Image source: JLARC
by James A. Bacon
For once, Virginia’s Virginia’s $8 billion-a-year surface transportation system (roads, highways, bridges, mass transit) is not in crisis. The system is in pretty good shape, and it is well financed, concludes a new Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) report.
Recent tax increases bringing in more than $800 million a year ensure that Virginia will have the resources in the near- to mid-term future to make needed improvements. But longer term, the evolution of Virginia’s automobile fleet from gasoline-combustion engines to hybrid and electric vehicles will undermine a transportation-funding system which generates 29% of its revenue from taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.
The solution is moving to a Highway User Fee (HUF) — first a flat fee, and then a Mileage Based User Fee (MBUF) based upon the number of in-state vehicle miles driven, the report says. But to build public acceptance for a mileage-based fee Virginia should act now to address privacy concerns and evaluate the cost of administering the fee, JLARC says.
As the commonwealth begins implementing the user fees, Virginians will be hearing more about HUFs and MBUFs in the very future. Only two other states have established permanent MBUF programs, and they have only a few thousand participants. Virginia’s program is more ambitious. As the JLARC study says, “Virginia’s MBUF is being modeled on the Oregon and Utah programs but will likely begin as a much larger program.” JLARC expects at least 2.6 million Virginians (38% of vehicle owners) will be charged user fees in the next two years. Continue reading
Will Metro ever get its act together? The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has pulled the 7000 series of rail cars from service after a derailment on the Blue Line and discovery of more than two dozen wheel-assembly defects similar to those that had contributed to the accident, reports the Washington Post. “The potential for fatalities and serious injuries was significant,” said National Transportation Safety Board Chair Jennifer Homendy, “This could have resulted in a catastrophic event.” The news represents the latest in a long series of setbacks for the commuter rail system, which serves Northern Virginia. It comes at at time when transit officials were hoping that ridership, devastated by the COVID-19 epidemic on top of a history of safety and service issues, might rebound. But never fear, the federal government has a printing press and it has limitless dollars to prop up failed enterprises.
K-12 education in crisis. The crisis in K-12 education has far deeper roots than the COVID-19 epidemic. Nationally, 13-year-olds saw unprecedented declines in both reading and math between 2012 and 2020, according to scores released a week ago by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Despite relentless efforts to close the racial achievement gap, the “Nation’s Report Card” shows that Blacks are falling behind even faster than Whites, Asians, and Hispanics. Declines were most severe in the bottom 10th percentile. “It’s really a matter for national concern, this high percentage of students who are not reaching even what I think we’d consider the lowest levels of proficiency,” said George Bohrnstedt, a senior vice president and institute fellow at the American Institutes for Research, as quoted in the 74 Million blog.
Dumb and dumber. Speaking of the NAEP scores, fewer than half of Virginia’s 4th graders score “proficient” or higher in the NAEP tests. By the 8th grade, they fall even farther behind. Here are the most recent numbers (2019): Continue reading
by Kerry Dougherty
At the risk of sounding like a paid Southwest Airlines P.R. person, I can truthfully say it’s my favorite airline.
No change fees. Two bags fly free. Decent fares if you book early enough.
Best of all, Southwest flies out of our sad little airport.
Those perks are nice, but what impressed me most was the time I was in the Norfolk boarding area, peered out the window and saw the pilot on the tarmac, helping the baggage handlers load the plane.
I asked another SWA pilot about the incident and he assured me it wasn’t uncommon. The goal is to get the aircraft turned around quickly. Everyone pitches in.
I’m a sports fan. I like teamwork wherever I find it. Continue reading
What is wrong with this picture? Headline from FFXnow: “Inova temporarily closes urgent care centers in Reston and Tysons due to high patient volume.” On top of an influx of COVID-19 cases fueled by the Delta variant, Virginia hospitals are getting more patients — many of whom had delayed seeking medical care due to the pandemic — with more medically complex conditions. The health system closed the two facilities to “manage an influx of patients without overwhelming exhausted staff.” I get the part about the staff being exhausted. But how does closing the two centers do anything to solve the patient overload? Inova says it is consolidated staff from the shuttered centers “to better accommodate patient volume.” Huh? No explanation of how that works.
