Chris Miller on Transportation Policy

Chris Miller, president of the Piedmont Environmental Council, has articulated several important themes regarding Virginia’s transportation policy that we rarely see in the op-ed pages of Virginia’s daily newspapers. In a column published Sunday in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Miller made these points:

  1. “Public frustration with traffic does not mean unconditional support for new transportation revenues. … Support for new transportation funding is contingent upon a substantial change in land-use decision-making so that new growth does not overwhelm the existing roads and highways.”
  2. “The existing legal and political system separates decisions on land use from the responsibility for the transportation system. … We need to build on the progress of the last session in requiring traffic-impact analyses and encouraging local investment by granting local government clearer direction to limit land uses that overwhelm the transportation system.”
  3. “The current transportation plan is based on unrealistically low gasoline prices and construction costs. Already, higher gasoline prices mean that we are driving less, that estimated tax receipts from state gasoline taxes are below projections, and that the costs of maintenance and new construction are rising. In effect, we have less money to build more costly projects for driving rates that won’t materialize, as the costs of maintaining our existing networks keep rising. This is not a winning formula.”
  4. “The current transportation planning system is largely without measures of performance. Even though substantial progress has been made for better accounting of the limited transportation dollars Virginia spends, there is no way to determine the rate of return on that investment.”

I agree almost 100 percent with Chris’ prognosis of what’s wrong, as any regular reader of this blog will know. The main area where we differ is in the faith that we place in local government. I’m very concerned that, in the absence of systemic reform, giving more power to local government to block unwanted housing projects could lead mainly to… less housing. Not a desirable income.

Chris, I think, is willing to take that risk. If developers get head butted a few times for submitting Business As Usual housing projects, maybe they will start focusing their energies on projects in locations that are served by existing infrastructure rather than where they can buy cheap land. Also, he hopes, maybe developers will start getting more creative — designing more transportation-efficient communities and setting up Transportation Demand Management plans that will mitigate the traffic impact.

I hope he’s right.

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11 responses to “Chris Miller on Transportation Policy”

  1. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    Every once in a while Chris Miller says something that is correct. Even I don’t think there is unconditional support for new transportation revenues. There are some projects that are not worth doing. VDOT’s prognostication on future transportation needs are most likely wrong. Some people think they are unaffected by the current situation, etc.

    But I think he is blowing smoke when he says that support is contingent on changes in land use planning. Maybe HIS support or that of PEC is contingent on that idea, but I don’t think it is generally true, and particularly not in NOVA.

    Where he really derails from logic is when he foows that up by saying that we need to give local government clearer direction to limit land uses that overwhelm the transportation system. If we limit land uses for that reason, then it will have EXACTLY THE SAME EFFECT as raising taxes to provide an adequate system. Either way you are taking money out of someone’s pocket. Either way you will raise the cost of living. And either way the costs will ripple through the economy.

    The difference is whether you get the same benefit or not.

    The current transportation planning system is largely without measures of performance. But at least we have some agreed upon measures of performance. When it comes to land use we have neither the means to measure performormance nor agreed upon standards for deciding what such measurements would mean. As far as I can tell, we have no way to predict what will be more transportationan efficient, or to what degree traffic demand “management” is cost effective.

    Finally, higher gas prices mean lower revenue only because the tax rate is per gallon instead of per dollar. Otherwise what he says about higher construction costs and less driving is correct. That being the case, much of what he wants to achieve through land use reforms will be self promoting: if it is not worthwhile to drive to remote locations, then people won’t do it.

    But the idea that we can achieve the same amount of needed new housing by building only where there is existing infrastructure is just wrong, and probably cost ineefective as well. The places that already have infrastructure have infrastructure that is old, inefficient, isufficient, in need of refurbishment or enhancement, and they are already the most expensive places. Requiring people to build there is exactly equivalent to requireing a tax increase. And, prohibiting them from building elsewhere is equivalent to requiring them to build there, and it removes competition, which not only raises prices in the built up areas again, but it amountws to a serious transfer of wealth that isn’t justified.

    We would most likely be better off if we keep government out of the planning business, and let the market respond to the conditions there are. Right now, there is ample evidence to believe that many people are avoiding traffic congested areas by going someplace else. Fighting that trend by erecting still more regulatory barriers will neither solve the problems of the places they are leaving nor result in lower societal costs.

  2. nova_middle_man Avatar

    “maybe they will start focusing their energies on projects in locations that are served by existing infrastructure rather than where they can buy cheap land.”

    sorry to be so jaded on a Monday morning (its the heat I tell ya) but at least in NoVa and I would argue most metropolitan areas there really aren’t any more places to build that meet that criteria. Also, due to supply and demand any places that are available shoot up in price. We are basically between a rock and a hard place.

