One Man’s Road is Another Man’s Ruin

Not everybody agrees with Jim Bacon that all new roads are roads to ruin. Witness the editorial attitude of the Danville Register and Bee today, thankful for the economc growth spurred by a particular project. Compare that to the jeremiad unleashed on Route 288 in a new Bacon’s Rebellion article posted after the most recent distribution of the e-zine. All those houses, all those middle class families moving to western Chesterfield, all those new stores and jobs and parks and schools. Disgusting, isn’t it? The end of civilization as we know it.

The article would lead you to believe that Route 288 originated about the time of the Westcreek development and the proposed Motorola plant, but it had been on the planning table for 20 years prior to that. The route had to change, and 288 couldn’t fit exacly with I-295, because of all the development while the project was delayed. But the idea of a limited access loop around Richmond was hardly a radical idea, and if economic growth was one of the goals for that plan, nobody denied it. It used to be that creating jobs, wealth and home ownership were the conservative version of the social gospel. But the “Road to Ruin” crowd is not conservative at all, unless you thought the Luddites were conservatives.

I don’t think this gulf can be breached. Some people just honestly believe in the depths of their soul that if you don’t build the roads, the growth won’t come. Some of us believe that in the future mobility has to be the measure of value, planning has to be better and alternative modes need to be better integrated, but doing nothing — or doing nothing until some social utopia is achieved — is the real “Road to Ruin.”


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  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Southside Virginia is not “booming” for a couple of reasons, one of which is clearly the lack of interstate access. it is surprising to me how I-73 has thus far not been part of the transportation platforms of the candidates running for Governor.

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Steve, please be careful when you state that Bacon thinks “all new roads are roads to ruin.”

    No, despite my skepticism of the Route 288 project, I don’t believe all new roads are roads to ruin. Of course, as Virginia’s population grows, we will need to improve old roads and build new ones. Believe it or not, I acknowledge that we even may need to raise taxes to do so. What I insist upon is that building new roads in the absence of other strategies for addressing traffic congestion will be prohibitively expensive and, ultimately, unsuccessful. There is nothing controversial about this. The VTrans2025 study acknowledges it. The Urban Mobility Study acknowledges it.

    Almost every thoughtful observer of transportation policy in Virginia and the United States without an axe to grind knows that we need to reform our land use policies. Jim Bacon isn’t the only person saying this. Former Secretary of Transportation Whitt Clement knows this. Former VDOT Commissioner Philip Shucet knows this. We also need to enact demand-management strategies. And we need to consider fresh approaches to increasing road capacity such as traffic light synchronization.

    The only constituencies that refuse to acknowledge these basic truths are people who would benefit from a massive expansion of spending under Virginia’s Business As Usual transportation regime — road builders, big engineering companies, some landowners, some developers and the politicians they donate money to.

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    the phrase “Road to Ruin” was your choice. But I’ll back off the “all roads lead to ruin” rhetoric if you will back off the “business as usual” cliche you are so fond of, and which you resort to at the end of your response. Everybody I work with in Virginians for Better Transportation understands that congesting pricing, demand management, better mass transit, and expanded freight and passenger rail options are essential to solving the problems in the highly congested areas. Everybody understands that simply building more roads where gridlock is the challenge could be counterproductive. But that isn’t the problem everywhere. We don’t disagree with Clement or Shucet at all!

    And as you correctly argue elsewhere, few would seriously expect or advocate that the taxpayers to fork over the $2 billion annually Potts is calling for.

    But you continue to attack a straw man, a “big developer” stereotype, and give folks in the industry no credit for having listened or adapted to the new realities. And if we don’t reach some reasonable plan to move forward, we are left with the choice of doing nothing or selling off existing assets to foreign investors. That causes me deep problems.

    Excellent lead article in the Virginia Business magazine (I’m not sure how to link it in a post) about the threat congestion poses to the growth of the port. Doing nothing is not an option.

  4. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Steve, Back in my Virginia Business days I had fairly regular dealings with Dick Daugherity with the Road Builders association. I always thought that Dick had a nuanced grasp of transportation issues. The trouble is — for whatever reason — the nuance has dropped out of the debate. Maybe it’s because Dick is not the guy whose voice is heard. Maybe it’s because people like Russ Potts, editorial writers for the Virginian-Pilot and Roanoke Times, and other cheerleaders for higher taxes have crowded out more nuanced views. I don’t know. But I don’t hear that nuance from your side. All I hear is a steady drum beat for higher taxes and the funding of more mega road/transit projects.

  5. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    Here is the link to the Virginia Business article.

    http://www.virginiabusiness.com/magazine/yr2005/sep05/port.shtml

  6. When I was in college in Wilmington NC, the stoplights on Oleander Drive were synchronized from downtown all the way to the college – 7 to 10 miles. If you just drove 30 mph you would catch every light green. That was 30 years ago and Jim thinks this is a fresh new approach.

    It was a great idea, except, inevitably some JA would speed past you at 45 and hit the light red. He would then stop and because he had to now accelerate away from the light when it turned green, he would upset your pleasant 30 mph roll, and you would have to stop, too.

    The more traffic there was, the more likely someone would mess up the system. Traffic light planning is a never ending process.

    I don’t think anyone here denies that we have to use every rational means at our disposal to solve our traffic problems. But the reality is that all of those other things Jim promotes are a few percent at the margin, at best. Even Jim agrees the system has not been much improved since 1986.

