Off to the Imperial City


I’m off to D.C. for the next few days to attend the American Dream Coalition’s annual conference in Washington, D.C., where I hope to discover why some of America’s leading conservative/free-market thinkers about transportation and land use are so hostile to smart growth. Are they committed to defending contemporary suburbia? Or would their public policy prescriptions dismantle the regulatory regime that has perpetuated sprawl, the antithesis of smart growth, that has defined suburbia since World War II? Do I share common ground with my fellow conservatives and free marketeers — or am I just a renegade? Hopefully, I’ll get some answers — along with a dollop of sound, free-market thinking.

My blogging will be light, or possibly non-existent, for the next few days.


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30 responses to “Off to the Imperial City”

  1. Jim- looks like I’ll see you in D.C. tomorrow. Unfortunately I will miss the tour today, I wonder if the Imperial Bus Stop in Arlington will be one of the attractions (if so please take a picture for me).

    The ADC is a group worthy of your support, in my opinion. It is not so much committed to defending suburbia as it is opposed to statist planning interventions that have proven, time and again, to cause more harm than good for cities and regions. The President has been pushing an expensive sustainability/livability agenda through various federal agencies that is wasteful and misguided, aimed at picking winners and losers based on an artificial construct of communities as either “sprawl” or “urban”, a false choice really. Meanwhile anti-sprawl measures in the form of coercive federal and state programs have lead to severe housing shortages in many regions, forcing the poor out of the urban areas so beloved by the liberals in the Obama administration.

    The ADC stands for the belief that individuals are fully capable of determining the type of communities they want to live in; state and federal programs which aim to bribe/coerce communities to develop in a certain matter are bound to fail. The best way to achieve both economic prosperity and environmental preservation is through free-markets. Over time it has been consistently proven that economic growth reaps far more environmental benefits and protection than government interventions. Conservatives seem to have forgotten this unfortunately, and the left has been able to co-opt “sustainability” and other terms to advance their agenda of social-engineering and bigger government.

    I look forward to meeting you in D.C.

    John S.

    1. reed fawell III Avatar
      reed fawell III

      John – Your get together this week in DC sounds most interesting.

  2. Well.. I’d say “have fun” but I’m betting it will be more than mere frivolity though who knows.

    re: “defending suburbia”.

    I’d seriously like to know who is supposed to pay for major roads that are used for commuting, especially 100-mile round-trip commuting.

    who should be paying that cost? Right now, I’m of the view that is commuter roads are toll roads – then the playing field is leveled and you pays your money and makes your choices.

    If you want suburbia and are willing to pay a fair price for it – so be it.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      You remain confused.

      “The U.S. Senate approved a $90-million pilot project last year that would have involved about 10,000 cars. But the House leadership killed the proposal, acting on concerns of rural lawmakers representing constituents whose daily lives often involve logging lots of miles to get to work or into town.”,0,6090226.story#axzz2ix27Ag7b

      Why are “rural lawmakers” killing a vehicle miles traveled pilot? Because the rural areas consume more in road costs than they generate in road taxes.

      Sorry, LarryG but the “suburbs aren’t covering their costs” theory is being debunked on a daily basis.

      1. DJ – My perception is that the only thing commuters would hate worse than tolls is a govt device in their car that works like a taxi meter and can also track their movements.

        I suspect that both urban and rural would not cater to that concept.

        there is no way that most people in this country – especially so in this day and time of distrust of govt.

        but most commuters I hear from think that since they have good jobs they are “contributing” to the economy and deserve to have others help pay for their commutes.

        but even if you somehow managed to charge by the mile – the rural people are going to come out way ahead anyhow. There “commutes” take 10 years to put 100K on their cars while heavy duty NoVa commuters will do that in 2 or 3 years and by the mile is going to be quite pricey.

        The thing is that a lot of folks in these exurban communities live and work locally for much less money and live in far more modest houses and just don’t drive that far.

        The commuting compatriots have chosen to commute so they have earn more money and live in fancier digs and the cost of that is the commute – both in time out of their day and in wear/tear/miles not only on their personal cars but on the infrastructure.

        the cost of the infrastructure to enable their commutes is a legitimate cost of the choice to commute… and the cost of not commuting is less salary and a much more modest home and lifestyle.

        we make our choices but we should pay for the choices we make.