    We need housing. However, things are further complicated because the current climate is don’t build anywhere close-in. (See opposition to Loudoun Development) So, the only option on the table is to buy land and develop further out I-66 or 50 which we all know further contributes to the problems creating more sprawl and traffic.

    Speaking of that developement proposal, have fun meeting with the Loudoun folks looking forward to the report.

  3. Anonymous Avatar


    “We need housing”…..there is plenty of housing available.

    No one is buying it.

  4. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    If anonymous 11:04 is right, then it is further evidence that we don’t need more land use rules.

    It isn’t *necessarily* so that building out 50 or I66 causes more sprawl and traffic. It is only sprawl if it is disconnected and ugly, and it only creates more traffic if you believe that people wholive someplace else travel less.

    More traffic isn’t necessarily the same as more congestion, and we shouldn’t confuse traffic in a new area with new traffic.
    Those new people came frome someplace, and brought their traffic with them, so someplace else necessarily has less traffic.

  5. Anonymous Avatar

    Land use decisions are economic and political decisions; logic is often not a particularly important part of each.

    Local governments in Virginia have all the land use tools they need to control growth; they just need to apply them and stick to their decisions – from one election cycle to another.

    If tomorrow they stopped making any more land use decisions in Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William, etc., the number of developments and lots that are already on the books would continue to overwhelm the road infrastructure for at least a decade. So all this talk about rational planning, connecting land use decisions to transportation, etc. would not take effect for many years. That is not give up trying, but that is reality.

    Connecting land use and transportation decisions only does so much; it take political will that is often lacking. Just look at Virginia Beach and the encroachment of Oceana, or the recent attempt to build below the “Green Line”. That is a locality where land use and transportation decisions are made by the same governing body. No finger-pointing between VDOT and the locality. I am sure that there are ample examples in Suffolk and Chesapeake of “questionable” land use decisions that disregarded the transportation impact.

  6. Blackstone Avatar

    Regional Government anyone?

    Of course that would mean going back to the Hahn Report of the late 60’s. That report,in essence, called for the creation of regional governments which could, among other things, make the land use decisions on a more coherent & integrated basis. The “Planning Districts” of today are a compromise and ineffective outgrowth of that report.

    However, regional government with real authority would probably result in the abolition of the independent city system and merging of smaller counties and cities which, of course, those entities would oppose to the bitter end.

    Still, until a regional style system is created or until we acknowledge that the current tax system cannot fund the needs of localities in the 21st Century, each smaller governmental unit will resist any surrender of any of its authority.

    Real change will require a political laxative.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    If tomorrow they stopped making any more land use decisions in Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William, etc., the number of developments and lots that are already on the books would continue to overwhelm the road infrastructure for at least a decade. So all this talk about rational planning, connecting land use decisions to transportation, etc. would not take effect for many years. That is not give up trying, but that is reality.

    Exactly right.

    In addition, we have all the work we postponed because we failed to raise the money, and all the current work to fix. Between now and when land use initiatives take effect, if ever, we are going to need to spend some money that we don’t now have. Saying that there is no use raising the money until we fix the system is not a valid answer ecause it will leave us with too much pain and too much waste for too long, and, as noted we still will have to adjust to all the new lots already in the system.

    Opting for regional government with “real authority” is exactly the wrong move. It will make government still more distant and less responsive. Oregon had statewide authority, and we see where that went.

    Making land use decision on a more coherent and integrated basis is just a recipe for still larger versions of favoritism and corruption. We just spent the last thirty years watching the collapse of planned economies. Why would we want to repeat that?

  8. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    Wouldn’t it be useful to the debate in the event that local governments were to work with the State to develop an inventory of the infrastructure capacities (surplus/deficiencies) for locations around the state? I am not arguing for government agencies to plan specific developments. I agree with Ray that planned economies tend to fail.

    However, it would be useful for developers, builders, local businesses, and the general public to see the condition of a general or a specific location to handle growth. It would be more difficult to disguise a NIMBY campaign as legitimate if the data showed an area could, indeed, handle additional development, with or without the construction of additional facilities. Similarly, it would be quite hard for a developer to pretend that its project would not overwhelm the public schools and streets in a community when the data clearly showed otherwise.

    Further, identification of the status of public infrastructure would likely help decision-makers and the public on the costs for adding necessary public facilities to support a project.