    The $2 billion dollar figure we now face is partly because we didn’t face a smaller figure 20 years ago. But now Jim proposes we continue to do nothing until we have a comprehensive plan in place. At that time, he will say it is too expensive, and we should still do nothing.

    Jim apparently thinks the Potts plan is terrible because it doesn’t provide nearly enough money to continue business as usual, even though he has argued that the VDOT figure is impossibly large.

    Apparently he prefers Kilgore and Kaine who have no plan and no money to a (JIm says) bad plan with too little money.

    But wait, I just heard a Kilgore ad on TV. He wants to widen 66, raid the general fund to get highway construction stared now, and move construction planning from Richmond to the communities. Presumably, this way the people in charge of permitting development will have more power to direct road construction to their buddies benefit.

    Sounds a lot like Business As Usual.

    Jim asked me how much I would propose spending. I’m inclined to believe that our congestion costs now exeed our construction costs, so my answer would be to spend what we can the most efficient way until that situation reverses. The Texas Transportation study gives a good idea how much that might be.

    My experience says that an adequate cost estimate (+/- 15 to 20 %) costs 2% as much as the project. More, for really long term and complex projects.

    If VDOT is right and we need $100 billion over 20 years then we need $2 billion just to verify that number. To do what Jim suggests and analyze every possible feature that might help at the margin then we might need 5 to ten times as much money, just to make a decision. So we might be looking at $20 billion to study all the alternatives and make a land use plan that no one knows will work or be acceptable.

    If we can stand $2 billion per year, then we can’t do anything but study the matter for ten years. But Jim says VDOT is hopelessly overplaying their hand: we only need half of that amount. But he also says we can’t stand $2 billion per year. If it is only $1 billion, then it still takes ten years to study the problem.

    Meanwhile the congestion costs are how many billion? This is not an acceptable approach.

    It is particularly instructive to look at the British experience because they have far better statistics than we do. In te 1960’s and 70’s the liberals promoted an “Integrated Transit System” which pursued many of the goals Jim champions. 15 years later, bus ridership was down and VMT and congestion and economic activity was up.

    When the conservatives took over they pursued what Jim would call a business as usual plan that included privatization of railways and tollways. At the end of their term, train riership and bus ridership was down and economic activity was up.

    Now the liberals are back and they are pursuing congestion pricing and other forms of demand management. In other words we are going to let the demand go begging or make it move elsewhere. Demand management does not reduce demand, it just moves it.

    The British have shown pretty clearly that poor people drive less, and poor people live in densely populated, congested areas. So, if you want people to drive less, just make them poor and congested.

    What we don’t know is if rich people drive more because they are rich, or if it is because they can afford to live in scattered areas. What we don’t know is if people who live in congested areas drive less because they don’t need to, or because they can’t. We don’t know if such people have equivalent accessibility or not, but the evidence is not.

    We don’t know if the right answer is to increase density to enable pedestrians and transit, or if we should limit development to where free traffic flow is achievable.

    We don’t know if planning pedestrian and transit friendly environments will impoverish the residents, but the Katrina experience suggests one answer.

    So, how much am I willing to spend? I don’t think one or two billion is too much, but I think it is too much if that is what ten more years of rhetoric costs while we are waiting for a plan.

    Considering that we have not improved the system since 1986, that is what I call Business As Usual.

  7. “Almost every thoughtful observer of transportation policy in Virginia and the United States without an axe to grind knows that we need to reform our land use policies.”

    This is simply not true. Read Giuliano on “Land Use Policies and Transportation: Why we Won’t Get There”, just one among many thoughtful, trained, and educated observers who disagree that land use “reforms” will solve our transportation issues.

    “The only constituencies that refuse to acknowledge these basic truths are people who would benefit from a massive expansion of spending under Virginia’s Business As Usual transportation regime.”

    Regime is a pretty sxtrong word, especially since you concede the system has not been much improved since 1986: if there is a regime in control it is the regime opposed to road construction.

    Neither is it true that the only constituencies….

    Giuliano is not even a Virginia resident, but a professor versed in transportation issues. for myself, I already have a superhighway running through my property, so I have nothing to gain by road construction, yet I believe your arguments have no factual support.

    It is fine to say we need to reform our policies or we need better land use, anything can afford incremental improvement, but the fact is we don’t know and can’t agree on what constitutes better land use.

  8. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    Ray: Once again, interesting and provocative. Thanks for taking the time to type it up.

  9. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    And I remember synchronized stop lights in San Bernadino in 1964.

  10. Anonymous Avatar

    ” and 288 couldn’t fit exacly with I-295, because of all the development while the project was delayed.”
    Not true.
    It is an embarassment that will come back to haunt us: why is Richmond the only city that builds a beltway that doesn’t match up? Why do we always copy another city but miss the critical apsect of that project and then wonder why it doesn’t work? Because land owners were able to influence the allignment, not existing development. Look at an aerial photo: there was plenty of room to align the road so it’d make a complete beltway, but instead it was built through the property of one of the most powerful men in the region (per RTD). hmmm
    Cosmic

  11. CosmicMojo Avatar

    New roads do not create traffic, but redirect it from elsewhere.

  12. Cosmic:

    Exactly right, and isn’t that why we build roads? Yet, when they do what they are supposed to do, and when they are wildly successful (read congested) then someone will stand up and say they are a failure.

    Go figure

    Steve, thank you. One interesting aspect of the British situation is that they have nationalized development rights since after the War, and they still can’t get it right. So much for regional planning.

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