Build a rail line and they will come A newly launched Richmond-to-D.C. passenger rail line is the first project under the Northam administration’s $3.7 billion, 10-year passenger rail program which, due to protests, COVID-19 and culture wars, has warranted almost zero scrutiny. In this piece in Energy News Network, Danny Plaugher, executive director for Virginians for High Speed Rail, says the new line, which will generate a predicted 12,600 passengers annually, show how serious Virginia is in its commitment to high-speed rail. Aside from getting passengers off the highway, rail is touted as a way to reduce CO2 emissions in the all-consuming war on Climate Change. While the Northam administration is spending billions on rail, here’s what’s happening in the real world: Road and highway travel is recovering from the epidemic, while rail traffic is not. The most recent quarterly ridership for the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter rail service in Northern Virginia, for example, is down 85% in 2021 compared to the same period in 2019.
A massive win for Southwest Virginia. A joint venture between Blue Star Manufacturing and American Glove Innovations has committed to invest $714 million to establish the most the world’s most advanced (NBR) manufacturing facility to produce nitrile rubber gloves. The project would repatriate production of an estimated 60 billion gloves annually from Asia to the United States. Based in the Progress Park in Wythe County, the project will employ a predicted 2,500 people within five years. According to the Virginia Department of Economic Development, it represents “the largest job creation in Southwest Virginia in a generation.” As part of the deal, the state has promised to invest $8.5 million to upgrade water and wastewater capacity at the industrial park. The nitrile glove market is expected to grow 9% annually through 2027.
The Tide light rail in downtown Norfolk. Photo by Dean Covey, Virginia Department of Transportation.
by Randal O’Toole
The Tide, Norfolk’s light-rail line, has been open to the public for ten years. As noted in this article in The Virginian-Pilot, it opened 18 months late after a 60% cost overrun.
The article claims the light-rail line carried its first million rides “five months ahead of original projections,” but that’s a transit agency lie. The original projections estimated that the rail line would carry 10,400 riders per weekday in its opening year. That would be about 1 million riders in less than four months. In fact, it carried less than half that, just 4,900 riders per weekday in its first year, and took eight months to reach 1 million riders.
In a typical transit-agency lie, Hampton Roads Transit later reduced that projection to 2,900 trips per weekday, and then claimed that was the “original” projection. This made it appear to anyone who didn’t look closely at the numbers that the line was doing well.
In fact, not only did it do poorly in its first year, it only went downhill from there. By 2019, seven years after it opened, ridership was down to 4,641 trips per weekday. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation (DRPT) subsidizes three bus routes connecting communities in Southside and Southwest Virginia to population centers to the north. One of those, the Valley Flyer, links Blacksburg and Virginia Tech, ferrying college students to Northern Virginia and back. It carried more than 2,800 passengers in the 1st quarter of 2021. The farebox recovery was 45%, and the average cost per passengers was a modest $45.33, according to DRPT’s Virginia Breeze Bus Lines 1st Quarter 2021 report. Not bad as far as public transportation goes.
A second line, the Capital Connector, connects Martinsville with Richmond and Northern Virginia. It carried 820 passengers in the 1st quarter, for a 10% farebox recovery and an average cost per passenger of $231.60. Not so good.
Then there is the Piedmont Express, commencing in Danville and running through Altavista, Lynchburg, Amherst, Charlottesville, Culpeper, Warrenton, Gainesville and Dulles airport before terminating in Washington. The 1st quarter passenger count was 269, the farebox recovery 5%, and the average cost per passenger $729.63. Continue reading
by Kerry Dougherty
Oh look. Rep. Don Beyer, a Virginia car dealer who served eight years as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1997 against Jim Gilmore, is in the news. The congressman who represents the second-most Democratic district in the commonwealth — the 8th — has joined the Biden administration in trying to completely balkanize America into the vaxxed and unvaxxed.
