Is the Age of Mega-Projects Over?

Wiley Mitchell and Trip Pollard give a thumbs up to the Commonwealth Transportation Board for its decisions regarding proposed $13 billion proposal to upgrade Interstate 81. Writing in the Times-Dispatch, they laud the more limited plan that targets specific bottlenecks and safety hazards. The new plan, they say:

  • Places a priority on identifying and improving safety “hot spots,” recognizing that serious problems exist in relatively few places;
  • Places a priority on identifying points, such as exit ramps, where relatively small improvements can relieve significant congestion;
  • Supports prompt improvements to parallel rail lines to divert additional trucks as soon as possible;
  • Endorses comprehensive study of rail improvements in and out of Virginia, to determine the maximum feasible diversion of trucks to rail; and
  • Requires that all highway construction, whether related to safety or congestion, use a “context sensitive” approach that minimizes damage to affected communities and the environment.

As positive as the CTB position is, the board needs to stretch a little further. As the authors say, the new plan:

  • Overlooks many of the most effective safety measures, including ncreased enforcement of speed limits;
  • Overlooks improvements to local street networks to provide local traffic a better alternative to I-81;
  • Fails to consider the obvious link between transportation and land-use planning; and Grossly underestimates the environmental damage idening I-81 would cause.

At least they’re learning.

(Mitchell serves on the Virginia Rail Advisory Board. Pollard directs the Land & Community Program at the Southern Environmental Law Center.)

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15 responses to “Is the Age of Mega-Projects Over?”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Hopefully, all really bad ones.


  2. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    I duno.

    I think it might be the end of taxpayer-funded projects.

    Looking at other states, like Indiana, Ohio, Texas and Colorado… all have active plans for fairly big projects to be operated by the private sector

    .. and to honest.. anything in the way of major tunnels and bridges in the Tidewater Area is going to be a tough row to hoe the “mega” sense of scope and scale and dollars.

    Also – take a really large consortium that can afford to buy a “corridor” like the Western Transportation corridor – build a TOLL road.. then develop the land surrounding it through “proffered” interchanges….

    We have a company in Fredericksburg that is, in fact, proffering a new interchange on I-95 in exchange for a rezone.

    Not a huge step for them to partner with a PPTA effort to add my lanes to I-95 and pay for them with tolls.

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    The part about the I-81 project is to ask oneself HOW it ended up this way – “this way” meaning something that is targetted and relatively cost-effective as opposed to a MEGA .. “overkill”…

    I don’t think it got here because of the analysis unfortunately. I think it got here because of political backlash…from various constituencies…

    VDOT, never made the case for THIS Option – they were forced to it.

    The argument could be made that in the old days.. when VDOT was flush with bucks – they would have rolled over any and all who stood in the way.

    So, I’m not exactly reassured and heartened with the “new” process that VDOT used to arrive at this point and, in fact, if VDOT were to come up with a bunch of new money from our friends in the GA, I’d bet dollars to donuts.. that I-81 might once again morph into the same monster that they originally were trying to slam dunk…

    No Joy here for sure just subdued fear and loathing….

    Now – had VDOT come up early on with this being a key recommendation – Glory BE -praise the Lord.. those old dogs at VDOT have been “saved” at last…

    they .. “finally” … “got it”…

    NOPE. keep that stake handy for when the coffin once again creaks open…


  4. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Speaking of context sensitive construction, I’ve been spared most of the pain of the recent I-66 work, but watching this over the years makes me wonder, couldn’t this be done much faster for the same money?

    It just seems terribly slow and confusing.

    I know there are somethings that have to be doen in common or parallel, but wouldn’t it have made more sense to do the westbound half first, since that is the major half of the problem?

    Is that even remotely posible?

    I’d like to see each half bid out to a separate team and run it as a contest with a big bonus to the side that finishes first.

    I just can’t believe it is as hard as those guys make it look.

  5. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    Oh, it’s not over… at least not in Pennsylvania…

    The main reason this tunnel is being built is because there is Federal funding for it (sort of like the roudabouts at 50/15 in Loudoun). Never mind there are a dozen other projects in Pittsburgh that would do a lot more to alleviate traffic…

  6. Ray Hyde Avatar

    You are right, Tobias. You have only to look around ata ll the regional airports and see all the new terminal buildings that were built with 95% federal money in the hope of attracting shceduled air service.

    The one in Manassas is now serving as a museum, the one in St. Mary’s county is now a police station. There was no real hope of attracting air service that way, but the money was essentially free, so you would be a fool to turn it down.


