Route of proposed Coalfields Expressway
by Dick Hall-Sizemore
While perusing today’s edition of the Roanoke Times, I ran across an article that astounded me. It concerned a meeting recently in Southwest Virginia about the Coalfields Expressway. I remembered hearing about this proposed highway many, many years ago and thought that it had been dismissed as a pipe dream. It turns out that the idea (and hope) is still alive.
The Coalfields Expressway would be a 115-mile federal four-lane, divided highway running from the intersection of I-64 and I-77 near Beckley, West Virginia to U.S. Rt. 23 in Pound, in Wise County. West Virginia has opened 15 miles of its 66-mile portion of the proposed highway and another 21 miles are in various stages of construction or planning. Virginia has begun constructing 7 miles of its 50-mile portion. That stretch overlaps with Rt. 460, linking Grundy to Kentucky. The cost of the Virginia portion is estimated at over $3 billion. Continue reading
i-64 in New Kent County Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch
by Dick Hall-Sizemore
There is a campaign underway to expand a stretch of I-64 from Richmond to James City County. Currently, the Interstate highway is a four-lane divided highway. The proposal is to add an additional lane in each direction.
The Department of Transportation estimates the cost of the project at $750 million.
The first public evidence of the campaign came in the form of proposed amendments to the state budget bill. The House of Delegates has proposed dedicating $30 million in general fund revenues to the project. The Senate has gone bigger; it proposes $190 million in general fund appropriation. Continue reading
Anderson Cooper in a personal flying machine.
Real rebound or just a dead cat bounce? After bottoming out at around 21,500 riders a year ago, the Virginia Railway Express commuter rail service in Northern Virginia is experiencing a recovery in ridership, reports The Free Lance-Star. In February, VRE reports, monthly rider trips totaled more than 52,900. That’s a far cry from the previous, pre-COVID February ridership of 355,000, but it’s something. The decision by a federal judge in Florida to throw out the national mask mandate for public transportation might help revive ridership a bit more.
Yet… the latest numbers suggest that former VRE riders are NOT taking about 300,000 trips monthly that they had been before the pandemic. Some are likely working at home, but some may be adding to congestion along I-95. Virginia has invested in the rail infrastructure, so, it’s a shame if people aren’t using it. On the other hand…
Self-driving cars and flying cars. The Virginia Mercury reminds us that Sheppard Miller, Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, thinks flying cars could be a reality within the next 50 years — a reason that the Commonwealth should “reexamine transit.” People have been fantasizing about flying cars for a hundred years now, and we have yet to see anything remotely practical. But a wave of venture-funded innovation is giving rise to what might better be described as personal flying machines. They’re not cars with four wheels and wings; they’re battery-powered, drone-like craft that can lift off from parking lots and the tops of buildings. On Sunday, 60 Minutes broadcast a clip of Anderson Cooper flying (seen above) in one such device. Continue reading
Traffic at about 5:00 p.m. near the Rt. 3 exit in Spotsylvania
by Dick Hall-Sizemore
For those who have predicted that the pandemic would result in a fundamental shift in commuting patterns and highway traffic, I invite you to get on I-95 at its junction with the Beltway at 3:00 on a week-day afternoon, driving south. Thursday afternoon, it took me more than two hours to get from the Beltway to Fredericksburg and I used the E-Z Pass lane for part of the way. (My mistake was in getting off at the Dumfries exit.) The traffic from Woodbridge to Spotsylvania was bumper-to-bumper the entire way. And it was crawling. At times, traffic was not moving at all.
Furthermore, I know that there has been a lot of national news about the shortage of truck drivers, but the number of trucks on the road today did not seem significantly different from what it was in pre-pandemic days.
West End Motors
by James A. Bacon
What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I lambasted former Attorney General Mark Herring for touting his prosecution of gas station owners for “price gouging” — raising prices in the wake of the Colonial Pipeline shutdown. Now the AG’s office under Jason Miyares has issued a press release crowing about squeezing a $6,000 settlement out of Lovettsville-based Wheeler & Wheeler Inc. (West End Motors) for raising its prices during the state of emergency declared last May. It’s only fair that I give Miyares some hell.
Between May 11 and May 14, the gas station charged an average price of $3.51 for regular unleaded, and more for other grades of gasoline — an increase of more than 20%. The increases were not attributable to additional costs incurred by the business, an AG investigation found.
“I am pleased that my office reached an agreement that will make restitution dollars available for affected consumers,” Miyares said in a press release.
The irony is that $3.51 today would be quite the bargain. As of March 15, the average price of regular in Virginia was running around $4.20. Continue reading
by Steve Haner
The bag of mandarin oranges that was $4.99 last week was $5.99 this morning. Fruit trees aren’t getting raises – that is the impact of fuel prices, the cost to ship them to Virginia.
