenance is a new paper by two University of California professors, Lucas W. Davis and James M. Sallee, “Should Electric Vehicle Drivers Pay a Mileage Tax?” The paper explores the many trade-offs involved. Continue reading

JLARC: Medicaid Jumps 19% In Expansion Year

Source: JLARC October 7 report on state spending over time, in this case a decade of sustained economic growth with no recession.

By Steve Haner

Every year, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission issues a report looking at ten years of state spending, sliced and diced various ways. In recent years, the headline results have largely been surprisingly consistent and the 2019 report issued Monday fit the pattern. As seen before:

  • Medicaid program costs lead the charge, exploding almost 19% in one year due to the expansion that started January 1, 2019, even though the fiscal year was one-half over by then. It went from $10 billion to $11.9 billion. The average annual growth over the decade has exceeded 7% and $600 million.
  • Keeping up with Medicaid, and exceeding it in some categories, are the various forms of transportation spending. In the decade since the base year of the report, fiscal year 2010, Virginia has passed both statewide and regional transportation tax increases, and various toll projects have been completed – all flowing through the state’s books.
  • The third budget element that has seen major growth is higher education, with the vast majority of the new money coming from tuition, fees and auxiliary operations at the state schools, not state tax dollars. When all the schools are lumped together, their spending growth is right in line with the other two mega programs, and the higher education totals push past the growth in state funds transferred for local public schools. Local public schools don’t charge tuition and fees they can raise at will.
  • Virginia’s general economic performance lagged the national average for the entire decade, with average annual gross domestic product growth of 1.4% (versus 2.2% nationally), per capita income growth of 2.8% (versus 3.4% nationally) and labor force growth of 0.9% (versus 1.5% nationally.)  The GDP is adjusted for inflation.

Continue reading

Carbon Tax for Your Car, SUV Takes Shape at TCI

 

By Steve Haner

In this politically sensitive moment, they don’t call it “cap and tax” but instead “cap and invest.” Yet, the recently released draft Transportation and Climate Initiative proposal fits a Bacon’s Rebellion prediction in March that next they would be coming to tax your SUV.

Reducing CO2 emissions from electric power plants with a cap and tax scheme is not enough, of course. More of those dread emissions (you and I call it exhaling) come from vehicles, despite rapid improvements in engine efficiency and alternatives to fossil fuel combustion. The Northam Administration has Virginia fully engaged. Legislation to require General Assembly approval for this regional compact was vetoed.

Continue reading

A Sound Business Decision… or More Virtue Signaling?

Recharging an electric school bus. Photo credit: Dominion Energy

Governor Ralph Northam has pledged to put $20 million from the Volkswagen diesel-emissions settlement toward the purchase of zero-emission school buses, the governor’s office has announced. The program, to be administered by the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), will help local school systems to replace about 75 diesel-fueled buses and reduce CO2 emissions by 36 million pounds per year, the administration says.

It’s a nice little feel-good story. But, as I attempted to conduct some elementary cost-benefit analysis, I found that the numbers don’t make sense. And even if they did, there are probably more cost-effective ways to save the planet from the climate apocalypse.

Here’s how it works. DEQ will reimburse local school systems up to $265,000 per electric bus, which is approximately the difference in cost between purchasing a diesel-powered bus and an electric bus. While the electric buses can save $2,000 a year in fuel costs and $4,400 and maintenance, the extra up-front investment is a big hurdle. The new program eliminates that barrier, creating financial savings for the locality and a reduction in CO2 emissions as well. Continue reading

More Quality-Control Issues Surface in Silver Line Project

by James A. Bacon

The Washington Metro inspector general has identified new quality concerns with the work taking place on the second phase of the Silver Line: A sealant applied to prevent water from seeping into hundreds of defective concrete panels may not be working, and the rock ballast in the track beds of the rail yard could cause drainage issues and shifting of the track, reports the Washington Post.

If not corrected, the issues “will create extraordinary cost, maintenance and operational issues early once WMATA [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] takes ownership and control of this project,” wrote Inspector General Geoffrey A. Cherrington.

Construction of the second phase of the Silver Line, an extension of the Washington transit rail system to beyond Washington Dulles International Airport, is already a year behind schedule. The latest deficiencies add to the list of quality issues raised about the $2.8 billion construction project. Last year officials discovered problems with hundreds of precast concrete panels installed at five of the six stations. The defect could lead to water seepage and premature deterioration. The general contractor applied a sealant to address the issue, but tests have shown that the coating was insufficient in at least 20% of the sampled panels. Continue reading

The Scooter Murder Capital of the World

Bolt in happier days: Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (center) and Bolt EVP Will Nicholas (right) back in June.