  7. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Interesting article.. nice tunnel boring machine too!

    This is not unusual in urban areas – whether it be for roads or rail.

    I’d bet that in the DC Metro Area that there is hardly any path that could be taken for a major new road that would not require tunnels or high-flying flyovers, etc.

    I not that a recent Reason Foundation study estimated that for 17 Billion dollars that 1000 new lane miles could be built in the DC area.. until I saw their estimates per mile – 10 million per lane mile.

    This is what it costs for one mile of rural interstate… with r/w is dirt… and not existing infrastructure…

    But I thought it was Ray.. that thought that even this would be okay.. as long as all the taxpayers in Va “shared” the cost because NoVa folks woul dalso being buying roads for the rest of Virginia also…

    In other words.. collect from everybody.. put it in a big pot. .then build everything you want to build..

    If you don’t have enough.. go back and get more money from those folks..



  8. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Nope, I’m with you one this. The Reason study was unreasonable.

    With a few exceptions the DC area is pretty much built out transportation-wise. Unless you are willing to bore under or fly over, the developed land is too expensive, and the undeveloped land is too valuable to waste.

    You’ve got I66 inside the Beltway, and some kinds of fixes have to be made from Seven Corners all the way to Springfield and Del Ray: this is the Bermuda triangle of transporttion disamenities. The Columbia Pike trolley would be part of that fix. You could add more Metro stops, as in Georgetown and upper Alexandria, but after that, it gets very hard indeed.

    I think my point on shared costs was based on the idea that the Wilson Bridge and Springfield Interchange are as much interstate projects as they are for locals.

    Because of that and other factors, I’m not sure that tolls should be the only way we pay for things: it is a faulty user pays argument.

    If you had tolls on 495 and 66 it would amount to the commuter tax that DC has been asking for for years. Commuters would demand more money from their employers, and the employers would either pay it or move.

    The employers would tack on profit and pass the bill to their customers, which is ultimately us. There is only so much money, and one way or another it comes out of our pockets.

    I have a pond I use for irrigation. The more I irrigate the more I grow, the more I make, the sooner I can afford to enlarge the pond. I can’t drain too much out,and I have to allow it to refill.

    The more I irrigate the more evaporation and the sooner it rains. You just need faith that what goes around comes around.

    The pond is capital, the irrigation is spending, and the evaporation is taxes (I knew you wouldlike that.) Even my Mexican worker says about Mexican problems “They have plenty money, but what good is it if it no go round and round? That why I in US.”

    I can sit here and do nothing, watching the pond grow stagnant, but I gain nothing. On the other hand I can’t grow rice if I want either, there isn’t enough water.

    If you do nothing with your resources, then you won’t have any and no way to make more of them, but if you spend them wastefully you also gain nothing.

    One thing the government can do, is collect money in a big pot and spend it here and there over time. The government has more time and can affford to take a longer view than private enterprise. The government is a rainmaker, but we can’t expect him to EVER dance in our neighborhood if we don’t contribute to his ritual fees.

  9. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Ray – the way you string out your arguments is messing with my head.

    You take a specific idea that applies only to a specific case and then expand it out to a general case where it not only does not apply or even is logical.

    For example: look at this exerpt:

    “I think my point on shared costs was based on the idea that the Wilson Bridge and Springfield Interchange are as much interstate projects as they are for locals.

    Because of that and other factors, I’m not sure that tolls should be the only way we pay for things: it is a faulty user pays argument.

    If you had tolls on 495 and 66 it would amount to the commuter tax that DC has been asking for for years. Commuters would demand more money from their employers, and the employers would either pay it or move.”

    Look at what you’re saying… You’ve hand-waved your way to comparing TOLLs to a Commuter TAX and .. therefore.. in your reasoning charging tolls even to out of state folks won’t “work”.


    It’s not as if TOLLs are not already charged in many places.. even locally such as the Nice Bridge… and they work quite nicely because that bridge is well maintained – in a time when many bridges are not because of a lack of funding..

    AND … a fund is being accumulated to upgrade it at some point where it needs the additional capacity – again in a time when we do not have money to expand capacity of many roads

    AND the beauty of it is that the folks that use it… are all paying their fair share of it whether they be local, commuters, or out-of-state folks.

    Using your logic.. we’d take that TOLL off of the Nice bridge because it is really a “commuter tax”.