    Of course, if one’s goal is to hoodwink the public and manipulate the process in any direction, the last thing one wants to see are facts and data. Things could be better than they are.

  9. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Toomanytaxes: Excellent observation! I’ve just returned from interviewing Greenvest in Loudoun County. The local planning department never compiled an inventory of current and proposed transportation projects funded by private sources, so Greenvest went out to build an inventory in the Dulles South and neighboring areas itself. It included construction projects underway, constructed projects that have been bonded but aren’t yet underway, proffered projects and its own projects, which it proposes funding with a CDA. Grand total: $750 million in improvements from the private sector. That ain’t chump change! According to Greenvest, VDOT doesn’t have that information either. And that number has yet to enter the public debate.

    You’re absolutely right, the more information available the better. A lot of decisions are made, either for growth or against it, in the absence of good data.

  10. Toomanytaxes Avatar

    It would be healthy for Greenvest’s additional information to be made public and to be put into the decision-making process. The Company may, indeed, have a better story than what is being told.

    On the other hand, in Fairfax County, the proposed rezoning of the Tysons Corner shopping center is premised, in part, on the existence of road improvements that were discussed in the mid-90’s plan for Tysons Corner, but were generally not constructed. It is not likely that supporters of this project would like to see more facts in the record, so to speak.

    I suspect, without knowing, that Warrenton’s public officials have a pretty good understanding of the condition of local public facilities when then negotiated (but have not yet approved) a 300-home, age-restricted project. The builder, Centex Homes, has apparently proffered $22 M for local improvements and agreed not to build a large number of non-aged restricted SF homes.

    I’m not foolish enough to suggest that these actions would eliminate all opposition to the project, but identifying and addressing real issues with facts, data and analysis can go a long way towards making fair and reasonable land use decisions that would not apparently cripple the market.

  11. Ray Hyde Avatar
    Ray Hyde

    In Sunday’s Post was a front page story about the record proffers and other requirements an developer agreed to in order to build in Warrenton. In the discussion the comment was made that the only people not at the table were the people who would be forced to live someplace else as a result of the astronomical prices the proffers would cause.

    And the proffers are only part of the story because that is just the cash portion of the proffers. Here is a case where the developer is going to be required to use only 25% of his land, with the rest held in reserve, forever. He will pay a record cash proffer of $74,000 per home, and he is limited in the number of homes he can build even if he is willing to pay such a high proffer. He will repair the sewer system that the rest of the community has let fall into disrepair as a result of not paying enough taxes to fix and maintain it it. He will build the homes to look the way the board wants them to look, and in spite of that, he will be reqired to build them behind a berm or ridgeline so the community won’t have to see them. the reason is so that they can continue to have “their viewscape” at the entrance to town. And, after all of that, he will be required to sell the homes only to a limited market of childless people over 55 years old. The cash proffers will go to build a giant recreation center to be used by people in the rest of the town who do have children. And, on top of that I wonder if the open space that is preserved will be only for the doddering old fools who will live there(and have paid for it), or if the town is going to expect access, too.

    This is totally whacked. You could not ask for a better example of what is wrong with the proffer system and the whole idea that newcomers should pay their full costs (and never mind that existing residents haven’t done that for years.)

    All of this negotiation is going on with a developer who doesn’t even own the land, yet. The landowner, who has done much for the town in the past, is a hapless bystander in all this. Her desires and those of her deceased husband have been trampled over for years by a footdragging government. At the rate things are going she may be deceased before she gets her money, which she may well give to charity anyway.

    This is being promoted as a major victory for the town. It may yet turn out to be the snake in the grass that drags them down by the ankle. The mere fact that it is being promoted as a victory shows the kind of antagonism, and even coercion, that has resulted in a process that ought to be co-operative all the way around.

    The Post commentator that called this bribery was being kind. A bribe is a gift that is both given and received with the expectation that it will result in a change in behavior. Extortion is money coerced by force of superior power.

    What is going on in Warrenton is simply wrong. It is the kind of behavior that distorts the market and casts uncertainty on the value of what you own. If it continues, it will be bad for all landowners and homeowners, not just developers. It will be bad for those that might have liked to buy a home and are now pretty effectively told by the government that they are not welcome. And it sets a new standard, that while impossible to enforce in every case, will no doubt try to be duplicated in other areas and jurisdictions, which will raise the housing bar that much higher.

    It is going to be the teacher’s pay chase all over again. (Well, if Fauquier can get $74,000 then fairfax ought to be able to get $150,000, etc.)

    I don’t even understand how they get away with the age restricted housing. It seems to me that it would be in blatant contravention of the fair housing act.

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