As I’m fuming and pushing my cart to the next inflated item, the phone pings to announce an email. “Could relief for gas prices be on the way?” is the teaser headline from Virginia Mercury, with its lead story this morning a straight-faced discussion of the truly comedic proposal yesterday by House Democrats. They offer Virginia car owners a one-time $50 payment ($100 for a two-car family) in lieu of actually lowering the fuel taxes, as Governor Glenn Youngkin has proposed. Continue reading
Snowfall totals for Jan. 3, 2022
by James A. Bacon
On January 3 and 4 of this year, a winter storm descended upon the Fredericksburg area and closed a large stretch of Interstate 95, trapping hundreds of motorists in freezing conditions for many long hours. The failure of the Virginia Department of Transportation, Virginia State Police and other state agencies to predict, prevent or ameliorate the horrendous conditions seemed an indictment of the competence of state government, and in particular the Northam administration.
Now comes an after-action report written by CNA, an Arlington-based research and analysis group, released by the Youngkin administration.
The conclusion can be summed up this way: Sometimes s*** happens. An unusual confluence of events occurred that day that created a series of cascading effects that overwhelmed state agencies’ ability to respond.
CNA did not draw any conclusions of a political nature. But it’s hard to imagine how state agencies or the Northam administration could have responded much differently, or to any greater effect. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
In fiscal 2018, the Commonwealth of Virginia budgeted $582 million to the Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT). Spending on rail, buses and other forms of mass transit soared to $935 million in the current year (fiscal 2022), and is scheduled to recede somewhat to $865 million in the budget submitted by Governor Ralph Northam for fiscal 2023.
Assuming that legislators didn’t alter the numbers much during the recent General Assembly deliberations, DRPT spending will be 49% higher than it was five years previously.
In the chart above, you can see how disconnected spending is from reality. Mass transit ridership in Northern Virginia, which accounts for the vast majority of bus and commuter rail traffic in the state, plummeted between fiscal 2020 and 2021 by 59% overall. Ridership on the Virginia Railway Express dropped an eye-popping 92%.
In what world does it make sense to increase spending on mass transit by nearly 50% even while ridership has crashed by nearly 60%? Continue reading
Who says Virginia’s polarized legislature can’t get anything done? Governor Glenn Youngkin has signed a bill banning the vehicle modification known as “Carolina Squat.” The law was inspired by the death of Virginian BJ Upton in a car accident involving such a vehicle.
The modification raises the front of the vehicle significantly higher than the rear, affecting its handling. Headlights are pointed to the sky rather than illuminating the road ahead, the driver’s view is compromised, and the modification alters the dispersion of mechanical force in a collision.
The Carolina Squat apparently is Redneck America’s answer to Mexican-American lowriders, which California made illegal in 1957 for similar reasons: the configuration altered handling characteristics. But the Carolina Squat looks far more dangerous than lowriders. The Governor’s press release touting the signing of the bill didn’t detail the causes of the accident that killed Upton, but it’s a good bet that driver visibility was an issue. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Governor Glenn Youngkin has proposed using $437 million in unanticipated transportation revenues, much of it generated by the wholesale tax on gasoline, to give Virginians a three-month break on the 26-cent retail gasoline tax.
During his campaign, Youngkin ran on a platform of addressing Virginia’s high cost of living and reversing the erosion of middle-class living standards. A vacation on the gasoline tax is certainly consistent with that theme. And with inflation running at nearly 8% over the past 12 months, Virginians need help wherever they can find it. They will find no succor from Democrats, whose list of unmet societal “needs” is endless. They are delighted to spend every dime in tax revenue on one of their favored causes — which, alas, rarely includes helping financially strapped middle-class taxpayers.
While Youngkin has identified a winning issue, he needs to think bigger and more systematically. It’s fine to dial back the gasoline tax for a time, remove the sales tax on groceries, and try to repeal the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) carbon tax, but there is so much more that he can do.
Forty-one percent of the cost of living, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is housing, 17% transportation, 7% medical care, and almost 7% education. Each of these categories is, to some degree, influenced by state-level budgetary and regulatory policy. Continue reading
Photo credit: Virginia Law Foundation
by Ken Reid
Northern Virginia is the object of admiration and contempt, in Republican circles, and even among some liberals in economically stagnant Maryland and Washington, D.C.
In the last few years, Loudoun County, where I had a political career as a Republican, has gone “blue” as has Prince William and much of Fairfax counties.
Some conservatives lament the influx of liberals and also immigrants, notably from Asia and Latin America, though of late, Latinos seem to be voting more Republican.
But the counties and cities that make up “Northern Virginia” – Fairfax, Loudoun, Prince William, Arlington and cities Alexandria, Fairfax, Manassas, etc. – are one of the most prosperous regions in the U.S. It is nearly recession-proof due to the largesse of the federal government, particularly defense and homeland security dollars (which we Republicans support, no?)
