Let Your Light Shine

I have been reluctant to weigh in on the recent discussions dealing with electricity demand and related topics because such topics are way beyond my experience.   However, a recent New York Times article highlighted one topic that has come up in our discussions—energy conservation—that I found fascinating.  The article points out that the residential demand for electricity per household in the U.S. rose steadily from 1970 to about 2010, but then began to decline.

A primary reason given for the decline, cited in both the NYT article and in more detail by an energy economist from UC Berkley?   The large-scale switch to more efficient light bulbs.

The catalyst for the switch was 2007 Congressional legislation mandating efficiency standards for bulbs.  When the second phase of that legislation takes effect next year, only compact fluorescent and LED bulbs will meet the standards.  LED bulbs use up to 85 percent less electricity than traditional bulbs and can last up to 25 years.  And, as with most new technology, the price has come down as it has been more widely accepted.

This is a good example of government-set standards that have spurred a new industry, reduced costs for consumers, and conserved energy, with only minor disruptions.

New Momentum for Mileage-Based User Fees

Graphic source: I-95 Corridor Coalition

From a purely economic perspective, the ideal system for funding road and highway improvements would be a Mileage Based User Fee (MBUF) in which motorists would pay in direct proportion to which they use the public road network. Charging for road usage would incentivize Virginians to drive less, thus reducing both congestion and carbon emissions. Plus, an MBUF (also known as a Vehicle Miles Driven tax) would replace Virginia’s increasingly antiquated and jury-rigged system of transportation funding that relies on retail and wholesale gasoline taxes, sales taxes, motor vehicle registrations, and other revenue sources that transfer wealth from low-mileage drivers to high-mileage drivers.

Aside from the fact that such a system would create winners and losers, which would complicate a political implementation, the idea of a VMT tax has been beset by practical issues. How would the technology work and how much would it cost to administer? How could peoples’ privacy be protected? And how does one account for inter-state travelers — if Virginia couldn’t collect the tax from out-of-staters using state roads and highways, would such a system unfairly burden Virginia taxpayers?

But the idea is gaining new respectability. The I-95 Corridor Coalition, a partnership of more than 100 state transportation agencies, toll authorities, and public safety organizations, is exploring the feasibility of establishing MBUFs. If Virginia converted its 22.39 cents-per-gallon gasoline tax and 26.08-cents-gallon diesel tax to an MBUF on a revenue-neutral basis, it would have to charge 1.02 cents per mile. (That compares to the IRS mileage tax allowance of 58 cents per mile.) Continue reading

Bacon Bits: Incompetence and Failure Everywhere You Look

Where are the social justice warriors? SJWs are super sensitive to subtle signs of “institutional racism.” Perhaps they should focus on the widespread incompetence in Virginia’s local foster care systems. For instance: A Virginian-Pilot investigation has found “a pattern of mismanagement, retribution and poor performance” in Norfolk’s foster care program. “Employees say they saw the foster care program go from bad to worse. It started with  children languishing in foster care for years, with little done to get them adopted. In more recent years, case workers say they’ve been pressured to get kids off the foster care rolls by any means necessary, even if that sometimes meant putting the children in harm’s way.” Sometimes foster children have been placed in situations where they have been assaulted and sexually molested. These children are disproportionately African-American. Why hasn’t this failed system become a cause celebre of the Left? Could it be that it doesn’t fit The Narrative?

Metro free falling. Ridership on the Washington Metro system continues its steady decline, sinking to fewer than 600,000 average weekday trips for the first since since 2000, according to the Washington Post. Ridership peaked in 2008 at 750,000 weekday trips. The passenger rail system, plagued by safety and maintenance issues, has been engaged in a SafeTrack rebuilding program that may account for some of the loss. But the system suffers chronic problems, such as too few trains, too many service disruptions, and the emergence of ride-hailing alternatives such as Uber and Lyft.

Why so few starter homes? Why are home builders constructing so few starter homes (defined as those selling for $200,000 or less)?  Continue reading

Back to Taxaginia: Add A New Wealth Tax

Only $1.7 of $4.6 billion was diverted back to taxpayers by 2019 law.  Final row includes $420 million for one-time tax rebates paid later this year.  It was the addition of the Pease Limitation raising taxes on high incomes which reduced the final tax relief total. Sources: Chainbridge Solutions August 2018 report on revenue projections. Department of Taxation on tax reduction estimates. Click to open.