Wow, the City of Richmond is one tough market for scooter companies to crack — and the reasons why do not reflect well either on the city administration or the populace.

Last summer, California-based Bird began placing scooters around town, but the company hadn’t cleared its initiative with city officials, so the city shut down the service until the city administration could devise a licensing protocol. Police rounded up the two-wheelers and took them to the municipal impound lot. Eventually, Bird abandoned its effort at guerilla capitalism, auctioned off 300 scooters to private bidders, and bailed from the market.

In January City Council adopted an ordinance that charged companies $40,000 per year to put up to 100 scooters on city streets, with higher-but-discounted rates for larger numbers. Only one of the burgeoning number of scooter companies, Bolt Mobility, co-founded by track legend Usain Bolt, decided it was worth some $400 per device to get a license. Ridership numbers in the first month were high — 27,000 trips — but the company didn’t count on the high rate of vandalism. Continue reading

Does Subsidized Blacksburg-to-D.C. Bus Service Make Economic Sense?

Virginia Breeze bus route. Map credit: Megabus

More than 19,300 people rode the Blacksburg-to-D.C. “Virginia Breeze” bus line launched by the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) during its first year in operation. The $200,000 subsidy amounts to a subsidy of roughly $10 per ticket. Was that a good expenditure of public funds? Let’s dig into that question.

Partnering with Megabus, the inter-city bus company, DRPT rolled out the service in November 2017 with seven stops along Interstate 81 and in Northern Virginia. Greater Greater Washington describes the partnership this way:

Virginia has access to buses and logistical support without having to buy its own fleet or hire staff to maintain and drive them. For a ticket price ranging between $15 and $50, passengers on the 56-seat Breeze buses get a restroom, baggage storage, free Wi-Fi, and in-seat power outlets just like regular Megabus customers. Breeze riders can even buy interline tickets for Megabus destinations beyond the Union Station terminus, a first-of-its-kind feature in the US.

Continue reading

Going Nowhere Fast: Virginia’s Transportation Dialogue

Northern Virginians are complaining again about their inadequate transportation infrastructure, and I can’t blame them. Traffic is terrible, especially on transportation arteries like Interstate 95, and I avoid going up there, or even through there, if I possibly can. NoVa is transportation hell — a point that was reiterated Wednesday during a forum sponsored by the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. As usually happens, however, participants defined the problem as not enough money.

“We are in the position (where) we don’t have more money,” said panelist Monica Backmon, executive director of the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority, according to Inside Nova. “We have an open call for projects right now, but the reality is that’s for Fiscal Year 24 and 25. If you need more money on previously funded projects, I really don’t have it.”

Where will the money come from? Ed Mortimer, a U.S. Chamber official, said the federal government needs to do more. Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine argued that Virginia is relatively undertaxed and should boost its gas tax.

Given the paralyzing political polarization in Washington, D.C., these days, I don’t expect any solutions coming out of the nation’s capital. But Richmond hasn’t reached the same level of dysfunction. What about a higher gas tax? Does that idea make sense? Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Mostly Good News for a Change

Energy efficiency done right. After investing $2 million over three years to update the energy and water infrastructure of Clark Hall, the University of Virginia calculates that it is saving $75o,ooo a year in electricity bills and $22,000 in water bills — a payback in less than three years. The university replaced 5,000 interior and exterior fixtures with LEDs, put into place an electronically controlled HVAC system, and installed low-flow toilets and faucet aerators, among other changes. Since 2010, Office of Sustainability projects have avoided $35 million in energy fees, reports the Cavalier Daily. Building automation kills two birds with one stone: It dampens runaway higher-ed costs, and it reduces energy consumption.

