Category Archives: Transportation

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.

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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

LaRock: Northam “Hijacked” Road Funds for Amazon

Money from Northern Virginia taxpayers meant to address traffic congestion has been “hijacked” by Gov. Ralph Northam to keep the governor’s promises to Amazon in the HQ2 project, charges Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, in a Washington Post op-ed.

The state’s Smart Scale scoring system, which by law is supposed to emphasize congestion-mitigation strategies, has been biased in favor of projects geared to economic development and land use, with the result that almost all of it is ending up “within a stone’s throw of the Amazon HQ2 project in Arlington.” Outlying counties are the losers. Writes LaRock:

The Northam administration’s recommended project funding list for Northern Virginia spends 92 percent of the $200 million in recommended funding on transit/bike/pedestrian projects. Only a pittance, $16 million, would go to roads.

The Northam administration’s scoring shows 61 percent of these recommended projects’ benefit would be “Land Use,” another 9 percent “Accessibility and Economic Development,” 18 percent “Environmental” and only 7 percent “Congestion Mitigation.” Geographically, 66 percent of Northern Virginia funding would go to Arlington and Alexandria, with another 25 percent to a bus project on the Route 1 corridor in Fairfax County.

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Movable Walkways for Potomac Yard Metro?

We have all encountered moving walkways in airports. I’m wondering why we haven’t seen them in other places. Perhaps the darn things are just so expensive to build and maintain. But that may change. A moving walkway is one of the options being considered in the planned $370 million Potomac Yard Metro station to be built near Amazon’s HQ2 project in Arlington County.

There are four broad design options, according to the Washington Business Journal. All but one would require a 765-foot trek to the fare gates: Continue reading

Uh, Oh, Virginians Are Driving More. A Lot More.

Daily Vehicle Miles Traveled. Data source: Virginia Department of Transportation

Now that we’ve learned that Millennials have the same driving habits as previous generations — as soon as they can afford to, they buy their own cars and drive them just as much (see previous post) — we can dispense with the delusion that their enlightened consumer preferences will induce them to abandon the practice of driving solo in their own cars and take to buses, bicycles and mass transit in large numbers regardless of what else is happening in the economy.

After writing the previous post, I decided to revisit some numbers that I haven’t seen published in years — Vehicle Miles Traveled in Virginia. The updated numbers are startling. After hitting a seven-year plateau, VMT between 2014 and 2017 resumed the upward climb on the same trajectory as seen during the 2000s real estate boom and heyday of suburban sprawl. Continue reading

So Much for Millennials Saving the Planet

Are Millennials really different from older generations when it comes to transportation preferences? Is the younger generation, supposedly enlightened about the need to combat global warming, truly embracing bicycles and buses and the sharing economy over owning and driving their own automobiles? Here in Virginia, billions of dollars of mass transit and other infrastructure spending hinge on the answer.

Christopher R. Knittel with the MIT Sloan School of Management and Elizabeth Murphy with Genser Energy — both of whom are concerned about global warming — tested Millennials’ vehicle-ownership preferences by comparing vehicle ownership and vehicle miles traveled (VMT). They published their findings in a new paper, “Generational Trends in Vehicle Ownership and Use: Are Millennials any Different?”

The disappointed verdict: “Results suggest that while Millennial vehicle ownership and use may be lower early on in life, these differences are only temporary and, in fact, lifetime vehicle use is likely to be greater.” Continue reading

Fantasy Thinking about Passenger Rail

I like riding passenger trains. My wife and I rode the rails from Richmond to Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago to avoid the knuckle-clenching grind of Interstate 95 and the expense of parking in the District. The seats in our Amtrak car were comfortable, and Wi-Fi allowed us to check email and surf the Web. What I like even more is that my tickets were subsidized. Thank you, taxpayers, for making my enjoyable trip more affordable!

The cost of train travel rarely enters into the consideration of other rail buffs, however. Indeed, in today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch Rafi Guroian, a director of the Virginia Rail Passengers Association, urges a massive expansion of train service in Virginia without ever once mentioning how much his marvelous ideas would cost. Continue reading

Floods, Roads and Risk Management

Storm-related road repairs in Northumberland County. Photo credit: Virginia Mercury.

In a blog post yesterday (“Risk and the Fisc”), I cited an Old Dominion University study that guesstimated that Katrina-scale hurricane could cause $40 billion in damages and lost economic activity in Hampton Roads. The cost to the Commonwealth of coping with such a disaster, said Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne, “keeps me up at night.”

Today comes news that the cost of repairing road damage in the aftermath of Tropic Storm Michael is estimated to be $25 million. Six months after the storm hit Virginia, 17 roads around the state are still under repair, reports The Virginia Mercury. That’s the damage from a tropical storm, which generated a fraction of the rain, wind, and storm surge associated with a Class 5 hurricane.

Crews have been fixing pipes and washed-out roads, mostly inland where heavy rains caused flash flooding. Continue reading

NoVa Transit Projects Got Highest Congestion Scores This Round

Smart Scale congestion scores for Top 10 Northern Virginia projects. Only the top seven received regional transportation funding in the most recent round.

Yes, it’s true that most of Northern Virginia’s regional transportation funds were dedicated to mass transit projects in the last round of funding, says Deputy Secretary of Transportation Nick Donohue. But six of the seven projects that did receive funding scored highest in congestion mitigation under the state’s Smart Scale scoring system.

The only project getting funding without a top congestion-mitigation score — a second entrance for the Crystal City Metro — scored high in other criteria, particularly the environment and land use. The Crystal City Metro, incidentally, is tied to the Amazon HQ2 project, one of the biggest economic-development projects in Virginia’s history, although Donohue says that economic-development benefits did not drive the funding for that project. Continue reading