        1. DJRippert Avatar

          “but even if you somehow managed to charge by the mile – the rural people are going to come out way ahead anyhow.”

          If that were true then it wouldn’t have been the RURAL congressmen who killed the VMT pilot.

          “we make our choices but we should pay for the choices we make.”.

          Yes, every jurisdiction should raise it own road taxes and pay for its own roads. So, the 30% of Virginians who live in NoVa would have to fund the 10% of lane miles that exist in NoVa.

          1. where did the “rural” characterization come from?

            I just don’t think that ONLY rural would be opposed or that urban would be in favor and rural opposed. I think across the board would be opposed.

            re: metrics – there are lots of ways to portray it but one way is to understand that somewhere around 80% of the roads are secondary and we spend as much on secondary roads as we do interstates.

            that hurts when it comes to expanding/improving interstates.

            but fundamentally, if you drive a lot especially at rush hour, you are using more road infrastructure than someone who does not – and the gas tax is not enough pay for it especially when half of it is going to secondary roads.

            We not only do not charge on how much people use the roads but what we do charge – 1/2 gets diverted to roads – that in other states are locally funded.

            the original basis for the state getting involved with secondary roads was to incubate economic development for the rural areas – i.e. farm to market, etc … but over time the secondary system has gotten co-opted to provide access to residential.. as well as residential subdivision roads – again – things that would not be funded by the state and drag on the states fuel tax revenues.

            DJ blames the imperial clown show – but very few counties in Va want to be responsible for their own local roads even though it would give them significant opportunities to better plan and integrate land-use.

            Read those two docs that Bosun provided. they’re eye openers.

            what immediately comes to mind – based on the policy options presented – a middle ground approach – get VDOT out of the subdivision business.

            Let the localities decide how they want to handle them either through HOAs or transportation districts or property taxes.

            then start looking at secondary roads and reclassify the ones that are not local access roads but instead connectors/arteries and turn them over to VDOT or the MPOs.

            then what’s left give to the counties and in the future if they want to build/expand local roads, it will be an issue between the counties, the taxpayers and developers.

          2. re: ” Yes, every jurisdiction should raise it own road taxes and pay for its own roads. So, the 30% of Virginians who live in NoVa would have to fund the 10% of lane miles that exist in NoVa.”

            that would seem to be much easier than say a county with 10% of lane miles and 1% of population, eh?

            but again – if there have to be increased taxes to pay for secondary roads – WHY would you want a statewide tax and then let Richmond divert that money to other places rather than you having your own tax and keep every penny?


            it would seem that for NoVa – devolution is the right answer to separate itself from Richmond and suspicions that Richmond does not give NoVa their fair share of what they actually generate?

        2. accurate Avatar

          “My perception is that the only thing commuters would hate worse than tolls is a govt device in their car that works like a taxi meter and can also track their movements.”

          In the people’s republic of Oregon, they continue to go down this path.

          A quick calculation shows that if your car gets more than 20 miles to the gallon, you get off cheaper with the 30 cents a gallon present tax. Yeah, let’s encourage fuel efficient cars by promoting this policy. Ah liberals, gotta love em – cause it’s not nice to suggest the alternative.

          1. DJRippert Avatar

            I think it’s a pretty good idea. If I drive on the beltway in Fairfax County I should be taxed at the cost / mile to maintain the beltway. Total cost to maintain per year / Total miles driven per year. The money raised in this manner should go directly to Fairfax County with no allocation or skim by Richmond.

            If you want to encourage fuel efficiency then assess a graduated tax at the point of sale for the automobile.

            If you want “user pays” then the gas tax doesn’t work. Why should electric cars use the roads for free? So, what’s the next best way to achieve “user pays”? Some kind of VMT tax.

            There are a lot of ways to manage the privacy issue. The first is to destroy the data once the tax is paid. The second is to write the law so that the data is only accessible with the equivalent of a court ordered wire tap.