    Come on Ray.. less hand-waving and more logical thoughts…

    If I have to read what you write.. take some time to have them make some sense.

    and the worse part is.. you don’t do one per message but dozens per message… and there is no way to stay on subject with short, concise responses.

  10. Ray Hyde Avatar

    The reason is that it is a system.

    You have to look at the whole thing all at once. You cannot say the wing on this airplane is inefficient and set about fixing the wing, not unless you want to die.

    You cannot change the beam on a sailboat without adjusting the ballast and displacement, and probably the sail area.

    And those are simple problems compared to thinking about a whole city, yet they take thousands of hours to come to even a compromise solution, let alone a best solution.

    What happens here is that we say, this is wrong, here is the solution.

    Then we say, that is wrong. this is the solution. We premise things with statements that aren’t true or not necessarily true, and then come to bad conclusions.

    This approach is guaranteed to lead to bad results. EMR’s whole argument is based on the idea that jobs are in the city. We know that isn’t true, or is only partly true, and doesn’t have stay that way if it is true. Therefore his contention that there is only one answer is patently false.

    My approach is to say what happens to the argument if this, if that, if the other and then compare all of the results to see which is best.

    That takes a lot of words, and sometimes I get lost in the logic an nuances. You guys never fail to point those lapses out, and frequently, you are right, or add new insight.

    I don’t care if the result is less open space, or more. I don’t care if the answer is the national highway sytem, the national Metro system, the national PRT system, or Amish horse and buggies. I don’t care if it is more density or less. I don’t even care if it is more pollution or less, within limits.

    Anyway, I strongly suspect that it will be some of each. I just hope that the when and where of each makes sense, and that we are not just painting a can of answers on everything we can reach.

    My message is that things are what they are. Mostly what they are is changing, and we can only see that if we examine things honestly and dispassionately.

    I think what we want is something better, more functional, more beautiful, cleaner, which is adequately and fairly funded to prevent decay, and distributed according to what people are willing to work for.


    I’m in favor of tolls for major structures and where there is significant out of area traffic. But only if you remember that out of area folks may already be paying through other means, like federal taxes.

    I’m opposed to using tolls to offload locals from problems they help cause. And I am equally opposed to using tolls to insulate outsiders from paying for benefits they enjoy.

    I’m in favor of using tolls as a construction funding mechanism, but because of the far reaching effect of roads, it can’t be the only mechanism.

    I’m opposed to using that method as a back door way to oppose roads just because we don’t like them. If that is what is happening, then it is dishonest to propose tolled construction as a solution.

    I’m in favor of congestion pricing, but I don’t think it will have the results promised.

    I’m in favor of periodically revising the gas tax, up, or down, but I think it needs to go on the table for discussion, at least.

    I’m in favor of capturing some of the value of development which is created by roads, but I don’t know how to do it in a timeframe that makes sense and doesn’t destroy the development.

    I’m also in favor of paying for values lost when we either destroy things or claim new values as our own. A clean environment benefits everyone, and the costs whould be distributed accordingly.

    I don’t see any thing contradictory in those positions as a group, but any one of them can be torn to shreds with a targeted attack. They must be taken as a group, as a consistent system, even if it is composed of contradictions.

    The reason it is this way is that contradictions are the feedback loop that keeps the dynamic system stable in the face of constant change. We need answers that consider all those things that seem to work backwards.

    That seems simple and self evident to me.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    “My message is that things are what they are. Mostly what they are is changing, and we can only see that if we examine things honestly and dispassionately.”

    great point but my biggest complaint is to assume things are what they are because of good reasons. If that were true.. we’d still be using mercury to tan top hats or still dumping raw sewage in rivers.

    The status quo is not rightgeous. It’s not good because it exists.

    I’m NOT a conservative by any stretch of the imagination but I strongly believe in individual responsibility especially with regard to finances.

    You say.. tolls are unfair to off load locals from problems .. but tolls are targetted to those that use the service.. on almost a one-to-one transactional basis and has little to do with locals.

    Why is that wrong?

    I see that as no different and no more radical that charging you more for a fancy SUV while I choose an econobox.

    What I see you advocating is that we should all pay .. and then we build everything that we both need – and your rationale is that .. this is the way it has always been and we shouldn’t screw around with that formula.

    My attitude is that the system we have is .. broke.. out of money.. no more roads . .and that it is broke because of the very things you seem to think are good things.. that should continue.

    I’m simply not interested in being “cautious” about changing the status quo – because in my view – it’s the very thing that is at the root of our problems… and protecting it from change.. just guarantees more problems.