As if Biden’s likely illegal mandates to force federal workers — excluding postal workers or members of congress — to be vaccinated wasn’t a strong enough start on a medical apartheid system in the U.S., Beyer wants to go full Fauci on the unvaxxed.
To that end, Beyer has introduced a bill that he’s dubbed “Safe Travel Act,” which would ban the unvaccinated from commercial flights and Amtrak unless they can produce a negative COVID test not more than 72 hours old.
This bill may be masquerading as a safety measure, but it is purely punitive. Continue reading
by Steve Haner
Californians were again this week under an electricity “flex alert,” a conservation order required because of its reliance on unreliable solar and wind energy. They often cannot keep up with demand on the hotter days. Is this Virginia’s future? The government is telling Californians:
- Set your thermostat at 78° or higher
- Avoid using major appliances
- Turn off unnecessary lights
- Use fans for cooling
- Unplug unused items.
The return of this power shortfall comes just days before Governor Gavin Newsom faces a recall vote, with this growing crisis being cited by some of his opponents. It is also a distant cloud on Virginia’s horizon as early voting begins here next week in the elections for statewide offices and the House of Delegates.
Virginia has rushed to copy California’s climate-fear and rent-seeking driven solar and wind energy scheme. Continue reading
Bye, Bye, Brackney. The City of Charlottesville will not renew the employment contract of Police Chief RaShall Brackney, who took on the job in June 2018, the City announced on its website yesterday. No explanation was given. However, the announcement follows less than two weeks after publication of a survey of Charlottesville police officers showing the morale was in the dumps, that toxic city politics had prompted many to scale back on traffic stops, arrests and community policing, and that few officers felt that Brackney had their back. Among other actions as the city’s first Black female police chief, who came on shortly after the tumultuous Unite the Right Rally, Brackney had dissolved the SWAT Team after allegations of misogynistic and other inappropriate behavior.
Speaking of employment contracts… University of Virginia President Jim Ryan was awarded a $200,000 bonus during a closed session of the June 3 Board of Visitors meeting, The Cavalier Daily student newspaper has revealed. The university froze salaries for all employees during the early months of the COVID-19 epidemic, and Ryan and other senior officials took a 10% pay cut. Said Rector Whittington Clement: “When the situation this year became clearer and we had a highly successful handling of COVID-19, we think the University did as well as, if not better, than any institution of higher learning in making the adjustments necessary to COVID-19, we thought that it was appropriate to give him a bonus.” Continue reading
by Steve Haner
The Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles is now hiding only 22% of the state’s existing motor fuels tax with misleading website data, not the 26% it was hiding when I wrote about this last year.
In the chart you first find searching DMV on motor fuel tax rates, set out below, there is no reference to a statewide wholesale tax of 7.6 cents per gallon on gasoline. It is MIA, leaving the chart reporting a tax of only 26.2 cents. (That is up 5 cents from a year ago, and that is why the percentage “hidden” dropped.) Continue reading
“Downtown” Hillsboro. Photo credit; Washington Post
by James A. Bacon
Hillsboro in western Loudoun County is a rural success story, reports The Washington Post. Over the past couple of years, the town of 120 has transformed its main street, a 0.7-mile stretch of Route 9. The addition of sidewalks made the community’s main drag inviting to pedestrians after having been rendered untraversable by the 17,000 vehicles, many of them conveying West Virginians to jobs in the Washington metropolitan area, that passed through every day.
Foot traffic at the Stoneybrook Farm and Market has more than doubled since early 2020. Kids can walk to class. Residents stroll instead of drive to the town’s Friday night concerts. The tiny shopping district is more inviting to the many visitors to the area’s wineries and breweries. Residents are upgrading their homes, and local businesses are expanding.
“It was hard to walk anywhere before. It felt like all you could do is drive to your house, get in your car, get out of your car, get in your car and drive somewhere else,” said Paul Hrebenak, who moved to Hillsboro a year ago. “Now you can walk across the street to your neighbor. You can walk the dog up the street and run into people and sit and chat on the sidewalk, rather than on the side of a busy highway.”