            This is a real “acid test” for all the supposed “user pays” people. This would directly tie your driving tax to the cost of the roads on which you drive. It would capture the tax in the locality where the driving occurred. Presumably, it would provide the tax receipts back to locality in which the driving occurred.

            No Richmond allocation games. No Richmond skim.

          2. but it’s a little game where people get more efficient cars, especially commuters to say on the increased cost of fuel (when you drive longer commutes) – and in doing that – they end up de-funding road taxes also.

            So you’re using the roads more and paying less in gas taxes – which only barely covered costs before cars got more efficient.

            so the question becomes – how do you want to pay your fair share of what it cost to provide and maintain a road system.

            and the answer from some is : “no more taxes”.

            so they don’t like taxes, they don’t like tolls and they don’t like charging by the mile…

            their view is that roads are already paid for and that higher taxes is a corrupt govt scam… and they oppose any/all attempts to recoup the costs which are three – not one. Initial construction, maintenance and operations… and the second two costs continue for the life of the road – and the more roads you have or build the higher and higher the total costs of maintenance and operations go.

  3. Breckinridge Avatar

    Why the conservative distrust? Smart Growth = No Growth. We’ve solved the equation.

    1. basically – they oppose govt command and control of development – even though the govt plays a substantial role in development already – for instance, where water/sewer is provisioned or not.

  4. I’m reading ” Performance Audit of Significant Operations of the
    Virginia Department of Transportation”

    Policy Options for Secondary Road Construction and Management in the Commonwealth of Va.

    BR commenter “Bosun” supplied the link to the latter and in it is a link to the former.

    it’s pretty dry reading in some respects but in other respects it has fascinating facts.

    For instance – VDOT spends as much maintaining Secondary Roads as it does the Interstates. (page 39 of the audit).

    that’s amazing.

  5. DJRippert Avatar

    “but fundamentally, if you drive a lot especially at rush hour, you are using more road infrastructure than someone who does not – and the gas tax is not enough pay for it especially when half of it is going to secondary roads.”

    You have to understand the numerator and the denominator.

    Amount of road taxes raised / Cost of maintain that road = 1

    Roads deteriorate whether cars drive on them or not. More traffic might hasten the deterioration but it isn’t the only cause of deterioration. However, more traffic does generate more revenue on a vehicle mile traveled tax scheme.

    Some rural roads don’t have enough traffic to generate the funds to maintain them. Texas is letting quite a few rural roads deteriorate back to gravel.

    Now, if 30% of Virginia’s population drives on 10% of Virginia’s lane miles wouldn’t you think there is a lot of revenue being generated per lane mile?

    I suspect that transportation funding in Virginia is the same as schools, etc – a wealth transfer from the urban crescent to everywhere else.

    1. re: deterioration – heavy traffic dramatically hastens deterioration

      re: numerator – do you have actual numbers for Fairfax?

      re: some rural roads – I’d like to see numbers on this but the two reports
      that Bosun provided shed more light on this issue but since we do not
      keep county by county records for road funding and spending (like we do for school) – how do we know?

      re: 30% vs 10% – can I see how you got this?

    2. accurate Avatar

      “Texas is letting quite a few rural roads deteriorate back to gravel.”

      One of the many reasons that pickups are so popular down here – that and gun racks fit better and look better in a pickup.

      1. Texas is a Farm-to-Market road state.

        these roads – like the ones in Va were built in the 30’s/40’s and financed with an increase in the gas tax.

        I don’t know for sure but I would suspect that they account for about 80% of the total Texas road network – like Virginia.

        1. accurate Avatar

          So THAT’S why we have all these FM (Farm-to-Market) roads. 80% of the roads? Don’t really know, Texas is a huge state and Lord knows I haven’t traveled even 20% of the state. We have our fair share of 7 lanes (each way) freeways and our fair share of dirt roads. As to how to get the money for roads, increase the car registation fee, plus leave the gas tax as is. Down here, to license your car one of the things that is necessary is a yearly safety check. They already record the vehicle VIN, mileage, etc – since the mileage is recorded put in a graduated vehicle fee, 0 to 12,000 miles per year is one fee. 0 to 36,000 a slightly higher fee. 0 to everything above 36,000 another fee. Or something like that. That might be a solution.