    Is that a fair appraisal of the difference in philosophies?

  12. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “What I see you advocating is that we should all pay .. and then we build everything that we both need – and your rationale is that .. this is the way it has always been and we shouldn’t screw around with that formula.”

    Come on, Larry. I have never advocated that we build everything. Neither have I ever said that it is OK to continue poisoning the environment.

    I think tha some of each of the things advocated here makes some sense. I don’t think any of them are The Answer.

    Tolls for example are partially OK. But they charge the same for a fancy SUV as an econobox, don’t they? The guy going to his $250,000/yr job pays the same as the guy going to his $2500/mo job cleaning the other guy’s office. Tolls have a nexus between who uses and who pays, but no nexus between their ability to pay, or the value of the trip. A gas tax is more closely aligned with use, in that respect. My position is that some of both is better than either, and certainly better than none of either.

    We do need to build some things, and some of them may not be self supporting if you consider only tolls. But we justify Metro based on the “good” development it generates. Metro does not pay for itself out of tolls. All I’m suggesting is that we are open to considering what the benefits really are, and spend accordingly, and spend reasonably.

    One of the things that happens is that we don’t have enough money to prioritize everything at once. Some things are going to get built first, and some users will benefit first. Other users will get their benefits later. If you try to target the costs only to those who benefit right now, then you can’t afford the project and no one benefits, ever.

    I think that is the real point of you position: to make sure nothing happens. It’s the strategic stalemate. Why not just say so instead of blowing smoke?

    I’m not suggesting unlimited spending, but I’m not suggesting that we never adjust our spending, or plan it in such a way that we are in a constant state of disrepair and decay. It is a false economy.

    One of the problems with the argument that “I’m subsidizing the other guy” argument is that it does not take time into account. You either got subsidized earlier and have conveniently forgotten that, or you will get subsidized later, if you support the program and wait your turn. Like the Korean business start-ups.

    Like I said, if Warrenton/Fauquier is so dead set against keeping the Arrington land as a “gateway” to Warrenton, then they should just buy the land, and not screw around with people’s lives for twenty years, cynically “studying” plans they have no intention of approving.

    I’d support a tax increase to cover the cost of that. That is where you and I differ, I’m willing for the government to pay for what it wants, and to help them do it. You want what you want; no ifs, ands, or buts; and especially no money.

    But, if we are going to spend X dollars, then I’d like an explanation as to why we are spending X dollars to recieve no future payments in return as compared to some other plan that will provide nearly as much open space, and cash flow as well.

    I don’t have a preconceived notion of what is good land use and bad. You are right, we have planned ourselves into some major problems, you would say that is because of dumb land use decisions.

    But, thousands and thousands of people have bought homes in places that you and I might agree are dumb. They outvoted us with their wallets. They don’t think it is dumb, or wrong.

    So, what would you do with all those people if we could back up twenty years and make you boss? If Centreville and Gainesville are dumb or bad, then show me a plan that would give everyone the same benefits they have now, would cost no more, and result in less travel, less pollution, and would meet the EPA restricitions on air and water quality.

    I don’t think it can be done, unless the new plan looks pretty much like the present one.

  13. Ray Hyde Avatar

    You think the system is broken, and broke.

    So do I. Those clowns are down there, again, at the end of the road repairing th guradrail and the signs at that T intersection.

    Considering the number of times they have made those repairs in the 20 years I’ve been here, they could have rebuilt the intersection, or put in an escape ramp, and solved the problem, and saved people a lot of money.

    But each time they make the repair, that is all the money they have: operating money and not capital money.

    So, part of what is broken about the system is that it is broke: it needs more money. I’m certain, from watching this circus over the years, that we would all have come out ahead, at least on this project.

    And it has no tie to land use, whatever.

  14. Tobias Jodter Avatar
    Tobias Jodter

    I think that is the real point of your position: to make sure nothing happens. It’s the strategic stalemate. Why not just say so instead of blowing smoke?

    The above is what you seem to think every time anyone opposes any aspect of a development or project.

    That being the case why wouldn’t we think that you [advocate] that we build everything?

  15. Ray Hyde Avatar

    “The above is what you seem to think every time anyone opposes any aspect of a development or project.”

    That simply isn’t true. I can’t imagine there is anything in my writing that would lead you to such an opinion. All I have said is that we need to have criteria that are fair, transparent, and predictable.

    If the objection is one of public costs, then tell us how much those costs are.