The 2019 General Assembly is a dust storm in the rear-view mirror, but the four state tax increases that were discussed in “Taxaginia” last November are still in the road ahead.   This post revises and extends my reporting on their status in this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, featured on the Commentary section front.

 In a piece in June 2018  I saw signs the state would keep the state income tax revenue harvest produced by conformity with the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.  Turns out that prediction was 60 percent correct, with my calculations showing less than 40 percent of the expected revenue was diverted by tax policy changes.   Continue reading

What Can Educators Learn from CollegeU?

ChallengeU, says it’s website, can “put success in the palm of your hand.”

It’s a heart-warming story: Thanks to the intervention of the nonprofit ChallengeU program, four former high school dropouts from the Petersburg school system received their high school diplomas in a ceremony Wednesday. (A fifth diploma earner could not participate.)

“The event was much the same as a traditional graduation ceremony, complete with speeches and a walk across the stage to receive their diplomas,”  said the Times-Dispatch editorial page today. “The euphoria in the room was electric. All four students say they hope to continue with higher education.”

It’s always good news when at-risk kids manage to turn their lives around, complete their high school educations and get a shot at climbing out of poverty. As the ChallengeU website notes, in Virginia 8,000 kids dropped out of high school last year. Coaxing these kids back into the educational pipeline is one of society’s great challenges.

ChallengeU takes on hard cases with some success, as evidenced by the graduation of those four Petersburg kids. But the program is highly unconventional — the kids learn online — and it is resource intensive. The question arises: Does ChallengeU provide an educational model that can be replicated, in whole or in part, in the public school system? Does the ChallengeU model warrant greater support from the philanthropic sector? Conversely, do the high school diplomas reflect real learning? Are the program’s successes worth the resources expended? Unfortunately, ChallengeU’s website provides no metrics, so those questions are difficult to answer. Continue reading

I Wonder Why That Is

by Megan Rhyne

We humans are observant creatures. We notice everything, even when we don’t notice that we’re noticing. We especially notice when things are different. How often have you seen something in your community, something that’s part of your regular routine, and noticed that it’s just not quite the same as it used to be. And haven’t you often asked yourself, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”

If that’s happened to you, you should meet Lee Albright and his wife, Paulette, who retired to Nelson County some years ago. A dozen years ago, Lee and Paulette liked to visit their local fish hatchery, which was run by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). When the fish hatchery was suddenly closed to tourists, Lee and Paulette asked themselves, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”

Lee wasn’t content to let that question be merely rhetorical. Instead, Lee set out to get answers.

He turned to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that can be used by any Virginia citizen to gain access to the records our local and state governments use, maintain, generate and possess in the course of carrying out the work of the people. Continue reading

Blacksburg Tapping the Brakes on Student Housing

Student-oriented housing near Virginia Tech. (Photo credit: Roanoke Times.)

While the People’s Republic of Charlottesville grapples with mandatory parking (see previous post), the People’s Republic of Blacksburg is wrestling with the problem of privately developed student housing. Apparently, too many developers want in on the opportunities created by expanding enrollment at Virginia Tech. Town Council voted 7 to 0 recently, according to the Roanoke Times, “to be more selective whenever it receives requests for student housing projects.”

We commonly hear how the private sector is uninterested in building affordable housing. Yet in Blacksburg we see local government dampening developer enthusiasm for meeting the demand for student housing (much of which, I assume, falls under the rubric of “affordable.”) It is not clear whom Town Council sees as picking up the slack.

“It is extremely lucrative to build purpose-built student housing. It’s so lucrative that people will come in with these very large plans,” said Mayor Leslie Hager-Smith. “We have people expressing interest monthly.” Continue reading

Charlottesville’s Parking Gamble

Rendering of the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs.

The People’s Republic of Charlottesville is undertaking an interesting experiment — the city has approved development of the Center of Developing Entrepreneurs (CODE), a Silicon Valley-inspired office space, that provides only 74 parking spaces downtown for as many as 600 workers. Worried that the project will aggravate the parking shortage around the Downtown Mall, some local businesses have expressed their unhappiness.