          1. ” In 2007, the state highway system consisted of about 79,645 centerline miles (miles traveled in a one-way direction regardless of the number of lanes) of road and carried about 74 percent of the state’s vehicular traffic. Included are 28,357 miles of U.S. and state highways, carrying 36 percent of traffic (including 22 centerline miles of toll roads); 40,996 miles of farm-to-market roads, carrying 11 percent of traffic; 9,953 miles of interstate highways and frontage roads, carrying 26 percent of traffic; and 339 miles of parks and recreation roads, carrying less than 1 percent of traffic. ”

            the problem with the “pay when you have your car inspected would be people selling their cars just before they needed to be inspected or selling them out of state and evading the tax.

            this is why Texas is going full bore with toll road although they rank about 10th behind states like New Jersey, Florida and Oklahoma.

            they have way more than Va.

    1. good article. Note that it is a county issue not a state issue.

  6. you have to look at the functional classification of roads to better understand whether they should be paved or not.

    roads that are ‘access-only’ roads could be upaved or chip-sealed which is far less expensive than paving.

    but when VDOT spends as much on maintaining secondary roads as Interstates in part because 80% of it’s roads are secondary – you can see that this is not just a revenue problem… we have an enormous road system and no matter what you do it’s going to be expensive to maintain it.

  7. what does transportation have to do with Smart Growth?


    Land Use without access is just land and no use.

    we forget this.

    A piece of land that does not access a public road is pretty limited in it’s
    use and the concept of highest and best use is exceptionally limited.

    and such land does exist – in places like Canada where just about the only access is by canoe or aircraft unless the land is adjacent to what are called “haul roads” to mines or dam sites.

    In the US, we take this for granted – that any piece of land is “guaranteed” access to a “public road”. We never think much about how those public roads got created, rules for private land access to public roads, how they are funded and how land use affects the performance of the road – and it’s maintenance and operation costs.

    we just tend to think of roads – like we would terrain or land – it’s just there but it’s available to the public on a “free” basis.

    but it’s not. roads not only cost a great deal of money to create, operate and maintain but some are an essential economic engine – commerce infrastructure while other roads basically just access private land – and provide a link for them to access the commerce infrastructure.

    In my view, access to private land should be the responsibility of land owners – not taxpayers. subdivision roads should be like apartment and townhouse parking lots or even condo parking structures. they are a part of the land for the purpose and enjoyment of the land owner – not the public nor taxpayers.

    so subdivision roads should be the responsibility of the folks that own land in that subdivision.

    Next up would be the secondary or “local” (local access) roads that in 46 other states are the combined responsibility of the county and the taxpayers in that county.

    I’s up to the county and it’s taxpayers to decide just how much secondary/local roads – they want to build, maintain and operate because many of those roads do not serve anyone or any public purpose besides those who live on those roads.

    I’m not talking about “connecting” roads where you have a secondary road that connects to primary roads and serves a wider public purpose but instead roads that dead-end … go nowhere and serve no purpose other than access to homes and not businesses.

    So my question is – for dead-end secondary roads – what is the rationale for maintaining them as public roads in the first place?

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      “so subdivision roads should be the responsibility of the folks that own land in that subdivision.”

      All secondary roads should be the responsibility of the jurisdiction where the roads exist. If the jurisdiction wants to build roads so that it can increase its property tax base when houses are built – so be it. If the jurisdiction wants to demand proffers to build roads – so be it. If the jurisdiction wants to tax cars on the numbers of miles driven – so be it. If the jurisdiction wants to stop building roads and let some devolve from paved to gravel – so be it.

      What is it about Virginia where there is always a “one size fits all ” philosophy?

  8. no. you’re the one size fits all guy here.

    I said subdivision roads AND – ONLY secondary roads that are stubbed/dead ended for residential – essentially de-fact subdivision roads.

    I also think we should use the industry standard functional classification system so that if there is a secondary signed road that is functioning as a primary road – it should be signed that way and the responsibility of VDOT.

    for secondary roads that are primarily local or regional – those ought to be the responsibility of the locality.

    In other words, let’s NOT make it a one size fits all proposition.