The success of NoVa is also due to business leaders who in the 1950s and 60s saw the area, particularly Fairfax County, as a potential economic engine. One of those was John Tilghman Hazel, known as “Til,” a Harvard-educated attorney and developer, who passed away March 15 at his farm in Fauquier County at the age of 91. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
The pre-pandemic financial model for the Washington Metro, the largest mass transit system in Virginia, is not sustainable, and it’s time to re-envision the system to recognize the new traffic patterns, General Paul J. Wiedefeld testified to a Congressional oversight committee yesterday. Metro officialdom is scrambling to plug a another $500 million revenue shortfall stemming from declining ridership and lost fares.
The root of the problem: thousands of Metro riders, including federal workers who once comprised 40% of the system’s pre-COVID rush-hour customers, have opted to work remotely.
“It’s really mission impossible turning this around from a financial standpoint, and we may have to accept that it’s going to be a consistent money loser and a big money loser for decades and decades, but necessary to have our capital shown in the best way it can and also get the legions of federal workers … to and from their place of work,” said Rep. David Trone, D-Md., a subcommittee member, reports The Washington Post.
The Washington Metro has been a money pit for years, sucking up an ever larger share of Virginia transportation dollars allocated to mass transit. But Metro officials at least held out the hope that given enough money to address maintenance backlogs and safety issues the commuter rail system could be turned around. If Wiedefeld says Metro needs a new vision, you’d better believe that it needs a new vision. Indeed it may be time, after four years of the Northam administration indiscriminately dumping money into mass transit and rail projects, for a wholesale re-evaluation of mass transit across the state. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin has appointed Hampton Roads businessman Sheppard “Shep” Miller III as the next Secretary of Transportation. Youngkin’s press release offered no clues on how his transportation policy goals might differ from those of the outgoing administration.
“Shep will be an invaluable leader as Secretary of Transportation as we fulfill our promises to all Virginians to invest in roads, highways, and transportation infrastructure in every corner of the Commonwealth, so we can jumpstart job growth and keep Virginians moving,” Youngkin said.
The politics of transportation during the Northam administration have been relatively placid. Thanks to tax increases implemented by Governor Bob McDonnell and a slowdown in population growth and development of the Commonwealth’s Northern Virginia growth engine, transportation issues have been quiescent. Ever-attentive to the demands of the environmental lobby, Team Northam steered billions of dollars into railroads and mass transit, even as the COVID epidemic created an unprecedented slump in demand for rail and bus. But there has been no meaningful pushback on those priorities from any quarter. Continue reading
Here’s what Interstate 95 looked like near Fredericksburg yesterday. Both northbound and southbound sections were closed due to snow and ice. Photo credit; Virginia Department of Transportation via the Associated Press
by James A. Bacon
Hundreds of motorists were stranded on Interstate 95 in freezing temperatures last night after two tractor-trailers jackknifed in a snowstorm and triggered a chain reaction as other vehicles lost control. Both lanes of the Interstate were closed. As night fell, reports the Associated Press, motorists posted messages on social media about running out of fuel, food, and water. Senator Tim Kaine, who was commuting between his residence in Richmond and the Capitol, said he was stuck in his car for 21 hours.
NBC News correspondent Josh Lederman, who spoke on NBC’s “Today” show by video feed from his car, had this observation: “You really start to think if there was a medical emergency, someone that was out of gas and out of heat — you know it’s 26 degrees, and there’s no way that anybody can get to you in this situation.”
People can live without food and, for a time, without water. If worse comes to worse, they can pee on the side of the road. But the potential killer is hypothermia. The AP account tells of one motorist who stopped his car engine at least 30 times to conserve gas and run the heat just enough to stay warm.
I’m wondering how many of the stranded cars were electric vehicles and what happened to them. Continue reading
Editor’s note: Anthony “Tony” Downs, long-time Virginia resident and scholar at The Brookings Institute, died in October. His thoughts about the economics of transportation had a profound effect on many.
by Philip A. Shucet
Tony Downs didn’t need social media to be an influencer.
Tony published “Stuck in Traffic” in 1992, and in that book, he said that the best way to ease traffic congestion was to charge people a toll to drive during the busiest times of the day. Price supply, and demand decreases. An economist’s advice put down for the taking.
Tony’s work influenced congestion pricing programs in London, Stockholm, Milan and Singapore.
In recent months, the full body of Tony’s transportation work — two dozen books — was on my mind as New York City explored a program to charge people to drive south of 60th Street in Manhattan. The Metropolitan Transit Authority started public meetings in September to collect input. Those meetings wrapped up on December 9. The MTA wants to start charging by the end of 2023.
I wondered what Tony might think of the city’s plan. But Tony died on October 2. He was 90. Continue reading