The Center should provide useful insight into the evolving economics of parking. Local governments typically require developers to provide a minimum number of parking spaces per resident or worker. Other downtown businesses have had to abide by the rules, but suddenly CSH Development, developer of CODE is exempt, sparing it considerable development expense. Nearby businesses fear that workers at CODE will swamp the limited supply of public parking.

“I don’t blame [developer Jaffray] Woodriff,” said Jacie Dunkle, owner of the Tin Whistle Irish Pub and the Salad Maker, according to C-ville.com. “I blame the city. It never required him to have more spaces, even though people are struggling to find parking in the city as it is.”

But some economists have argued that most Virginia localities have excess parking, which takes up space that could be devoted to other urban uses. Free marketeers suggest that the market, not government decrees, should determine the supply of parking spaces, and environmentalists advocate limiting parking as a way to curtail automobile use, reduce CO2 emissions and save the planet. Continue reading

VNG Accused of Tilting Bid Process to Affiliate

Virginia Natural Gas Service Territory (marked in brown)  Source:  Segment of SCC map. Click to expand.

A State Corporation Commission hearing examiner has recommended that a proposed agreement between Virginia Natural Gas and an affiliated asset manager be rejected and put out to bid once more, with their shared parent entity Southern Company Gas not making the decision this time.

The proposed agreement, a continuation of a relationship dating back to 2000, is opposed by three unsuccessful bidders for the contract and a group of large industrial customers of VNG.  One of the other bidders, Tenaska Marketing Ventures reportedly outbid the Southern Company affiliate by 50 percent but was rejected. Continue reading

Proffers: They’re Baaaaack!

Gentlemen may prefer blondes but localities prefer proffers.  A proffer is an arrangement between a locality and a land developer whereby the developer offers something of value in order to get a rezoning request approved.  Why do developers want land rezoned?  For residential development they want to build more homes on the land than the land’s current zoning allows.  Why would localities object to these rezoning requests?  Theoretically, the locality’s strategic and financial plans are based on providing services at an overall population density dictated by the current zoning.  Adding more density increases the locality’s costs for services like public schools.  Localities are understandably worried about the unfunded mandates that up-zoning can cause.  How do proffers help?  Items of value (money, land, astroturf, etc) are given to the locality by the developer in order to fully or partly cover the additional costs to the locality of development at higher density than was planned.  These proffers reduce the developer’s profit margin on the project at hand so they are not popular with the development community. Continue reading

Are Chemical Storage Facilities Safe from Sea Level Rise?

Map source: “Toxic Floodwaters”

If the threat of leaking coal ash pits kept you up at night, wait until you read, “Toxic Floodwaters: The Threat of Climate-Driven Chemical Disaster in Virginia’s James River Watershed,” a report just published by the Center for Progressive Reform.

Authors Noah Sachs (a University of Richmond professor and a friend of mine) and David Flores argue that the James River watershed “is among the regions of the country most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change” due to higher-than-average sea-level rise, intensifying rainfall, and increased hurricane risk. “As major storms cause serious and potentially toxic flooding in the James River watershed … residents are reminded that the industries surrounding them are not doing enough to plan and adapt to our changing world.”

Also, as we have come to expect from the modern environmental movement, there is a social justice component to the report. “Social vulnerability interacts with geography and climate to produce a climate crisis,” the authors write.

The study raises some legitimate questions, but I can’t find any evidence to buttress its strongest assertions. I’ll get to those reservations in a moment. But first, let’s see what the report says. Continue reading

Virginia’s Water Quality Improving… Virginia’s Political Environment Not

Source: Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Draft 2018 Water Quality Assessment Integrated Report

The Department of Environmental Quality has published its draft 2018 Water Quality Assessment Report rating the conditions of Virginia rivers, streams and other waterways. You can read read impenetrable prose of the executive summary here, which is like hacking your way through the dense jungle of a ’30s-vintage Tarzan movie, or you can read Tamara Dietrich’s distillation in the Daily Press. Dietrich’s summary:

Virginia’s waters are by no means pristine, but they’re mostly holding their own or even improving a bit in water quality, despite an influx of 1.6 million people over the last 20 years. … Over the last six years, water clarity in particular shows “significant improvement” overall, the report states, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay. Underwater grasses are surging, hitting 55 percent of the statewide goal, up from 47 percent just two years ago. And several segments of the bay and its tributaries — the James and Elizabeth rivers, for instance — once listed as impaired are showing improvement, particularly in low-oxygen dead zones.