    Let’s NOT create a financial situation where the size and scope of secondary roads in Va is so large that they demand the same level of resources as interstate roads do – which really means the secondary roads are taking money away from the interstates – which is the case right now.

    we have created a system that is dysfunctional and incentivizes land use decisions that basically damage the finances of the state in attempting to meet state priorities.

    it does not good to put blame on how we got here or seek to put blame on one group or the other – we need to reform the system and better focus it on a truer “user-pays” framework.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      If your plans apply to Spotsylvania County – then fine. I don’t presume to tell you folks down in Spotsy how to conduct your business. Raise your own money, make your own decisions, manage your own secondary roads. Just don’t expect any money coming into Spoitsylvania County from elsewhere in Virginia.

  9. You would receive BOTH DJ. If you read those reports – you’ll see that VDOT is going to continue to reduce funding for secondary roads … that’s the plan.

    the localities will still received tranpo money for interstate and primary roads but reduced funding for secondary.

    what are your options ?

    Looks like to me – all counties are going to end up with more and more of the costs of maintaining secondary roads whether they are ‘officially’ devolved or not.

    so one option is to just let the existing network of secondary roads continue to deteriorate…. but I doubt seriously that counties are going to let that happen without making some changes – triage.

    VDOT will build no more secondary roads. They will (and are currently) transitioning subdivision streets and some lesser used secondary roads to chip seal … which is basically gravel mixed with tar.

    but what is not going to happen is that VDOT will continue to maintain secondary roads like they are now or that they will build/improve new ones unless it’s done on a “share” basis and the road is more than a local access road.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      That’s Cuccinelli’s plan but he’s losing the election it seems.

      If VDOT doesn’t want to support secondary roads – fine. The General Assembly should lower the sales tax by an amount sufficient to “give back” the cost of maintaining secondary roads. Then, the localities should decide how they are going to pay for secondary roads.

      Richmond has screwed up Virginia’s transportation system. They should get out of the secondary road maintenance business. Get all the way out. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

      The less Richmond does, the better.

  10. I do not think the gas tax in other states is shared with the localities for local roads.

    that’s a big problem for Virginia because it appears that VDOT is like the other states and has only sufficient money from taxes to maintain interstate and primary roads and the secondary part is just slowly degrading as by law the first priority is the Interstates and Primary roads.

    I do not think Richmond screwed up …they were trying to economically develop the rural areas with de-facto farm-to-market roads – like Texas and actually some other farming-intensive states.

    Had the secondary system not expanded beyond that – to include serving residential growth and subdivisions it would not have harmed the state.

    but secondary roads exploded to be used for access roads to residential development to include subdivision roads and this has slowly but surely sapped the road finances of the state as fully 80% of our road network is the secondary and subdivision street network.

    VDOT has made it clear – that their priorities are going to be the interstates and primary roads – roads of statewide significance and even DJ should applaud this but it does come at the cost of leaving behind the secondary roads – or at least the ones that do not serve a higher purpose than access to residential.

    Cucinelli actually picked one of the recommended “options” from the report: ” Policy Options for Secondary Road Construction and Management in the Commonwealth of Va.

    but another option was to get the roads properly classified and that would include changing high volume secondary roads to regional or state roads.

    and then partially devolving roads that are primarily for access to private land and not moving traffic.

    My point here is that we cannot stay where we are. It’s nobody’s fault as much as it is that we inadvertently incentivized the building of secondary roads for purposes other than moving traffic. We actually created roads that are purposely limited to NOT connecting with other roads to help move traffic and now 80% of our road network is secondary.

    we have to change. it won’t be easy. People who are now getting de-facto subsidies for publicly-maintained private roads are going to have to pay more and should.

    Counties will have to PRIORITIZE their transportation networks to better mesh with their land-use policies and to recognize that roads for private development are not good policy options and that those costs do ultimately land in the laps of taxpayers – many of whom do NOT live on dedicated residential roads.

    we have to change. Looking back won’t help. assigning blame won’t help. we have to make decisions and move it forward.

    and I think the “statist” label applied to “planners” in the context of how Va has created this enormous secondary road network to serve privately owned subdivisions is a bit humorous.

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