Hillsboro is the perfect illustration of what Bacon’s Rebellion has long advocated as a central part of any rural revitalization strategy — turning hamlets and small towns into walkable communities. There’s just one problem: The Hillsboro model is not replicable anywhere else — unless other communities can figure out how to raise the equivalent of $280,000 per resident in state, federal and local grants. Continue reading
by James A. Bacon
Sidewalks are going to get very crowded, and now is the time to start thinking about what to do about it.
We all know that self-driving cars soon will become a common sight, but a white paper, “The Last Block,” by Canadian Bern Grush, an occasional contributor to Bacon’s Rebellion several years ago, contends that small robotic vehicles — delivering food and packages, sweeping, removing snow, measuring, monitoring, surveilling, repositioning dockless scooters — will precede them.
Dozens of companies from Amazon and FedEd to Starship and Uber, are building small sidewalk-bound robots to deliver food and parcels over the “last mile.” The arrival of these vehicles will require a significant re-thinking of the function and design of streets, sidewalks, and parking.
Virginia is not ready to accommodate a swarm of delivery bots. But there is still tie to get prepared. Continue reading
Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch
by James A. Bacon
Virginia transportation officials are puzzling over a divergence in road safety statistics during the COVID epidemic last year. The number of crashes on Virginia roads fell 15% to 20% below the level of a normal year while the number of fatalities climbed by 2.4% and serious injuries by 5.3%, reports The Virginia Mercury.
The numbers worsened in what officials termed the “belt, booze and speed” categories, with a 16.3% increase in speed-related deaths ad 13% in “unrestrained” deaths. In crashes in which wearing a seat belt was an option, 56% of the people who died weren’t wearing one. Continue reading
Back when work began on the Washington Metro’s Silver Line under the Kaine administration, planners expected Phase II to be complete by 2018. Here it is, mid-2021, and the officials in charge now are hoping to open in early 2022. Phase I went relatively smoothly, but Phase II, which extends the commuter rail system to Loudoun County, has been a fiasco. Press coverage of the incessant delays has taken on a fatalistic tone — oh, well, another delay. Stories enumerate the problems — more than 100 design changes, defective panels, flawed rail ties, bad concrete — but no one seems interested in the underlying cause of so many failures, which, one suspects, can be attributed to terrible project management by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).
The opportunity costs of the four-year delay continue to mount. Reston Now highlights the plight of Weird Brothers Coffee which opened at Worldgate Metro Plaza in anticipation that the Herndon station nearby would open in 2019 and generate foot traffic. Meanwhile, traffic congestion in Northern Virginia, which the multibillion-dollar project was designed to mitigate, is returning to the hellish pre-COVID conditions. Twenty years ago when Virginia Department of Transportation projects were running late and over budget, it was a statewide scandal. Today? Virginians are so inured to incompetence that there’s not a peep from anyone.
But, hey, government is something we all do together! We’re looking forward to Congress enacting a trillion-dollar infrastructure package to shower free money on the state. What could possibly go wrong?
Out of Order
I’m just back from a trip to Virginia Beach on a media tour of Dominion Energy’s two experimental offshore wind turbines. I’ll have more to say about them shortly. As for the subject of this post… Driving home, I stopped at the Interstate 64 rest stop between West Point and Richmond. Very conveniently for drivers of electric vehicles, the rest stop sports two EV fast-charging stations. Recharge your car while you’re taking a leak!
Dominion Energy installed the fast-charging station in partnership with the Virginia Department of Transportation in 2009, according to this article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It was to be the first of many.
Correction: The original version of this post made the inaccurate assumption that these charging stations were part of a recent Northam administration initiative with Los Angeles-base EVgo funded from a Volkswagen settlement. Bacon’s Rebellion regrets the error. But Bacon’s Rebellion still wonders who paid for the charging stations — Dominion rate payers or shareholders — and how long they have been out of order.