    If someone wants to oppose a project, they should have a reason, backed up with facts, and not just a mob at a hearing.

    There are plenty of projects that I don’t think are justified, and I think there are aspects of some development that are justifiably opposed. I have never said that developers should run roughshod over the existing community, or that there are not tangible effects that need to be considered.

    But, the guy on the other side of the table is required to plan and expose every detail at considerable expense. I don’t see that requiring a similar level of preparation for the Nay side is too much to expect.

    There are things that I think are opposed on grounds that are just silly. The steeple on a church in Warrenton was rotten and needed to be replaced. The church proposed replacing it with an exact replica made out of fiberglass, but this was turned down by the architectureal review board because it didn’t use the original materials.

    Who cares? The only thing that shows is the paint, same as the original. No one knows from looking what is underneath, but someone objected because it wasn’t wood. Now, if it had been slate and the church proposed stailess steel, then obviously the intent of the rules would have been broken, but this isn’t the case. From the street no one would ever know.

    The difference to the Church was over $250,000. There were lawsuits etc. I don’t know how it was resolved, but last I knew the steeple was removed and put in storage. There was talk of the church leaving town.

    This is just utterly stupid. Nobody wins on this. The cost does not accrue to those who make the decision. Nothing will convince me that this isn’t just pigheaded and wrong.

    There is no infrastructure costs involved here, the look when finished is exactly the same. So wht is the real issue? Original materials?

    I’ll bet the original materials included lead based paint, but you don’t see that in the town spec. this is a purely subjective decision, as far as I can tell.

    What if the church had come back with a plan to build the thing out of cold molded plywood? Cold molded plywood is put together pretty much the same as fibreglass, but using thin wood veneer instead of glass fibers. The glue saturates the wood fibre throughout, and when it is done it is as much synthetic glue as it is wood, but it will never rot, and it is stronger than steel and lighter than fiberglass.

    Still, it is wood. Do you think the ARB would have approved that, either? It would seem a reasonable compromise to me, given that wood was really a requirement, but I don’t think there was any room for negotiation. The ARB wanted six inch oak timbers (or whatever was there). I would consider that grossly overbuilt,and a waste of natural resources.

    Then there was the story of the guy who need to replace his standing seam metal roof. He put in plans for a new standing seam metal roof of the same pattern and same nmber of seams, which was approved.

    But the guy used a new kind of pre-painted steel roof and it was much more precise than the older hand built ones.

    Apparently it was an honest mistake on both sides: ARB didn’t read the specs, and the owner thought he was doing what was required. But the ARB blew a gasket, nad rightfully, because the new roof stuck out like a sore thumb.

    I think, in the end, the guy got to keep the roof. Thirty years from now it will probably blend in.

    I don’t know what the right answer is. I don’t like grotesque subdivisions springing up in a meadow any more than anybody else. But, those things sell like hotcakes. Who am I to say “We don’t want this.”? Who is we? What is our basis for saying NO? Is it really because it is going to cost us real money out of our pocket, or is it just that we don’t want too much of what we already have?

    Shucks, we can require six inch timbers for the church steeple, lets just require new homes must be constructed of solid gold, that ought to prevent the neighborhood from being cheapened.

    I don’t think the answer is build anything any more than I think it is to build nothing. Whatever the answer is, it ought to cut both ways.

    Right now, if you want to build nothing, there is no review or public hearing required. That woman in Maine bought 20,000 acres and kicked out the owners of lang standing fishing leases, the hikers and everybody else. Turned it into a true nature reserve.

    The locals were incensed: this was a serious blow to their local economy and traditions. But her comment was, “It is my land, I can do what I want.”

    Should the locals have had the right to intervene? Similar arguments are starting to pop up over the vast tracts owned by Ted Turner, and also in Argentina.

    What if someone like Ted Turner bought up a ahlf dozen subdivisions in Centreville and tore them down, plowed the whole pace under and put it back to its natural state and in a tax free conservation easement.

    After the county spent a bundle on fire stations and schools and parks. And what if this new undevelopment resulted in a big disconnectedness that caused people to drive much farther than previously? As was the case in Maine.

    All I’m saying is that we need to negotiate more, in good faith, and with better arguments. In the end we will gain more than by being beng absolutists. Right now I see a lot of realy bad anti-growth arguments. There are a lot of bad pro-growth arguments, too.

    Nope, I’m not the one in favor of everything. But, if Ted wanted to buy up half of Centreville and plow it under, I would probably be in favor of that. I think he would be able to make a good argument.

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