Bacon’s bottom line: One of the more useful aspects of the report is that it shows that impairments to Virginia’s waters are many and varied. Certain issues — such as coal ash disposal — hog the media spotlight, generate public hysteria, seize the attention of lawmakers, and grab disproportionate public funding, while other issues go neglected. Continue reading

Amazon in Northern Virginia: 5 Positives

The road to the Silicon Swamp is paved with gold.

1-The Future. In 2011 Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape, wrote an essay for the Wall Street Journal titled, “Why Software is Eating the World.” The eight years since Andreessen’s essay was published have served to vindicate, validate and verify the accuracy of his thesis. Yet while software eats the world, it doesn’t necessarily dine in the same old restaurants.  Car making used to be centered in Detroit. Now Silicon Valley is the new Detroit. Not only are upstarts like Tesla centered in The Valley but traditional car manufacturers are heading west too. As Andreessen noted, traditional non-technology companies all need to become software companies in order to survive. Metropolitan areas with strong software skills will attract not only technology companies but non-technology companies as well. Embrace software or be eaten by it. The future belongs to those who code.

2-Ecosystem. Silicon Valley isn’t Bentonville, Arkansas. No one company dominates Silicon valley and therein lies its enduring strength. The Valley is an economic growth machine fueled by start-ups, spin-outs, mergers, acquisitions, bankruptcies and oceans of venture capital. The idea that NoVa’s benefits from the Amazon deal start and stop with Amazon is myopic. Talented employees will come to National Landing, work for Amazon, and then leave to start new ventures. The 25,000 Amazon jobs should be seen as a starting point rather than a final outcome. In fact, startups founded by Amazon veterans like Fugue are already operating in the area. Continue reading

Virginia is for Bigots?

Map Source: The Atlantic magazine. Click here to view Atlantic’s interactive map.

Virginians are among the more politically intolerant people in the United States, judging by a map published by The Atlantic magazine. If you accept the validity of The Atlantic’s methodology, such a finding says a lot about contemporary Virginia politics in the era of Ralph Northam, blackface, and the social justice wars.

The Atlantic hired PredictWise, a polling and analytics firm, to create a ranking of counties in the U.S. based on partisan prejudice, or “affective polarization.”  The results showed significant variation geographically. The Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and the coastal enclaves of the West Coast are bastions of liberal/leftist intolerance to those with opposing views. South Carolina, Utah, and swaths of Texas, predominantly conservative, stood out for their narrow-mindedness. Florida and Virginia, classic “purple” states, also show strong strains of prejudice, as can be seen in the map above.

Within Virginia, intolerance was pervasive across most the state. The only pockets of relative forebearance were located in non-metropolitan counties in Southside, Southwest, and along the Chesapeake Bay.

Continue reading

Bad Analysis, Legislative Gamesmanship, Misplaced Priorities

In 2016, Keith Harward was released from Virginia’s prisons after serving 33 years for a crime he did not commit.

Harward was convicted of a 1982 rape and murder largely on the basis of the testimony of forensic dentists that bite marks on the victim matched his teeth. Many years later, following improvements in DNA testing methods, analysis of evidence left at the crime scene excluded Harward as the perpetrator.

The use of bite marks and other traditional evidence such as hair analysis has been largely discredited as being unreliable and having little scientific basis by both the National Academy of Sciences (here) and by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (here).  In addition, the current guidelines of the professional governing body for forensic dentists recommends the use of bite mark evidence only for exculpatory purposes (here).

Virginia rules for the introduction of new evidence after a person has been found guilty of a crime are among the strictest in the nation. Generally, a convicted person has only 21 days following the entry of a final order by the court to bring forward new evidence supporting his or her innocence. There are two exceptions. If there is new evidence that was unknown or unavailable at the trial, the convicted person may petition the Court of Appeals to consider that evidence and set aside the finding of guilty. However, the bar is high for anyone to use this avenue. The other exception relates to previously unknown or untested “human biological evidence”, i.e. DNA testing. Upon learning the results of such testing, the convicted person may petition the Virginia Supreme Court for a writ of actual innocence. Again, the conditions under which such a writ can be granted are strict. Failing to succeed with, or qualify for, these methods, the convicted person may petition the Governor for a pardon. Continue reading