Wytheville as winner. The Brookings Institution has highlighted Wytheville, population 8,000, as a successful example of community development in a rural town. Step one: Invest in downtown place-making through streetscape renovations, improved sidewalks, lighting, and crosswalks. Step two: Create a self-sustaining entrepreneurial ecosystem. With a grant from the Virginia Department of Housing and Urban Development, Downtown Wytheville launched a competition to recruit local businesses and build partnerships with property owners. Inducements such as reduced rent, mentorships, and $75,000 in prize money were used to recruit the businesses downtown. As a result Wytheville has two (not one, but two) breweries, a Vietnamese bakery, and an art school id didn’t have before. In 2018, downtown received $800,000 in public investment and $5.7 in private investment. Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Black Diamonds, Tarnished Silver, Wilting Green

Free falling. As coal production declines, the economy of far Southwest Virginia is in free fall, with potentially dire fiscal consequences for local governments. “A sharp decline in coal production jeopardizes the fiscal health of local governments, degrading their capabilities to provide adequate public services and issue and serve debt,” finds a report by Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy and the Brookings Institution. Between 2007 and 2017, Virginia coal production fell by 50% from 24.9 million short tons to 12.8 million. The study identifies Dickenson and Buchanan counties as the fifth and sixth most mining-dependent localities in the nation, with 17% and 16% respectively of the labor force engaged in the industry in 2015. The Virginia Mercury has the story here.

Tarnished silver. Phase One of the Washington Metro’s Silver Line to Tysons ran $220 million over budget and was completed six months later. Now Phase Two of the $5.8 billion project funded largely by commuters on the Dulles Toll Road, reports the Washington Post, is running late. The project, expected to be wrapped up next month, may not be completed until next spring or summer. The construction project has been plagued by cracks in concrete structures, defective rail ties, and faulty dimensions for a rail-yard platform. It is not clear yet if the problems will exceed the project’s $550 million contingency fund.

Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? Bacon’s Rebellion has made much of Virginia’s $5.8 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Now a new study, “The Sustainability of State and Local Government Pensions: A Public Finance Approach,” says there’s no reason for Virginia or any other state to panic. After “reverse engineering” future benefit cash flows of the pension plans, the authors find that pension benefit payments in the U.S., as a share of the economy, are currently at their peak level and will remain there for the next two decades. Thereafter, the reforms instituted by many plans will gradually cause benefit cash flows to decline significantly.”  Continue reading

Just How Smart Is the Smart-Scale Scoring System?

Over the past month Del. Dave LaRock, R-Hamilton, has criticized the state’s Smart Scale scoring system for allocating transportation dollars. By law, he says, the system is supposed to prioritize congestion mitigation. But the latest round of allocations was biased heavily in favor of land use and economic development. As a result, a Metro station project near the planned Amazon HQ2 project received funding while a Rt. 7 improvement project with greater congestion-mitigation benefits did not. This year the overwhelming majority of Northern Virginia transportation funds are going to projects inside the Beltway and only a pittance to counties on the metropolitan fringe. LaRock says the system is “seriously broken.”

Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue defends the Smart Scale methodology. As it happened this year, yes, Northern Virginia road and highway funding did fall short. He offers two justifications. First, congestion mitigation is not the only factor considered in Smart Scale, and the other projects offered tremendous benefits in other areas. Second, Smart Scale measures congestion mitigation per dollar spent. Improvements to Rt. 7, benefiting LaRock’s Loudoun County constituents, would have ameliorated a lot of congestion, but it is also a very large, very expensive project.

LaRock has a response to that. Peculiarities in the Smart Scale methodology had the effect this year of diminishing the weight given congestion mitigation projects. The state’s top congestion-relief project, the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel expansion, offered benefits so far and above all other projects that it minimized the weighting of congestion benefits for those projects.

The issues here are arcane and difficult to explain. Thus the debate boils down to he-said, she-said with LaRock and Donohue on opposite sides of the controversy. But the annual allocation of roughly $800 million yearly in transportation construction dollars is at stake. LaRock, along with Del. Tim Hugo, R-Centreville, has launched the first major challenge to the scoring system, which was designed with the hope of taking politics out of transportation decision-making. Continue reading

Spending Increases, Road Quality Decreases

Source: “Repair Priorities 2019

A new study by Transportation for America and Taxpayers for Common Sense documents the magnitude of the “Growth Ponzi scheme” in the U.S. road transportation system. Between 2009 and 2017, the 50 states collectively added more than 223,000 lane miles to their road networks. At an average cost of $24,000 per lane mile to keep roads in a state of good repair, that means states and localities have pumped up their maintenance liabilities by $5 billion a year.

But the states aren’t keeping up with those costs, contends “Repair Priorities 2019.” Nationally, the percentage of roads in poor condition increased from 15% in 2008 to 20% in 2017.

The problem isn’t a lack of money, argues Beth Osborne, director of Transportation of America. “We’re finding the money for expansion. There’s too little money to do everything, but we’re insisting that we do everything.” Continue reading